“In the mad rush of messages that I get, I must have missed yours. I am sorry,” says the voice note. It made me think of the other message he sent me a few days back when I had called him, but he couldn’t take my call. “Message please,” he had texted right after missing the call. I have known no other actor do this after either rejecting or not answering your call. Of course, he didn’t have my number saved. I could be one of the many who has been reaching out to him for help. And he made sure to get back.

What I needed from him was an interview. But imagine him getting back on all the messages he has been receiving asking for help during the pandemic! Then imagine him having all the data of every single person who has reached out to him for help. Now also imagine him ensuring all these people in need are safe and living a better life. Then, imagine him being trolled, called names, and having to produce receipts to prove his work isn’t fake! But Sonu Sood, actor and humanitarian, has sailed through all of this and how!

While we stayed locked inside our homes, he opened the gates of his hotel in Mumbai to medical staff, the frontline workers. He has connected with 7.5lakh migrant labourers; created jobs for 1.5lakh people; brought home Indian students stuck in Kyrgyzstan by organizing a chartered flight for them; equipped frontline workers by providing PPE kits and organized food drives too!

This brilliant villain on screen emerged a real life hero during the pandemic. While haters gonna hate, Sonu has been hailed for all the social work he has been doing, called the Messiah of Migrants; a Superman; a Durga puja pandal in Kolkata even honoured him with its theme on the pandemic, the dilemma of the migrants, and a life size statue of the actor helping the workers. The actor was also chosen for the SDG Special Humanitarian Action Award by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for his humanitarian works during COVID-19 pandemic.

And he continues to do what he believes in despite being called the biggest scam of 2020, because he knows that, “there will always be people ready to pull you down, but they all know I am doing the right thing.”

At a time when people feared stepping out, leave alone helping others, you came forward to help healthcare/frontline workers, migrant labourers, organized food drives, etc. How did the decision come by to open the gates of your hotel to healthcare workers, and then arrange for transport to send migrant workers back home?
I remember when the pandemic started, a lot of doctors and paramedical staff were not treated well in their respective housing boards etc; they were not allowed to enter their own homes. I realized that they are the ones who are going to be our saviours, and if we don’t treat them well and they don’t feel safe in their homes, it’s just not right. That’s when I opened my hotel to them as I wanted to spread a message, to respect doctors if you really want to live. I opened the hotel to them so that they don’t need to go back to their homes, and make their families prone to the virus. They could instead come to the hotel, stay, freshen up and report back to work. Regarding arranging transport for migrant workers, I had pledged to help each and every single migrant reach back home when I heard that many labourers were walking back, covering such long distances with their luggage, to reach home. We started with buses, then trains and then private vehicles to ensure each one of these migrant workers got back to their families. Almost 7.5lakh people connected with us, and by God’s grace, we were able to send back almost 2.5lakh people to their homes in these few months.

Again, at a time when so many people lost their jobs to the pandemic, how did you think of providing jobs?
I wanted to create jobs because every time I sent people back to their homes, I used to ask them, “when are you going to come back?” The only answer they had was, “whenever we get a job, or we might hunt for a job in our native village for a living.” I knew then that I had to create those jobs for them. I never had a formula, but I had the zeal to do it. So, I created this platform called Pravasi Rojgar, an app to help workers find jobs; here employers as well as employees will be on the same platform. We have provided jobs to more than 1.5lakh people, so far. The journey is on, and in the coming months, we will make sure that many of those who have lost their jobs will be able to connect with the right channels and find work. We will do the needful. We have also provided almost 18,000 to 20,000 houses, so that they can have a better living and can work better.

You arranged a tractor for a farmer in Andhra Pradesh after a video went viral. Why do you do what you do?
When I saw the video of two girls ploughing the field with their father, I felt this is something not acceptable. The girls need to study, go back to school and we need to do something for the farmer. Through my help, I wanted to again spread a message that we are because of our farmers and we need to do our bit for them. That’s why I sent a tractor to Nageswara Rao from Chittoor. It was a Sunday when I saw that video and at 9.30 in the evening, I promised him that by the following evening, the tractor will be in his field, and that’s what we did. It was a blessing I could connect with him. I also made Nageswara Rao promise me that he will in turn help all the needy people from his village. He is doing that, which is really good.

After doing so much for the people, you have been trolled, your social work called fake, a scam, a PR stunt. How did you deal with all the hate?
I remember when I started doing good in life and began helping others — whatever little I was doing — a director of mine called me and said, “Sonu, now since you are helping others, there will be many people who will point fingers at you, they will try to pull you down, but don’t stop. Don’t even think about it. It happens with everyone who has tried to do something right in life. You just have to stay strong and move ahead, then everyone will fade out.” So yes, the trolls started from the day I started helping. From the past seven to eight months, my journey has been on. A lot of people came, said things, trolled me and then they vanished. But my work is still on. You know… the ones who try to troll you, they actually know I am doing right; and honestly, they don’t exist for me. Their trolling is not going to stop me from doing what I do, from helping others, connecting with people and trying to change lives.

You shared receipts to prove your work. That must have really felt bad?
I am very confident about what I do. So, no, I don’t feel bad. Like I said, the haters don’t exist for me. I will keep on doing my work. The need to show receipts ensured that my team buckled up and did things more professionally too.
How do you manage to keep all the data when there are so many people you have been helping? Also, how do you understand who needs help, and how do you shortlist?
We have connected with a lot of people from different walks of life; collected and kept all the data of every single person we have helped.

Migrants – 7.5lakh people connected.
Scholarship – 2.5lakh connected.
Surgeries – 650 completed.

I have got a team segregated to look after the various sectors we have been reaching out to. Like, there is a team in charge of the medical/healthcare, another for education, for transport, etc. I choose the ones who I feel is in need of help, on my Twitter handle. It is I who takes those calls and then my team helps. We collect their information, identify the problem and what the person needs and go about making arrangements for the same.

You have been called the biggest scam of 2020; does that take away your faith in humanity?
When people point fingers at me, calling me the biggest scam, trolling me, and saying my work is fake, it doesn’t bother me an inch, because if I try or begin to show them the kind of help that we have managed to do, their kids will grow old! I think these are just people who waste their time pulling me down. They don’t exist for me.

There has been news about actors committing suicides due to the financial crisis and depression. Have you been able to reach out to those from within the industry who could be vulnerable?
I did hear about actors committing suicides because of the financial crisis. I have been trying to get in touch with a lot of people — aspiring actors, photographers, media-persons. Whoever needs help, they call me; while I too try to identify and reach out to those who are vulnerable. But yes, we are living in tough times, and it’s not going to be easy to survive in this tough industry. You have to have nerves of steel to actually survive here. I tell this to all those planning to come into this industry —to be strong enough. It’s the only thing that will keep you going. Also, I would like to mention that people from my industry have always wished me the best and encouraged me saying I am doing right in life. That’s what I need. It keeps me motivated.

The Hindi film industry has been in the news during the pandemic for various reasons, starting with suicide, drugs, nepotism and the now famous insider-outsider debate. As a part of the industry, what do you have to say about these?
Drugs, nepotism, the insider-outsider debate — I simply don’t get into these. It’s not worth my time and energy. It’s better to spend my energy helping others than to debate about such immaterial things. And well, I am an outsider; still I could reach my goals. Of course, I have miles to go, but I do think one can achieve things in life if you are focused. That’s exactly what I tell
the newcomers.

You are extremely popular in the South film industry. How has your experience been? And the film you are currently doing?
South films have been my learning ground. Whatever I have learned about the craft, I have learned it from the South; it will always be very special to me. I am doing Acharya with Chiranjeevi sir, I am really excited about that; then there’s Kandireega 2, Alludu Adhurs, Prithviraj with Yash Raj and a couple of more films in the pipeline which are currently untitled.

Do you really like doing negative roles?
When I started acting, I didn’t like doing negative roles, but then I realized acting is acting, irrespective of negative or positive roles. People have loved me in negative shades on screen; and as long as I can entertain them, my job is done.

Your takeaway from the year 2020?
The biggest lesson I have learned this year is that if you come out to help others, you will see how powerful you actually are. All you have to do is try to change a life and I think if an individual can change even one person’s life, it makes a life worth living. Someone somewhere is always looking out for help, so just go and do your bit.