Former Indian hockey captain, Sandeep Singh’s sporting career almost reached a premature end when he was accidentally shot at, and paralysed as a consequence, in 2006. But after a two-year recovery period, he made a stellar comeback to the game, leading India through the London Olympic qualifiers. He speaks to Anita about his passion for hockey, and his recent biopic, Soorma.
Soorma, the recently released biopic of Sandeep Singh, former captain of India’s national hockey team, made quite a splash at the box office in its opening week. Starring Diljit Dosanjh in the main lead, the film narrates the extraordinary story of Singh’s hockey career, which suffered a serious setback in 2006 when he was paralysed after being accidently shot at during a train journey.
It took Singh almost two years to recover from his injuries, and to make what many see as a miraculous comeback to international hockey. In this second phase of his career—which is also the focus of the movie—Singh flourished as a hockey player, developing something of a winning streak. He took over as captain of the national team in 2009, and helped India qualify, after a gap of eight long years, for the Olympic Games held in London in 2012. In this exclusive interview with Guardian 20, Singh talks about his life as a hockey player.
Q. Was the film’s title, Soorma, your choice, or was it decided by the filmmakers?
A. It was a mutual call. “Soorma” basically means “fighter”. The one who never gives up is called a Soorma. So that’s why they went with that word, because it resembles my real-life character as I, too, never give up.
Q. And what about the actor? Did director Shaad Ali ask you about your choice of actor before casting Diljit Dosanjh in your role? Was that, too, a mutual call?
A. No, the first choice was mine. I recommended Diljit paaji’s name. The director also had him on his mind.
Q. But why Diljit?
A. As Diljit is also a Singh, our tone of speaking Hindi is similar. If we were to cast someone with a different mother tongue than Punjabi, then he would not have suited the part—his way of conversing in Hindi would have looked pure, which is not the case with me. Also, Diljit and I have a facial resemblance, which matters a lot on the big screen. Diljit paaji is a real sardar, and I feel that only a sardar should play Sikh roles in movies. The movie itself is a real journey. It is about my journey. I have been very sincere all my life, be it at my game or in any other field, and I did not want others to take my life as a joke.
Q. When you were narrating your story to the filmmakers, was there ever a moment of recollection that gave you goosebumps?
A. [Laughs]. This did not happen to me as such, but the people with whom I was sharing my story definitely got goosebumps.
Q. In 2006, you were accidently shot at by a security personnel on a train. It left you paralysed and almost ended your hockey career. But you made a miraculous comeback a couple of years later. What kept you motivated during that long period of recuperation?
A. My parents and my brother were my support system at the time. Without them it would not have been possible for me to make a comeback to the game.
Q. But what about self-motivation? Was that a factor?
A. I kept saying to myself that the bed and the wheelchair were not made for me. Only the hockey field and the hockey stick were mine. I had to grab hold of the stick and return to the field. I stayed away from inactive persons and inactivity during my rehab time. I used to talk to myself for positivity. I kept saying to myself that I can do it.
Q. The person who shot at you accidentally, did he ever meet you after the incident, to apologise?
A. No, the person has not faced me ever. But he did send his relatives to meet with my father and to apologise to us. My dad told them that our family does not harbour any vengeful thoughts against them; he asked them to pray for my health and recovery. At that time, we had two choices—we could either have filed a case against the man who shot me, or focused on my health instead. I feel if we were to do the former—to file a case, that is—I would still be lying on the bed today. So we did not drift in that direction. Rather, we chose the path where we could focus on the family and on my health. If my mom and dad had shown me the other direction, I think I would never have returned to the hockey field again.
Q. Do you remember the feeling of hearing the National Anthem being played for the first time, after making a comeback to the Indian hockey team in 2008?
A. I still remember. It was at the Azlan Shah Stadium [in Malaysia] in 2008 when the National Anthem was played. Hearing the National Anthem played at that ground—I was in my Indian jersey, standing under the Tricolor—gave me the chills. Also, at that time I felt that I had made a comeback to the team. But I also thought that this was not going to be the end of my journey; it was just the beginning.
Q. Which hockey tournament would you call your best so far?
A. It would be the 2012 London Olympic qualifiers, because I had set a series of records in that tournament. [In the final game of the qualifiers, Singh scored five goals against France– including a hat-trick—all from penalty corners. He also became the highest scorer in the London Olympic qualifiers by scoring 16 goals, and achieved a 145kmph drag flick, world’s highest drag-flick speed at the time.]
Q. Your biopic, Soorma, released earlier this month, and has already become a hit at the box office. Do you feel the success of the movie would positively affect the popularity of hockey in India?
A. It will definitely affect the popularity of the game because people will come to know about hockey players and about how the game is played.
Q. Why do you think hockey fails to attract a mass audience in contemporary India?
A. We have the audience but it is smaller compared to other games. Same is the case with football. We can’t push people on the hockey grounds, or force them to watch the game. It is difficult for people to understand hockey, and I feel this is one of the reasons the game isn’t very popular anymore. So in this movie, we have portrayed hockey in such a way that even a layman will understand it. People will enjoy the hockey scenes in the movie because they are easy to decipher.
Q. According to you, how much more time does Indian hockey need to reestablish itself as the dominant power on the world stage?
A. We are on the way to that goal, and are headed in the right direction. The team is in the right hands of our coach Harendra Singh. So I feel, any day we will be among the top three teams in the world.
Q. Any advice for budding sportspeople and for our youth?
A. To all sportspeople I will say: put your heart into the game. Play it for yourself, for your family and for India. And to the youth I will say: adopt sports culture, and stay away from drugs and junk food.