'When you lose someone who is very close to you, I don’t think you think about what’s going to happen in your office tomorrow or your work. I didn’t care that I was in jail.
'I didn’t care that I was being criticised. The only person that I cared about was Nafisa (Jiah Khan’s real name). She is in my heart and she will always be there.'
'When someone faces a problem, it is no one else’s problem. But Salman Sir was still there for me and I am so glad that I met him.'
There's something very earnest about Sooraj Pancholi.
He listens to each question carefully and answers them even more carefully, as though he does not want to upset either the interviewer or the people he is talking about with his answers.
At the same time, he does not shy away from difficult questions.
It is hard to believe that this is the same young man who was mired in controversy soon after he had signed his first film. He was arrested as a suspect in the tragic suicide of his girlfriend, Jiah Khan, and spent 23 days in jail.
Now, all that seems behind him as he readies for his debut film, Hero, co-starring Suneil Shetty's daughter, Athiya.
Even as he tries to calm the butterflies and apologises to Patcy N/Rediff.com before popping a Strepsils to soothe his irritated throat, there's one thing he makes clear… he would not have seen this day if it were not for the unwavering support of two very important people – a certain superstar actor who stood by him and a well-known actress who has been his pillar all his life.
The big day nears. Nervous?
No, not nervous, but very excited. I couldn't be happier. I have been waiting for this for a long time.
How did you cope during that dark period of your life when Jiah Khan passed away and you were jailed? Was there a lot of pressure because all these things were happening at around the same time you had signed for your first movie?
When that happened, I didn't care about my work or my career or anything else. The only thing that I cared about was what had happened and that I had lost a person in my life.
When you lose someone who is very close to you, I don't think you think about what's going to happen in your office tomorrow or your work.
I didn't care that I was in jail. I didn't care that I was being criticised. The only person that I cared about was Nafisa (Jiah Khan's real name). She is in my heart and she will always be there.
Were you depressed?
I did not go through depression, but I was sad.
Depression is a disease and I am so glad that God didn't put me through that.
But, of course, I was really upset.
Two years before this happened, Salman Khan had promised you the movie. That commitment didn't change even after all this happened. He still stood by you.
He's still there and that's why I call him super-human and a saviour.
That's the reason why my parents and I have so much love and respect for him because this industry is so brutal sometimes that it can pick and throw anyone they want to.
Salman Sir was there for me and he is still there. He didn't have to be there for me because when someone faces a problem, it is no one else's problem. But he was still there for me and I am so glad that I met him.
Did you always want to be an actor?
Not always, but I had it on the back of my mind when I was growing up.
When I was about 18 or 19, I thought I should learn filmmaking and so I joined Sanjay Leela Bhansali as an assistant director for Guzaarish (starring Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan).
That's when I felt like acting, but I was really shy to say it out to my parents or my sister.
Then I joined Kabir Khan (as an assistant director) for Ek Tha Tiger (starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif). That's where I met Salman Sir. He asked me if I wanted to be an actor and I said yes. He was the first person ever to whom I confessed that I wanted to become an actor.
Then he offered me a film that would be produced by Salman Khan Films. We didn't have a script at that time. One-and-a-half years later, he called me and said, “Sooraj, script mil gayi hain, chalo picture banate hain (We've got a script, let's make a movie).”
Did you think that your first movie would be a remake? Did it worry you that the original Hero (starring Jackie Shroff and Meenakshi Seshadri) was such a huge movie and you had live up to it?
Yes, it was a big movie. I am not pressured by that. In fact, I am really happy that I got such a good script to work on.
Who gets a chance to work on such a big movie and such a good script?
There's no pressure. I just wanted to work hard, that's it.
Why didn't you approach your parents who were both actors?
That's because, in our house, we never discuss films or acting. It is a very simple home; we don't have any film posters or awards displayed. It is not a filmi house.
We were never part of their film sets or their work. I haven't watched a lot of their films.
It was awkward for me to break the news to them that I want to become an actor.
I was offered Hero in Turkey (on the sets of Kabir Khan's Ek Tha Tiger); I didn't tell my parents for nearly one-and-a-half-years.
I only told them about the film after I had heard the narration.
I went and asked them: I have been offered this film, should I do it?
They asked if I wanted to do it and I said 'yes'. They said 'teek hain, kar lo (okay, do it)'.
How did you get the opportunity to work with Sanjay Leela Bhansali? Did you go to him directly or did someone help you?
I got his number from my uncle. I messaged him saying, 'Sir I really want to work with you. I love your work.'
He was kind enough to reply and say, 'Sooraj, come and meet me.'
I was really young -- about 17 or 18 years old -- and I asked him for a chance to work with him. He gave me that chance. So did Kabir (Khan) Sir.
While your sister lived with your parents, you lived with your grandparents. Why?
That's because I loved my grandparents a lot and I had many pet animals. We couldn't keep them in our flat where my parents lived. I had 14 dogs and I wanted to be with them.
I was a really ziddi (stubborn) child and I wanted to live with my grandparents and my pets. I actually moved in with them only when I was 14 years old; till then I lived with my parents.
After my grandparents passed away, I stayed back because I was really close to them and didn't want to move away.
Was your father's aggressive nature the reason why you stayed with your grandparents?
No. I am getting to hear about my father's aggression now (during the promotional interviews for Hero).
When I was a kid, no one came up to me and said it. No one told me stories about how aggressive he is.
He was never aggressive at home. He is the best father anyone could have. He's taken really good care of Sanaa (Sooraj's sister) and me. I wish every child could get a father like him.
He's had his own reasons to get upset at people, which he knows.
How has your mother (actress Zarina Wahab, recently seen in Dil Dhadakne Do as Priyanka Chopra's mother-in-law) influenced you?
My mother is the strongest pillar of our family. She is my hero and will always be my hero because she kept our family together.
Whenever any of us faced any ups and downs, she was the strongest pillar.
My father, my sister and I are very emotional people and it is my mother who is the strongest among us. In that way, she is really inspiring.
She is getting old now, but still she is so strong. Just looking at her, keeps me going.
How was the first day of the shoot? Were your parents there? Were you nervous about facing the camera for the first time?
No, my parents weren't there. Athiya's parents (actor-businessman Suneil Shetty and his wife, Mana) were there. I did not call my parents and they didn't want to come either.
But I was really scared the night before, thinking about the shoot next day. I didn't sleep the entire night.
Athiya and I were on the phone the entire night, thinking about how we are going to shoot the next morning.
But once we were on the sets and Nikhil Sir said 'Action', we worked as if we had already done a film earlier.
We were really confident. It was a good experience.
What were your parents's reactions after they saw the first trailer?
If you think I cried then, it was nothing compared to my parents. They cried more than I did. Both of them were so happy that they cried.
I am so happy that they called me and said they were proud of me.
As their son, that's the only thing that I can give them in return because they have done so much for me in life. Now, it is my turn to give them something and all I can give them happiness.
If they are happy with my work, I would be the happiest.
Tell us about Nikhil Advani and what working with him was like?
He's my mentor and guru. He's my boss.
It was amazing working with him.
He is a very strict director. He is very hyper and yells a lot but he is an amazing teacher.
I couldn't have had a better director then Nikhil Sir.
Why does he yell on the sets?
When you are a director and you are the man who is running the show, if you are cold then it is not going to work. I think he is the motivator on the sets.
I have lots of narrations. Hopefully, by the end of this month, I will decide which film I will sign next.