The women power behind Soorma – Sneha Rajani, Head of Sony Pictures Networks Production, and debutante producer Chitrangda Singh – talk to Team Box Office India about how important it is to bring a story like this to life
Box Office India (BOI): Where did the story of Soorma begin for the two of you? Who approached whom with the project?
Chitrangda Singh (CS): The journey started, for me, in 2014. I had met Sandeep Singh then and heard the story of his life. I had never heard anything like that in my whole life. I had never heard of Sandeep Singh playing hockey and being the captain of the team. That is ignorance on my part. It all started from there.
Then, we put the story down on his whole life, sat with it a couple of times, and then Deepak Singh, who is my business partner, shot a mail straight to Sneha. It was a very basic mail. There was nothing official about it even though I am not sure exactly what it said.
Sneha Rajani (SR): The mail just basically said that I have a very interesting subject, it is a true life story and would you be interested in hearing it? That was it.
CS: Yes, that was it. It was that simple.
SR: I forwarded that mail to my Head of Creative and said ‘Please meet with him’, which he did, and then Deepak and Chitrangda just ran to my cabin. They said, ‘Just give us a few minutes because you have to hear this story!’ I said, ‘I do not have the time, not today.’ But they insisted that I stay and hear the story they had to tell. They said, ‘Have you heard of Sandeep Singh, our hockey team captain?’ And I said yes. Then they mentioned that he had been shot and paralysed, after which he went on to recover and become captain.
I told them not to waste my time with these silly stories but they insisted that I listen some more. In my head, I was thinking how much time people have in this world to do all this! And I thought that if this had indeed happened, mujhe itna toh pata chal hi jata because this incident had happened in 2006 and they came to me in 2015. I thought, it happened just 9-10 years ago, and hence they were not telling the truth.
So while Chitrangda was telling me various things about Sandeep and his life, I Googled it. There was just one line on this saying that Sandeep Singh had been shot in 2006. Then I realised that these guys were not lying about this story. That’s when I sat up. Like Chitrangda, I too follow sports, and for us not to know this was such a shame. From brushing it aside, to this overwhelming feeling of guilt and shame completely engulfed me. I could not believe there was just one line when you Googled him.
CS: Yes, that was all that there was about him online back then.
SR: Now, of course, there are is a lot of information because we are doing so many things around him. But at that point, it was one line and it was brushed aside. It was like this is a regular occurrence that someone gets shot, paralysed and then starts playing again. After I had heard the story, I did the same thing that Chitrangda and Deepak did with me. I went to NP Singh sir, our CEO, and said, ‘Can I have two minutes?’ I asked him whether he knew Sandeep Singh, and he said, ‘Yes, he works for us on the second floor.’ I thought, ‘Wait, let me start again.’ Then I asked him whether he knew Sandeep Singh, the hockey player. He said he did know him as they had met at a function before.
CS: And they had actually sat next to each other at the function.
SR: Then I asked him whether he knew that Sandeep Singh had been shot, paralysed, told he would never walk again and then he became the hockey team captain. And he said, ’Please, itna toh mujhe pata hoga’ and he had met the guy. I told him, ‘Sir, I will not waste too much of your time, why don’t you Google it?’ And he had the same reaction that I did. He said I have goosebumps and that I am ashamed. He said that we must, must make this film.
CS: Yes, it was exactly like that. And from there on, Sneha and I and the whole team started working on this. Obviously, there will be a few challenges when you are making a biopic but there was just one thought, that we have to make this and this story needs to come out. Of all the stories that need to be told, this one definitely had to be.
BOI: What was Sandeep Singh’s reaction when he was told about this biopic being made?
CS: When I met him, when we were talking about his life, I was asking questions about it. He asked me what I was planning to do with it. I told him that at that point I was just writing it down and let us see what we can do. I made no promises because it was my first attempt at production. I said we were going to try. But the day we got the go ahead from Sony, when we knew the film was in the right hands and it would see the light of day, it was huge.
I phoned him and he was very quiet when I told him the news. Then he asked, ‘Iska matlab film ban jayegi?’ I replied by saying yes, I think so! It sure looks like that. (Laughs). He was very excited about it and so was his family. His mother was crying. I think what happens is that you don’t realise how important your journey has been till it is out there and people tell you that it is important. And you look at your life and think, is there really something here ki film ban jayegi? I suppose it was kind of like that for him.
SR: I feel that because it wasn’t spoken about much, he had resigned himself to it just like people resign certain things to fate. It was like ‘now that this incident has happened with me, there is nothing to be done about it really’. And it’s hockey, not cricket.
CS: That was a big thing.
SR: I think because of that, he had not really delved into it too much. He didn’t realise that he had done something miraculous. I don’t think he thought about it that way. It was always treated so normally.
CS: Yes, like we spoke about the coverage he had received in the media when he was shot. There was only one line. That’s it, one headline and nothing else after that. Maybe that’s why he didn’t expect this.
BOI: What made Shaad Ali, who had directed rom-coms and commercial movies before, become a perfect fit for Soorma?
CS: I had been in touch with Shaad for something else for quite some time. It was another project and there was a lot of back-and-forth on it. It wasn’t coming together. Then one day I thought let’s give him this and see because what he did with Saathiya and Bunty Aur Babli was that he got the emotional scenes right by not being too melodramatic. They are very gentle and easy. I think he has a great flair for storytelling, especially by not going overboard and keeping it real.
We weren’t trying to make just a sports movie, even though we all love sports. Finally, it is a human story. We needed somebody who could do justice to it without being preachy or melodramatic. That’s why we approached him. I thought ‘let’s see if it excites him’.
So, I went to meet him one morning and told him that there was this other project I had. He heard me and said, ‘Achcha, it is a biopic, it is on hockey and all that.’ A lot of biopics were being made at that point. I think M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story was in production and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag had done very well. It was a very patchy conversation. I told him I would leave the story with him and there was a small presentation I had made on the life story of this man which I would mail him.
He told me he would have a look but I didn’t hear from him all day. He must have read the story at night and seen the presentation because at 6 am, the next day, he had sent me a few messages and then later, he called me and spoke about it. He was so excited about this project, he couldn’t stop talking about it. Then Aarti, his wife, came on the phone and said he has been telling me about this story since early this morning. There was just so much excitement. Then we got him to Sneha and then he was on board for the film.
BOI: And you seem to have got the cast right to the ‘T’, with Diljit Dosanjh, Taapsee Pannu and Angad Bedi.
SR: There was a lot of debate on whether we should have a Punjabi boy, a Sardarji, playing a Sardarji. Or should we go the other way like what Farhan Akhtar did with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag or what Sushant Singh Rajput did with M S Dhoni’s biopic. Every time we debated this topic, we came back to the same point that we should be very clear and true. Let’s not get a non-Sardar to play a Sardar. When we zeroed in on that, the obvious choice was Diljit Dosanjh. Having seen his work in a film like Udta Punjab, my God, he is such a phenomenal actor! And not because it is our film, but when you see that film, he is just amazing, you get goose bumps.
CS: I want to say that the first time we met him at the office, before he even heard the script, I kept looking at him and I thought, this is it! We want him for the film. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Sandeep Singh and I think for a biopic, especially one that is based on a person who is among us, half the battle is won when the physicality is similar. And Diljit has this really nice quality, this innocence, a vulnerability about him being a small-town boy who could be a sportsperson. When we factored all that in, it was a no-brainer.
SR: It was the same with Taapsee. We wanted to be true to the real life Punjabi girl and she is a great actress. I know there is a lot of chit-chat about Punjabi actors playing all the lead characters, including Angad Bedi as he is also a Sardar, but we wanted that.
CS: (Cuts In) And why not? Why not? Even in foreign films, they try to get the nationality of the characters right so that you know it will be absolutely authentic. Why would you want a Spanish person being played by somebody else? Or an Irish person being played by an American? I think it’s perfect because you have an absolutely authentic cast who fits the part completely.
SR: So, it was a conscious decision to go this way rather than the other way.
BOI: Speaking of Diljit and Taapsee, there’s been talk of creative liberties being taken on the romantic angle in the film.
SR: This is what actually happened.
CS: There are no cinematic liberties, no dramatic allowances, no such things at all. Ninety per cent of the film is exactly how it is, how it had happened. None of the events has been concocted. And the 10 per cent that we have had to change was only to protect certain people and some names, and due to other legal issues. Other than that, it is all true. I think that is something we should be very proud of.
SR: The only place where we did take some cinematic liberty is Diljit Dosnajh singing. In real life, Sandeep Singh cannot sing. (Laughs).
CS: Yes, we had to do that. But we haven’t asked him so maybe he might be a singer. But Diljit just sounds better. (Laughs).
BOI: We hear that Sandeep Singh and his brother Bikramjeet Singh were on the sets with Diljit Dosanjh and Angad Bedi. How was that blend of real and reel on the set?
SR: I heard from my team on the sets that it was more like validation with Sandeep being there in real life. Diljit once told me that during the scenes where he was playing hockey, if his stance wasn’t right and even if Shaad had okayed the scene, Diljit would make eye contact with Sandeep to seek validation ki theek tha ki nahi. If Sandeep said no, Diljit would immediately tell Shaad to shoot one more take. And then Sandeep would go and give him notes on it. I think it helped tremendously that he was there throughout the shoot. It only made sure that it was what had happened in his life and it wasn’t, like Chitrangda said, cooked up.
BOI: There is a seasoned production house and a new, independent producer working together on this film. How was the association between the two during this shoot?
CS: And that too, two women. That’s the subtitle and a very good one. (Laughs). And that is also my question to Sneha, actually.
SR: I first met Chitrangda when she first came to my office.
CS: Yes, we had never met before that.
SR: Right. And the journey from then to now, from knowing her as an actress to right now, is that she has become a friend.
CS: I feel exactly the same way. How do I put this? I was very wary because you hear stories about ‘dealing’ with corporates and stuff like that. People in the industry talk about it and I was just venturing into this space. But I don’t think I have felt safer as a person with my project, my story, as much as I felt here at Sony. And the amount of belief Sneha has had in this project… she has stuck by it.
We have been working on this project for almost three years. Sure, we hit some roadblocks at times. But it is amazing because she is not what you expect. She is not just a corporate person, there is this passion which is not only about doing business. I am very thankful for that. And I will end up being more thankful when I start working with other people. I hope we carry on working together. But, yes, she has become a friend and I think that says it all.
BOI: Ms Rajani, studios have to be picky with what they choose to back. As someone who gets several scripts on her desk every day, how do you select the ones with substance?
SR: There is no particular genre that we are chasing, that we are looking at. It is purely on the merit of the subject, the story. The only thing we consciously do stay away from is ‘adult’ content. Family comes first for us.
The story should connect. It should be something that evokes emotion. For example, with Soorma, when I realised that it was a true story and not fictionalised, the first emotion I felt was guilt and shame. It has to bring out strong emotion from you. If it doesn’t, it should not be made. I don’t want people saying, haan, achchi hai. I want them saying, bahut achchi hai, alag hai.
That is why our body of work is not immense. We are five films old, which is not a long list for a studio. But the content is varied because we are choosing our subjects cautiously. We want to make movies that matter and not just for the sake of making them. We like to be involved from day one, from getting the cast, the director, the main team. We don’t make projects, we make movies.
BOI: Chitrangda, as a new producer, what process will you use to choose films to back?
CS: I think it’s too early to answer that question. These are baby steps, really. I think this came out of the need to make this film and that is the reason this whole exercise happened. There are one or two projects that we are working on. But, yes, like Sneha said, making a good story, a good film, that’s what you want to do. It is too early for me to give an expert answer on this one though (Laughs). I think anything that is exciting, that makes you work harder for it, is the right one. That’s my answer.
BOI: After taking on the role of producer, do you see a film set differently than you did before?
CS: Oh God! I can’t tell you, I have such immense respect for people who bring projects together, for producers, for writers and for directors. I think they are literally the backbone. It’s like they make the baby and put it in your hands and then you get to play with it, enjoy it. That’s what the actors do. It’s a lot of work but, yes, it’s very exciting.
BOI: In your opinion, what makes a sports biopic click so well with the audience today?
SR: I think it is the individual story that connects the audience. I don’t think sports really is the thrust of it. It happens to be made around sports but it is every individual’s story. It is Mary Kom’s journey, Milkha’s journey, Dhoni’s journey, Sandeep Singh’s journey. Also, Dangal, for that matter. It’s the individuality of their journeys and that is why they work. It is not about the sport.
CS: I think movies are about being aspirational. Heroes are something that the audience aspires to be. But here when you are trying to portray someone, you are portraying a real person. That connects, and if made well, it holds beautifully with the audience. They know that this is what really happened in someone’s life and it is not a fictional tale of how things are supposed to be. If you make that connection with the youth and tell a real story, plus if there is sports, then it is about you, what you want to be. I think it is the same across the world.
BOI: All these sports-based movies have done really well at the box office too.
SR: Yes, put together, the box-office collections of all these films, and that is what we are chasing (Laughs).
CS: I want to say that not all sports films are real, not all of them are based on real people. Some of them are fictionalised, some of them are dramatised. But the fact that Soorma is absolutely real and based on a person among us, who just two years ago won so many accolades in hockey… that makes it stand apart.
SR: I am just hoping that Sandeep Singh gets his due recognition. It’s high time.
BOI: What do you think the audience is going to feel as they step out after watching Soorma on July 13?
SR: Never give up.
CS: Never give up. And the fact that maybe there is no promise about the media covering your life’s challenges. And to see this man, Sandeep Singh, fighting just for self-respect… there was no fame, money or posters, nothing. That is the one thing that really hit me. He didn’t know that he would start walking again, running, be a part of the team, become the captain or have a film made on him, he didn’t know anything.
SR: And to play for his country.
CS: Yes! To come back and reach that point, from where he was, that is a big takeaway for anybody. We have all been in a corner sometimes and you have had to fight alone. You shouldn’t give up.