Actor Sonu Sood, popularly known for portraying the antagonist in both Hindu and regional cinema, turned a hero for 100 medical students trapped in Russia due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The actor hired a chartered flight to help the students come back to Chennai on Wednesday, facilitating their safe arrival in the city.
"Medical students in Moscow reached out to me for help to reach their homes in Chennai," he told IANS over the phone. When asked about his new role as a villain-turned-real-life-hero, he said: "This is the best role I have ever played. The best script done in my life. The 'thank you' notes from parents and the students is what motivates me."
The SpiceJet flight that took off on August 4 from Moscow was initially planned to be a direct one to Chennai. But a stopover in Delhi was arranged, owing to requests.
"We were not able to board the Vande Bharat flight from Moscow on July 3 as our course got over only on July 6. There were about 200 students who got stranded. We were told there will not be any Vande Bharat flights. Then we started sending emails to all the officials," TR Sakthipriyadarshini, a student who had come back, told IANS. She had graduated from Kursk Medical University, which is about 500 km from Moscow.
"One of the students had seen Sonu Sood organising a flight to bring back Indian students. So, we thought if he can do that from Kyrgyzstan, he can also help us," Periyannan Somasundaram, another student who returned to Chennai told IANS.
Somasundaram said they sent a message to Sood on July 23 and the next day got a reply and from then onwards, there was constant communication. "Some students took the flights operated by tour operators. In the end, a total of 100 students boarded the SpiceJet flight to Chennai in Moscow," Sakthipriyadarshini said. According to her, there was no problem for the students after they had graduated since they were staying in apartments and life was normal.
"We had to come back early to write the screening exam that all those who had passed medical courses overseas have to give. We had to prepare for that. The exam is on August 31. So it was important for us to come back home as early as possible," Sakthipriyadarshini said.
Sonu Sood said: "Initially I started helping out migrant workers who were returning to their homeland by arranging buses and vans." Inspired by it, his friends have also started chipping in with their contributions.
From hiring buses and vans, the big jump of arranging flights started when Indian students in Kyrgyzstan had approached him on social media for help to come back to India. "Chartered flights have been arranged for students to come back from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Cyprus, Philippines and Moscow," he said.
According to Sood, initially, he had used Air Asia flights and then SpiceJet. "The students pay a nominal amount and I pay the balance. Even if the number of students is lesser than the seating capacity of the plane, I see that they come back to India," he added.
According to him, the task of arranging the logistics is challenging as official permissions have to be obtained, arranging local logistics for the students in a foreign country and other aspects.
"The Ministry of External Affairs, Indian Ambassadors in various countries and others were very helpful making the job much easier," he said. "The only challenge is arranging local transport in foreign countries for students to reach a particular airport. In some cases, students have to travel 12-13 hours. I was never trained to do this. I also speak to overseas logistics providers," Sood added.
Sood said he makes it a point to speak to all the students on Zoom. As an anecdote, he recalled receiving about 300 calls from overseas stranded Indian students between 1 am and 3 am.