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Interview Hindi

South films helped me survive bad Hindi movies: Sonu Sood

The actor, who features in Samrat Prithviraj, speaks about his role in the film, his work during the pandemic and its impact on his career.

Ankita Kanabar

Actor Sonu Sood has come a long way. The actor completed 20 years in Hindi cinema last week. Sood had started out by playing Bhagat Singh in Shaheed-e-Azam (2002), but neither did the film do well nor did his career in Hindi cinema. Then came the Salman Khan-starrer cult hit Dabangg (2010), in which Sood played the popular and muscular villain Chhedi Singh. But even the success of that film did not seem to rub off on his career.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which changed so much for so many, mostly for the worse, saw Sood hit the public eye as he went out of his way to help those in trouble, whether they were migrant labourers left without a roof over their heads and food to eat or the next of kin of patients desperately trying to source expensive drugs. Helping out when people were at their wit's end gave Sood a lot of happiness and a fair amount of publicity as well.

The actor features in Samrat Prithviraj (2022), which was released on 3 June and is currently in theatres. Sood plays the character of Chand Bardai, a friend, poet and biographer of sorts of the twelfth century ruler, reputedly the last Hindu king to rule Delhi. In a candid conversation with a group of journalists ahead of the film's release, Sood spoke about the film and his own journey so far. Excerpts:

How was it to play a historic character like Chand Bardai?

My mom was a professor of history and English and I always used to hear stories about Chand Bardai and Samrat Prithviraj from her. He was a loyal friend, poet, warrior. It was challenging and yet satisfying [to play the role] because you have read about him in history. And then when you have someone like Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi, who is like a textbook, your process gets simpler.

How much time would it take to get the look of the character everyday during the shoot?

It used to take almost four hours to get ready for the character. I used to be on the set by 3:30 or 4am and ready by 7am. It was very exciting. Sometimes, when you are charged about a role, you don’t mind working so hard. Chand Bardai was the kind of role I always wanted to do, and when I saw the film’s rushes, I was glad I was chosen to play this part.

When it’s a historical film or character, there is always the fear of hurting the sentiments of some or the other group and hence the pressure to stay close to reality. Was there any apprehension for this one?

There are many versions of history, but when we speak about Chand Bardai, he always knew whether we should fight or not and how we should go about things. We had the material in books which was true.

There is always a challenge in historical films. It’s quite challenging to make these films, but we should watch such films as a learning process to help history reach younger audiences.

Today, I don’t think filmmakers take that creative liberty and make a film which could oppose any community. Obviously, when it’s a historical film, something or the other is written in some books of history and people are going to know about it. So, it’s not like you can make Prithviraj or Chand Bardai do anything [unusual]. So, there is going to be authentication. Filmmakers and actors are quite intelligent today and bring the facts right.

Is that why the challenge quotient seems more in a real-life character as opposed to a fictional one?

The parameters are set and you have to stay in that space. You don’t have the liberty to say what you want, or have your own body language. That’s more challenging. Also, when you do a line of 20 or 30 movies and then one historical movie, it’s more difficult for an actor.

How do you look at your graph as an actor in terms of the roles being offered to you now and when you started out, considering you have completed 20 years in the industry?

When I came to Mumbai, I only wanted to do positive roles, but when you are not from a film background, you are only offered negative roles and you are not convinced. I used to wonder why I am being offered only negative roles. I used to get upset too. Then I realized that you are an actor, you have to do justice to whatever role is offered to you.

Sometimes people love you more than the hero in the movie and that has happened with me as well. But there is always a certain part of you which is unexplored. Now that is being explored with the kind of roles I’m getting and filmmakers are approaching me with.

This is a cut-throat industry, people only salute success. So, it always depends on how successful you are.

So now you are not being offered negative roles?

I have not got a single negative role offer after my social work in the pandemic. I was shooting for a film amidst all this and the director said now we will have to change a scene because people won’t accept me in such a negative role, won’t accept that the hero is beating me up. I had a phase where people were apprehensive of taking me in a positive role; now this is a new phase which I’m enjoying.

How have you managed to hold your ground despite people’s opinions about you?

If you are not immune to people’s opinions, you won’t survive. The sad part of any industry is that whether people know you or not, they don’t want you to be successful. The moment you achieve success, people will be like ‘how come this person reached there?’ If you are able to survive that, you will be able to survive anywhere.

Earlier I was scared whether I would get good work, or if other actors would want to work with me, but the life that I have lived during the pandemic, I have got over these thoughts. Now all this doesn’t matter to me. I just want to spend my life with the common man and I love spending time with them. That’s what success for me is now.

So, clearly, the good work you have done has been reflected back at you.

When I was shooting for Samrat Prithviraj, we shot in two phases, pre-COVID and post-COVID. When I went on the sets post-COVID, everyone started clapping for me. I was touched. There were so many people who worked on the film in the background and they would be in costumes and I didn’t even know them. But every person came and told me I had helped them and touched their lives directly or indirectly.

That was the best day of the entire life I have spent in the industry. I have waited for some phone calls all my life. Now I’m getting those calls, but that doesn’t matter now. Spending time with the needy and doing something for them makes me happy. But I’m also doing more films than ever now.

You have always been active in the South. Perhaps you have done more films there. How do you feel about how South films are doing today.

I have been choosy with my films. South films helped me survive from doing bad films in Hindi cinema. I left many Hindi films and did Tamil or Telugu films, but it’s the experience which matters to me, irrespective of the language. That’s how I make my choices.