Suniel Shetty, 53, may have become a star, but his heart still remains with cricket, his first love. He is emotional, blunt and hardworking, who may have the image of being good in business, but he is ruled by his heart and feels responsible towards people around him, be it his own family or his staff. His anchor remains his family and his father, his hero. Ahead of his upcoming film Koyelaanchal, he talks about the stylish Jackie Shroff, his caring wife Mana and why Balasaheb Thackeray was a great leader.
We are from the small Bunts community, originally from Mangalore. My dad lost his father when he was nine and ran away from home to come to Mumbai to feed his mother and his three siblings. He joined one of the Udupi restaurants as a cleaner boy from where, due to his hard work, he became a manager. The owner of the restaurant had three restaurants. The owner wanted to retire and go back to Karnataka, which is when he offered my dad the option of taking over the restaurants.
I was born in Mangalore, where my nani lived, but was raised throughout in Mumbai. I never thought of doing films and was always obsessed with cricket. I met Vivian Richards for the first time when I was 14. I had never seen such forearms like his. He used to hit real hard. I went upto him and asked him how he had such shoulders and he said, 'Weight training.' I started weight training, thinking I would hit as hard as him. I played for Mumbai under 16 under Ravi Shastri. Politics took over in the team at that time and I knew that not being a Maharashtrian, I would not make it to the Indian team. I was very disappointed, but started pursuing martial arts. I became a black belter in kickboxing and started training the Maharashtra police. I continued to run the restaurant and started my own fashion store Mischief, till I met Pahlaj Nihalani, who offered me a role in Arzoo. The film did not work out and he offered me another film, Ek Aur Faulad. In the meantime, Raju Balwani offered me Balwaan, which started and finished earlier and became my debut film at 29.
He is my hero. When my mom had three children, he gave away two restaurants to a manager and looked after only one, so that he could give us time. He was always there when we came back home for lunch. He was uneducated, but today reads every paper and is far more knowledgeable than me and my two sisters. He knew that I love cricket, so he got me whatever I wanted and always stood on the side, quietly watching me play. He always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to. In our community, the girl child is valued and the daughter is the most important thing. In the absence of a will, everything goes to her. My dad borrowed money and made money enough only to be able to send my two sisters to study abroad. I was fine with that as I loved India and my parents the most, and I stayed back to look after the restaurant. There was a period a few years back when I lost six members of my family to cancer, including my brother-in-law and that was a very messy period. My sister now lives with us and is with me in my real estate and lifestyle business. I have always lived with my dad, but past six months he has got paralysed.
I met Mana when she was in college. She always thought that I was a goon, as I was this guy with long hair on a motorcycle with my gang of friends and girls always around me, and thought that I was the type of guy who would never settle down. She is extremely elegant and simple and has blind faith in whatever I do. We were seeing each other for nine years, but my parents never met her as they believed that Mana being a half-Muslim and half-Kapoor, our marriage would never work. My mom wanted me to get married but I refused, saying that if I could not marry Mana, I would stay single. I was leaving for my first outdoor shoot at Ooty and my dad came to see me off at the airport. Mana, too, wanted to come and I could not refuse either of them. She was standing at the back as she did not want to come in front of him. He saw her and said, 'Go, say bye to her.' After six hours, I reached Ooty via Bangalore and kept calling Mana on her landline, but was told that she had not reached home. I was really worried and then called up my own place. To my surprise, Mana picked up. My dad had taken her home from the airport. From that day, she visited them everyday post her work for the 40 days that I was shooting. As soon as I came back, my dad asked, 'Ready for shaadi?' She has fit in beautifully. She really cares for them and they love her more than me today. Even though my dad can communicate only through sign language now, you say, 'Mana' and he lights up.
Jackie Shroff, Ajay Devgn, Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Sohail Khan and Abhishek Bachchan are my friends. Ajay is very correct, honest, simple and an absolute prankster, but someone you can always depend on. Salman and me go back a long way and Jackie dada, even before that. When Salman and Jackie would come to my store Mischief, I knew they would come and strip me off all that I was wearing, be it my belt or my shirt. Jackie would come and say, 'Shirt nikaal'. Jackie dada was a star even before he came into films. We lived in the same area and grew up watching him. At 13, we would only be watching what he was wearing. Even in his normal shorts and kurta, he was no less than Clint Eastwood for us, as he was so stylish. He would walk into dandiyas and move around and if someone said, 'Jackie aaya,' we would just say, 'Chal nikle,' and would move to the next building. It was just his personality and his looks. I used to hate Anil Kapoor till the time I met him, as Jackie and Anil were pitted against each other and for us, our hero was Jackie Shroff. He was the model for Four Square and even now, I can close my eyes and imagine him. Dada would come and sit on the steps of Mischief and there would be crowds and crowds just to see him. He was a star in Mumbai even before he became an actor. He was that Four Square model whom boys gave up other brands for, to have his brand. I called him after seeing his son Tiger in the song Whistle Bajaa from Heropanti and asked him, 'Dada, whose genes are there in Tiger?' as he was dancing so well. Dada immediately said, 'Mine'. I said, 'Dada aap ungli uthate the. Which dance have you done?' We could never learn to dance as we grew up seeing you close dancing as you could close dance on any song.' How much he laughed and called me a big kutta. He is a star. Salman is one of the most misunderstood people on earth. People talk about his human side now. I remember, long back, we were all in a star rally for some cause and suddenly Salman said to me, 'I will just come back.' I later came to know that he had gone to get his bone marrow tested, so that he could give it to a poor kid who was suffering from cancer. He and Sanju have always given to people all the time. Abhishek is a much better actor than what you have seen. His approach is far more casual, but in reality, he is a much more intense person and is very loving and affectionate, who will go out of his way to do things for you.
No, not at all and I would never like to come into politics. As reported, I was never a star campaigner for anybody. I have always stood by friends. If they are doing legitimate work, are genuine and content with the wealth they have, I will campaign for them. I campaigned for Paresh Rawal as I believe he will make a difference to cinema. When he did Hera Pheri with me, he had 100 offers but he chose theatre. He is one of the simplest people you can meet. Arun Jaitley is a family friend. I campaigned for Ravi Kishan for Congress. Mahesh Manjrekar is standing for MNS and wanted me to but am not able to.
My dad likes my honesty and has always stood by me due to that. Within me, that became my nature and I wanted to do things the right way to match up to his expectations. I would, however, get aggressive or angry if I found someone doing the wrong thing and could even get physical. We started with South Indian restaurants and then moved on to bars and restaurants, which were in difficult areas. I still feel that those days were better than today. When Balasaheb Thackeray was alive, the shakas were prominent and while they came to you asking for money during Ganpati and other times, they were also the eyes that protected the streets and the girls. With the death of Balasaheb and the breakup of Uddhav and Raj, the fear went away. Otherwise, they ruled. Balasaheb was a leader who had a tremendous sense of humour and was extremely simple and a great artist. My father always believed in me. Once, this police guy came to our restaurant and beat up my manager for the wrong reasons, as he had refused to pay bribe to him, and so, the police guy slapped him along with two hookers from the area. I went to the police station, I still remember he was buttoning himself and I whacked him. I had hit a cop at the police station and there was a case. I used to train cops and so every cop stood by me and the guy was suspended for a year. The cop went to my father to complain about me. My father said, 'Oh, you are Mr Das.' He took out his slipper and hit him and said, 'My son will not do anything wrong and if he has done something wrong, he will come and tell me. I came to Mumbai without anything. I have three restaurants. I will lose everything but will fight as I know my son is right.' I was a very good son and never crossed the line on anything. I didn't smoke or drink. Even in the industry, we are always surrounded by beautiful girls. But I never crossed my line. The choice is between gaining momentarily and losing a hell of a lot. It was a conscious effort. My friends make fun of me, but it doesn't matter. Ajay says, Mumbai mein sirf do log subah uthte hain — doodhwala aur doosra Suniel Shetty. Even when a tree stops bearing fruits, its shade protects you. My father's health really worries me and I don't like the feeling of being the head of the family.