I come from a sports family. I used to play sports like every kid does. I played under 16 and under 19 cricket in Delhi but that was way back. But when I choose a movie, what I usually look for are good performance-oriented parts. In the work I have done till now, I have only tried to better my roles. Apart from cricket, I think other sports like hockey and kabbadi are based largely in the interiors of our country. No one had cast me as an earthy character till now. In Pink, I played a guy from Delhi; in Tiger Zinda Hai, I had an army background; and in Inside Edge, I was captain of the cricket team. And after TZH, I wanted to get into the space of an earthy character. For me, it was important that they see me as a guy who comes from the interiors of our country. I found that hockey has that connect.
We shot our film Soorma in Shahabad, Chandigarh and Patiala. I realised that apart from cricket there are other sports like hockey which people really follow. When we were shooting in Shahabad, I asked the kids who their heroes were and they named Sandeep Singh and Bikramjeet Singh. It was beautiful to realise that while half our country wants to emulate Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, there are others, in the interiors, who want to be Sandeep Singh or Bikramjeet Singh or Sardar Singh or Dhanraj Pillay. That was very important for me, and Soorma has given me that opportunity. I wanted to get into the interiors of my country so that other filmmakers realise that they can also work with me in that kind of setting.
Movies like Dangal, Mary Kom and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag have been backed by really big stars. Yes, MS Dhoni is still very relevant in his field today, playing for his country. But, for the other films, it was the star value that was associated with the project. That is one reason people go into theatres to watch films. I feel that M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story was the only film where the name of ‘MS Dhoni’ was bigger than the star. They showed his graph and how people emulated him. The name of ‘MS Dhoni’ is big enough. For the others, you put a face to those characters and that is a great driving force. M.S. Dhoni did well because of the way it was projected.
Sports is a great angle being used in today’s stories, and Soorma is one of them. I knew Sandeep Singh before I did the film, but I didn’t know his story. I did not know that he was shot in the spine. I was shooting for Tiger Zinda Hai in Abu Dhabi when Shaad called me and said he wanted me to play the part of a selfless brother who puts Sandeep ahead of him and treats him like his own son. He said to me, ‘Are you willing to sacrifice? Because if you sacrifice, he gains. You might not have the glory, he will get the glory. You will go through the pain, the emotions, the sacrifice. You will become the ladder he has to climb.’
He put it across to me so beautifully. We are used to seeing sports people being glorified, but we don’t see where they come from. We don’t see their back stories and emotional journeys. We do not see who went on that journey with them. For me, a lot of emotion was in the sacrifice that Bikramjeet did. I am very fortunate to play that part.
It is a matter of shame that there is a national hero we barely know about. This is a great underdog story to tell. There is this person who gets shot in the spine and then he makes his way back and finally captains the Indian hockey team. It took him three years to get back on his feet. Sandeep told me that had it not been for Bikramjeet, he would not have been standing again. He was the one who instilled faith in him. Bikramjeet gave up hockey and went on to ‘make’ Sandeep. He did two jobs a day to feed the family and for his treatment abroad. He was that dedicated. It was this story that got to me and I wanted to be a part of it.
The sports choreography has been done by Bikramjeet. The training shots in the Soorma anthem that you see have been choreographed by both Sandeep and Bikram. While they were doing that, they would talk to each other in Punjabi and would feel nostalgic. One day, when the shots were done, they both hugged Diljit (Dosanjh) and said to him, ‘You are making us relive those moments.’ They said we had brought so much happiness back to their home. There were certain shots that they made us learn. Their training process is very desi. These boys learnt everything by themselves while practicing. I was amazed by their simplicity and yet their awareness.
I have known Shaad Ali for a while. In all his films, he builds the emotional drama very well. When he narrated the film, he said that hockey was a part of the film but the film was not all about hockey; it was about the emotions, the sacrifices, the pain, the coming back of Sandeep, the bond between brothers, believing in each other and then backing each other. Shaad had played hockey at university level. He used to explain each scene with so much compassion. He would take me and Diljit aside and tell that the film could be made only if we could figure out the chemistry between us. We were told not to ‘act’ but to relive every moment that the real brothers had lived.
I had never met Diljit but, luckily for me, I have always been a big fan of his. He has the ability to laugh at himself, which is a very beautiful thing. When I first met him, I realised that when we come into each other’s personal space and hug each other, that is going to determine how we are going to be in the film. He is playing Sandeep Singh. For him, it was all about making the moment between the brothers come alive. That is such a beautiful thing. If you are a giving actor, it will benefit the film and everyone else.
In Pink, Taapsee and I played Minal and Rajveer. Here, we play Harpreet and Bikramjeet, who are totally different characters. She has a certain madness. She is pretty fearless. It is always fun to work with her. Over and above that, the characters we are playing are very, very different from the kind of characters in today’s cinema.
I would love to do comedy. Bikramjeet gives me a certain life. He has danced on Good man di laaltain. He is the life of the party. He has an aura, he has bounce and a lot of energy. I am banking on this film because it projects me in a very different way. If people like me in an intense way, they will also like me in an emotional way. Hopefully, this is close to where I want to be. Bikramjeet is very different. This is something I have never explored. I want the character to connect with the audience. There is an emotional graph in the role. There is a funny bone too in Bikramjeet which is showcased in the film. It was about time that I was given a character like this to do. If artistes are given a platform, they will want to do something. Let us see where I go from here.
Box office numbers are very important. If a film works, then we actors get more work and more producers want to work with us. Then you end up working with a bigger filmmaker. Even bigger filmmakers come and see those films, and then they think that you fit into their scheme of things. That is how you go ahead. It is very important for a film to work well, not just for the actors but also for the industry. If the film works, it makes money and the money is rolled back into the industry, and hence, more films are made. This way, more filmmakers can come forward and producers feel like they can take a risk with newcomers. It is a domino effect. It is important that a good film gets the push to reach the audience. I hope Soorma gets that push.