The story of India’s real Soorma is extraordinary. Sandeep Singh is nothing but an inspirational hero to everyone who has lost hope in their lives. After being shot, Sandeep was unconscious for days in the hospital. He woke up to the doctor telling him that he will never walk again. He did not lose heart.
Recollecting the moment, his brother, Bikramjeet says, “Sandeep politely asked the doctor to not surround him with any such negativity.”
Instead, Sandeep Singh asked Bikram to bring his hockey stick to the hospital and he kept it beside his bed. Commenting on the same, Sandeep said, “I wanted to stand on my feet again. I asked my brother to bring my hockey stick and kept it right in front of my eyes as a reminder to me that I had to play for India again.”
Sandeep did succeed in his promise to himself leaving the world a message that the one who works hard never fails. After re-establishing himself again, Singh was appointed as the captain of the National Hockey Team for India. Under his captaincy, India won many international tournaments including the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in which Sandeep was the highest goal scorer.
A hockey player with a lot of promise, Singh who had debuted in international cricket in 2004, was on his way to join the national squad ahead of their departure for the FIH World Cup in Germany. He was travelling on the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi Express when a Railway Protection Force jawan accidentally shot him.
The bullet fractured his rib, damaged his spine, kidneys and liver. Doctors proclaimed the death sentence – it would be next to impossible to play.
Singh said it was the worst day of his life. All he wanted to do, lying in his hospital bed at PGIMER Chandigarh, was go out and play. He asked his brother to bring him his hockey stick and holding it his hands promised himself and his brother that he would play hockey again.
After two years in a wheelchair, play he did.Sandeep Singh returned to the national team in 2008 and a year later became the captain of the Indian national team. Under his captaincy, India won the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in 2009 after 13 long years. Singh, who stroked in six of India’s 12 goals, was declared Player of the Tournament.
Next up, the 2012 London Olympics- Singh was a man possessed, practicing every waking hour. He even had the five Olympic rings tattooed on his wrists! His critics will admit that while India returned empty-handed, it was a well-fought battle.
Led by Singh, India qualified after eight years with a resounding victory over France in the finals of the qualifiers. Sandeep Singh scored five goals – including a hat-trick – and propelled himself into sporting history with a 16-goal haul – the highest in the qualifiers.
It is Singh’s personal battle that Soorma explores. Getting back into the game and earning the captaincy was uphill all the way. Being wheelchair-bound meant he had lost 40 per cent of his body weight and the simple act of standing unaided seemed impossible. But he prevailed and from that abyss he earned the moniker ‘Flicker Singh’, one of the world’s most dangerous drag-flickers of all time, with drag speeds of over 145 km/hour.
Actor/singer Diljit Dosanjh who spent four months training with Sandeep Singh for the role says the hockey legend’s dedication, passion and commitment to the game made him work that much harder. At a media interaction recently, Diljit Dosanjh confessed he had felt ashamed that he knew so little about Singh’s struggles till he read the script.
It’s a feeling Taapsee Pannu, who plays Sandeep Singh’s wife Harjinder, shares. In fact, much as Singh’s story needs to be told, so does Harjinder’s who sacrificed her own career as a hockey player for domesticity.
The two, in fact, met on the hockey grounds in their hometown Shahabad in Haryana’s Kurukshetra district. A long courtship ended in an engagement in 2008, followed by marriage.
After marriage, Singh requested Harjinder to give up her career and become a full-time homemaker. Subsequently, after the birth of their son Sehajdeep, there was no going back to the game. But Harjinder has no regrets. Their mutual love for the game, which brought them together, keeps them tethered.
When Singh visits home, he sometimes asks Harjinder, his brother and sister-in-law (also hockey players) to grab their sticks and knock the ball around. And for that time, if only illusory, it’s as if they are back at the academy in Kurukshetra where it all began.
When he’s home, he’s a full-time husband – long bike rides to Ambala, dosas at a favourite diner and conversations over Jeera Soda.
It’s only with Harjinder that he can be a petulant little boy. In 2009, when she went to watch her husband play the Punjab Gold Cup final against Holland, which they lost, he told her not to come to the matches anymore. Harjinder didn’t mind. She knew it came from an enduring love for the game he plays so well.
But passion play doesn’t always translate into results. After the London Olympics loss in 2012, Singh was out of favour and sidelined from the national squad for nine months. He was dropped from the Asian Champions Trophy, Azlan Shah Cup, Champions Trophy and World League Round 2 thereafter.
That’s when his friend, cricketer Harbhajan Singh stepped in and helped him tide over the bad phase.
Harbhajan told him to continue working hard and spend quality time with his family. Singh heard him out, followed his advice and returned to the national-fold for the FIH World League Round 3 in Netherlands. He said he was as confident of a comeback then as he was in 2006 after the accident.
In 2013, when the Hockey India League was launched, Mumbai franchise, Mumbai Magicians bought him for $64,400 – the fifth highest-paid marquee player. It was money well spent – Singh scored 11 goals from 12 appearances and became the top scorer at the event.
And so began his club career. He was signed by the English field hockey club, Havant Hockey Club. This of course, meant that he had to relocate to the UK in 2014. This of course, meant, he scored 24 goals for his team, becoming Havant’s top scorer and the third top scorer overall during the 2014-15 league season!
In 2014, Punjab Warriors bought him, followed by Ranchi Rays. International forays included playing for the St George Randwick Hockey Club in Australia and for Harvard Hockey Club in England in 2017.
Singh is now keen to take up a mentor’s role for youngsters wanting to master the art of drag-flicking. He says he is still the #1 drag-flicker in India and it’s time bequeath this knowledge, this mastery of the game, to the younger players.
And as a consultant and a technical adviser to ‘Collectives for Integrated Livelihoods’, he’s doing just that. It’s an initiative by the Tata Trust for grassroots hockey development in Jamshedpur, and Singh, who has been training 6000 players is amazed each day by their commitment to learn and excel.
When he’s not playing, the 32-year-old defender is also a DSP with the Haryana police.
Ahead of his biopic’s release, Singh has made another journey, again after 12 years. It’s to the PGIMER hospital, Chandigarh, where he was treated in the aftermath of the gunshot injury.
In a video clip shared on social media he said, “It is exactly after 12 years that I am standing outside the entrance of this hospital and I am getting goosebumps standing here.”
Gratitude apart, the former hockey captain is aware of just how blessed he was to have the full weight of the government behind him during the accident. The Haryana state government bore his entire medical expenses during the two years he was wheelchair bound, but while that’s not to be sniffed at, Singh is as much concerned about the lack of a world-class rehabilitation centre for sportspersons in India.
He has now written to Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore requesting the government to set up a world-class rehab centre for sportspersons in recovery. While Singh may finally find closure for that traumatic day in 2006, his love for the game remains all-consuming shorn of all bitterness or victimhood. In fact, in 2010, India recognized his contributions to field hockey with the Arjuna Award.
Singh has been out of the national team since 2014, and while his dream of a farewell national match may not come to pass, he says he will always remember what his dad told him long ago. “Jo suraj subah ko ugta hai wo sham ko asth hota hai (the sun which rises in the morning is bound to set in the evening). He’s had his time in the sun and now the moment has come to give back to the game which gave him so much.