Diljit Dosanjh and Taapsee Pannu in ‘Soorma’. Image Credit: Supplied

Unless you follow hockey, you are unlikely to be familiar with player Sandeep Singh and his glorious tale of resurrection and redemption.

In 2006, Singh — who earned the moniker Flicker Singh for his sporting prowess on the hockey field — was accidentally shot by an army official in a train and that tragic freak accident cut short his sporting ambition temporarily.

I don’t think of myself as a Punjabi actor or a Bollywood actor. Where there is work or an acting job available, I am happy to go there. I want to work hard and give it my soul,” Dosanjh on his attitude towards crossing over to Bollywood from Punjabi cinema.

Strapped to a wheel-hair, the once-muscled Singh whittled down to 55kg, but he didn’t let that episode defeat or define his existence. He bounced back into the game with a vengeance in two years. His gritty life is now being captured in a sporting biopic called Soorma, with Punjabi superstar Diljit Dosanjh playing Singh, out in the UAE on July 12.

“If a player in any other popular sport in India gets a motorcycle or a car, we are immediately updated about their indulgences. But such a big tragedy had happened to one of our own players and no one really knew about it,” said Dosanjh in an interview over the phone.

The singer-actor, who’s one of the biggest cultural exports of Punjab into its glitzy cousin Bollywood, was mortified that he was unfamiliar with the icon and even questioned the veracity of such a bizarre heroic story.

The phrase ‘fact is stranger than fiction’ gained a new meaning after he heard the script of Soorma. He felt the script was “too filmy” even for his liking.

“When I heard his real story, I was caught by surprise. I even googled his name and life story to check if the producer [Chitrangada Singh] and director [Ali] weren’t exaggerating his tale of brilliance. I looked up videos of doctors who treated him, interviews with Sandeep Singh and original cutting that appeared in newspapers then… I felt flabbergasted that a person who created such a big record in India and underwent so many difficulties, we don’t even know about him. There were no discussions about his bravery either,” said Singh, who felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment.

My co-producer Chitrangada [actress Singh] had given me a hand-written essay of Sandeep where he had penned his entire life on paper. I couldn’t put it down. It was so moving and emotional. It was a story that had to be told,” said Ali when asked about the motives behind making Soorma.

Before taking on the project, all he knew was Singh had been the captain of the Indian national team.

“But I didn’t know that he was shot in a train and that he had emerged as the captain after he took the bullet and his paralysis after he was shot. I just assumed that he worked hard and became a captain,” said Dosanjh in Hindi.

But he has a confession. Dosanjh had never played sports in his real life.

“Sports such as cricket or hockey is tough for me… So my first instinct was to say ‘no’. But the story was so zabardast [amazing] that it lured me to be a part of such a biopic… I had to read up a lot about hockey and watch many tournaments. Truth be told, even though we watch football, I know more about foreign players than our own,” said Dosanjh, who was trained by the subject and his brother.

According to Dosanjh, the body language of players are different from the commoners.

“The way they run and their stance even when they are not playing is unique. They have a specific body language that’s unique to them. I practised for two months straight and during the filming for another three or four months,” said Dosanjh.

Another intriguing twist to Sandeep’s unusual life was the decision taken by his family members. After the unexpected life-altering tragedy, Singh’s family made an unreal decision.

“They made an extraordinary decision: They wouldn’t bother to find out who shot him. If they wanted to, they could have filed a case and sought justice and retribution from the shooter. But they devoted all their energies and powers into making Sandeep stand on his two feet again. They didn’t bother wasting any energy on finding the identity of the shooter or the motives behind him shooting Sandeep,” said Dosanjh.

According to the 34-year-old actor, the hockey player hasn’t come face to face with his shooter in all these years.

“As soon as the gun was fired, he had fallen to the ground… Soorma isn’t your usual sports film about redemption or how hard work pays off. There’s a huge twist in Sandeep’s life. It’s such an unusual story,” said the actor.

While his claims seem earnest, biopics in Bollywood are notorious for their overt glorification of their respective subjects. Sanju, the biopic on troubled actor Sanjay Dutt starring Ranbir Kapoor, has been battling accusations of whitewashing his tainted life.

But director Ali and Dosanjh swear that they have kept Soorma real.

“Anyway, you can’t compare these two biopics [Sanju and Soorma]. Sandeep hasn’t led a controversial, checkered life. There’s nothing remotely controversial about him and, therefore, there is no question of whitewashing arising here. People are not going to analyse Sandeep’s life and depiction, the way they did Sanju… They don’t even known what Sandeep looks like to begin with… He’s not such a familiar figure like Sanjay Dutt,” said Ali in a separate interview. Dosanjh adds that it’s going to be “100 per cent realistic”.

“If he has been shot, there is ample proof to that. If he has been paralysed for two years, then there is proof of that too. And after that he became a captain, he broke a world record — it’s all fact. We have tried to remain true to events that actually happened,” said Dosanjh.

As far as casting goes, Soorma is spot on. A Sikh subject being played by a Sikh actor is adequate representation. Biopics in Hindi cinema are notorious for grossly misrepresenting. Remember Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom, the biopic on the North Eastern boxing legend? Giving her Mongoloid make-up was deemed offensive, racist and had also triggered debates about the questionable casting choice.

Director Ali has a pragmatic explanation to it all.

“I agree, it’s unfair if you miscast a character because you want to keep the film as true to the events… But filmmaking is a profession that you cannot get too emotional about. You can’t get sentimental about it. There’s a reason to everything. We cast Ben Kingsley as Gandhi and everybody in my generation thought Gandhi looked like Kingsley. That’s how things are,” said Ali, alluding to how big stars guarantee a good box office opening and guarantee instant visibility or bankability to a project.

But personally, Ali wasn’t willing to cast a non-Punjabi to play Singh.

“I am a nervous wreck of a director. I wanted to be as close to reality as possible. I didn’t want to take any chances. I am no Rakeysh OmPrakash Mehra who can convert and transform Farhaan Akhtar into a Bhaag Milkha Bhaag character. I don’t have that kind of experience and I just wanted to be as true and as close to [Sandeep Singh]. We are not trying to make it artificial, though there’s nothing wrong with that approach,” said Ali.

Both Ali and Dosanjh are convinced that everyone loves a triumphant underdog tale. There’s a hidden underdog in every person, they believe.

Soorma is an inspiring story. Sometimes there will be a point in a person’s life where life isn’t going as per their plans and you are feeling disillusioned. Or where you feel that the world is against them. The story of Sandeep Singh and his trials will instill you with hope and show you how to survive against all odds,” said Dosanjh.

Don’t miss it

Soorma releases in the UAE on July 12.