Chitrangada Singh, who made a stunning debut in Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi in 2005, has always been a bit of a riddle. Known for her periodic absences from the marquee, she has surfaced in less-than flattering roles and special song and dance appearances. Her career choices have baffled even her harshest critics. But the 41-year-old actress is looking at an eventful season ahead. Singh turns producer with Soorma, Shaad Ali’s biopic of Sandeep Singh, the former captain of the Indian hockey team who was paralysed in a freak accident but went on to get back on his feet. The July 13 release stars Diljit Dosanjh, the Punjabi star who made his Hindi debut with Udta Punjab in 2016, and Taapsee Pannu.
Singh also stars in Sahib Biwi aur Gangster 3 with Sanjay Dutt and Bazaar with Saif Ali Khan. Admitting to a bout of anxiety “unlike anything” she has experienced thus far, Singh spoke to Scroll.in about turning producer, handling cynics and playing the game of life.
What prompted you to take up production?
Three years ago, I had sort of taken a break and was working on a couple of ideas. I happened to meet Sandeep Singh. I got to know about his story. I started writing down, and it got me very intrigued. I realised that this was probably one of the rarest sports comeback stories I have ever heard in my life. We knew heard of people back then in 1952, things that you read in books. But here was somebody who is still playing – at that time, he was playing in the Indian Hockey League – and was the maximum goal scorer for two consecutive years. So I was like, how is it possible when you were in a coma and in a wheelchair?
I have been around sports people all my life. Sport is the most unkind thing. You have to be in your best form or you are out. Sandeep kept telling me how he went about it, how he fought the battle in his mind, how he handled the crisis at such a young age. I was speechless the whole time I sat with him.
I started writing the story. I met him a couple of times and put the story down as to how it happened. It just had to be made. I was not willing to listen to naysayers. I dug in my heels. It’s not even a biopic. It’s a human story.
So what were the naysayers apprehensive about?
To begin with, I was told that no one knows Sandeep Singh, how do you make a hero out of him? Here is a hockey player, not a cricketer. Dhoni, Azharuddin, people know, these are people we have grown up watching. I had to break through that question and tell them why this film needed to be made. It has taken around two-and-a-half to three years. I feel very relieved but anxious too.
Is the human interest angle particularly strong because it is hockey, a sport with plenty of unsung heroes? Is that why we now have a clutch of films about hockey, including ‘Soorma’ and ‘Gold’?
If you live with sportspersons, you keep hearing about how difficult it is if you are not a cricketer in this country. Whatever it may be, whether it is golf or shooting or hockey. It does not mean that these people are any less, they are not just getting written about. We are not acknowledging them or honouring them.
For a sportsman, the only thing that he has is his pride and that he becomes a hero in the eyes of the country. If you take that one acknowledgment away from him, he has nothing left. So just that fact that this man was left all alone – everybody from the federation to people he cared about abandoned him. I think it’s a huge, huge thing. You don’t know if you can ever get up on your feet and be able to play. And even if you manage to play, who will care enough to write about you?
So here is a man who fought back, and it had to be told the way it happened. It could not be contorted, twisted, given a spin, commercialised for whatever reason. It had to be his story.
How confident were you about casting Diljit Dosanjh in the lead role? We have had ‘Chak De! India’ that was toplined by Shah Rukh Khan. In the August 15 release ‘Gold’, Akshay Kumar plays the coach. Did you consider the star factor when casting for your film?
Sandeep Singh is a Sardar, he has worn a patka all his life. So what do you do? How do you turn a mainstream actor into a Sardar, which is almost a change of identity? In fact, that is one of the reasons it took so long to cast for the film. It took three years to be able to find the correct fit.
Also, we wanted the similarity between the actor and Sandeep to be so real that it would seem as if Sandeep were here with us. We are making a film on a real-life person. We had to be authentic, credible. It cannot be that you get someone who looks like someone else and make a biopic simply because he or she happens to be a mainstream actor. The whole idea, right from the beginning, has been about keeping it very real.
I remember the day Diljit walked into the office and I was like, I want him, I want him. He was so, so right and there are so many places in the film where Diljit and Sandeep look similar. So as much as we thought about the commercial angle of the film, this is what the film is. We had to be true to the film.
By the same reckoning, Shaad Ali seems like an unlikely choice for a sports biopic.
You know, there is a simplicity he displayed in Saathiya and Bunty Aur Babli. I liked the kind of simplicity and emotion that he managed without being over the top or melodramatic. It’s a sports film, but it is also a human story.
I personally thought that Shaad would be fantastic, and that’s how I pitched it to him. I said to him that this the film was not about sports, but about a human life, about a person who is almost gone and comes back and becomes great and becomes an Arjuna Award winner. Shaad was very excited right from the word go.
Why are you not in the film?
Because I don’t fit any part. I would loved to have been in the film, but when you become somebody who is trying to put a project together, you are trying to get the right person, the absolute perfect fit for everything. I was more of a producer than an actor for this project.
We found our perfect fit in Taapsee Pannu. She has the physicality and the body language of a small-town girl playing hockey for India. It helps that she is also into sports in real life. It was just bang on.
Your long and frequent absences from the spotlight have always generated chatter. Is it by design?
Nothing is by design. I wish I could design that well. It’s just life and how you play it. We don’t lead perfect lives, we all have our issues. So it’s always been like that for me. It is important to be 100% somewhere to be able to do well.
So yeah, I think it’s been a bit of on-off that way. At the same time, I have seldom missed anything. I have taken my time to do whatever I have wanted to do or choose what I wanted to be a part of. I am very excited about Bazaar and Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster 3, my two upcoming films. So it’s not a strategy for sure. I think it’s just me and life.