It’s a small village walking the thin line between marauding urbanisation and rural idyll. Fields full of young rice shoots sit alongside land demarcated by colourful flags, a sign of impending construction. The state of Palheri village close to Chandigarh is quite akin to that of its son Gurpreet Singh Palheri, the line producer-turned-screenwriter who was pulled into the world of politics, or “siyaasat” as the villagers term it, the day film star and Gurdaspur BJP MP Sunny Deol officially anointed him as his “representative” in the constituency.
All parliamentarians usually have people looking after their constituencies. Deol, a first-time MP, decided to put it down on paper, triggering widespread condemnation by the Congress, which termed it “a betrayal of the voters”.
For the villagers, Palheri, 38, is the quintessential gentleman unspoilt by his association with the world of cinema. Palheri’s childhood friend Sandeep Singh, who runs a grocery store near his house, says, “He is very honest and simple.”
Talking about his film career, Swaran Singh, a middle-aged government official, beams, “I know him since he was a child. We were pleasantly surprised when one day this youngster landed here with Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and the crew of Veer-Zaara. They shot the song Aisa desh hai mera in a village fair here; most of us are there in the film.”
That was in 2004. It signalled the start of Palheri’s career in cinema, which saw him go from being a line producer for films such as Sohail Khan’s Kisaan, Sunny Deol’s Jat Yamla Pagla Diwana and Ajay Devgn’s Son of Sardar to a scriptwriter for Diljeet Dosanjh’s Sajjan Singh Rangroot, a Punjabi film on World War I in 2018.
Located across the village gurdwara, Palheri’s house is as unassuming as him, one of the few remaining low-ceilinged old structures among its mushrooming glass-and-wood counterparts (a new house is now under construction). His light-eyed wife Parminder Kaur is washing boiled rice at a handpump in the courtyard, accessed through an old gate. Palheri’s small bedroom has a mirror with a crocheted cover, a boxy TV from the ’80s and a noisy desert cooler.
In this room that seems frozen in time, a photo of Palheri with famous singer Gurdas Mann, next to a big portrait of a Sikh saint, is the only sign of his ‘filmi’ status.
Parminder refuses to say anything about her husband. “Ji, only he can tell you about his work,” she demurs. Earlier, on the phone from Gurdaspur, Palheri had said a polite no to a detailed interview. “You know, the din that followed the announcement (by Deol)… Can we please talk next week?”
Mother Daljeet Kaur is more forthcoming. “Gurpreet was doing his graduation and had joined a bhangra troupe at Sarangpur village nearby when Darshan Aulakh, a Punjabi line producer and actor, noticed him and asked whether he could arrange for a site in the village,” she recounts. Over the years, the boy who was fondly called Giani — because he became a baptised Sikh at the age of four and was “wise beyond his years” — transformed into Gurpreet Singh Palheri, the writer. Friends say it was film star Dosanjh who asked him to add the suffix ‘Palheri’ when he took to writing.
The writer in him is perhaps reflected in the names of his three children, two daughters Kulshaan (meaning family’s pride) and Mukhnaam (prayerful) in classes 4 and 3, and son Vyapak (omnipresent), who is all of four.
It was the Deols who took him to Mumbai. “They treated him like family, he lived in their house. They trust him, he does the accounting during their shoots,” says Daljeet Kaur. The Bollywood family has also visited them in Palheri. “Sunny Deol asked him to reach Gurdaspur when he was on his way there before the polls,” says Daljeet.
Adjusting her dupatta, she adds, “It is all his karma. Nobody in our family has had anything to do with either films or literature, but he was different.”
With 3.5 acres of land to till and a big herd of cattle to milk, their hands were full. Father Supinder Singh, striking with his flowing white beard and bright eyes in a work-worn face, tells you how he started with one cattle and raised the herd to 50. “I used to cycle down to Chandigarh to sell milk… A few years ago, Gurpreet asked me to stop, saying the city roads were dangerous. My clients were like family, we hugged each other and cried the day I stopped,” he chokes.
The family has mixed emotions about Palheri’s new innings as Deol’s representative. “His taayaji (uncle) was very worried, he said carry on writing, you are too simple for this. I told him votes are over, you come back,” says Daljeet, who is more excited about the fact that Palheri is writing the script for Ammy Virk’s film Nikka Zailda-3 (third in a successful Punjabi film series).
But Palheri, she says, told her Deol wanted him to stay and do “vikas”. “He asked me ‘Are you scared about my well-being?’.”
Supinder though is all smiles about the congratulatory calls he has been receiving. “Some big people also called.”
Darshan Aulkah says it’s all about trust. “Palheri is the man who ties Sunny Deol’s turbans in all his films. Sunny can’t be there 24 hours… Palheri had called me. I told him to go ahead if he could do sewa.”