Her identity as a fierce fashionista has often overtaken her work, but there is little doubt that Sonam Kapoor Ahuja has emerged as one of the most progressive voices in her generation of actresses, putting her money and mouth behind films that have something to say.
It hasn’t been easy. As she says, “I was 17 when I joined the movies, a baby. And unfortunately the whole world got to see my growing-up pains. Between 17 and 24, I like to think of it as my under-graduate and post-graduate years. Despite being Anil Kapoor’s daughter, I didn’t have a mentor. I chose to do things on my own. Some people have it easier, some harder. But my experiences have made me who I am today.”
What she is one of our handfuls of stars who want to tell stories that mean something. “Art is a reflection of society but once in a while it can effect change as well. And I want to be part of that,” she says.
With Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, 33-year-old Sonam has managed, quite cleverly, to make lesbian love part of mainstream movies in a sweet, simple way. Twenty three years after posters were torn and effigies were burnt when Deepa Mehta’s Fire was released, Ek Ladki… manages to make the kudi-kudi da romance appealing to an audience, which would have otherwise stayed away or preferred to watch it, like Amazon Prime’s Four More Shots Please!, in the privacy of their homes.
In the bargain, the movie manages to also subvert the “anyone but Muslim” trope common among so-called liberal, middle-class Hindu parents. It shatters other stereotypes — the man can’t cook in his kitchen because it is a “zenani” task; the middle-aged, attractive woman cannot divorce because she finds she has nothing in common with her husband when the children leave the nest; a man and a woman cannot be best friends forever; and that LGBTQIA issues are restricted to shiny, big cities.
The movie, released across 1,000 screens, has already made Rs 25 crore, which is good going for a restricted release, and that is important for Sonam. “The actor Adil Hussain once told me that my films should be as socially and politically vocal as my views on social media. And they should reach out to a wide audience,” she says. With Neerja in 2016, she did that most profoundly, making it the most profitable female-oriented Hindi film so far. Ram Madhvani, who directed her in the film, is delighted that Sonam has selected material and carved a position for herself in the industry where she has the power to greenlight a movie. “By choosing to do Ek Ladki…, we have witnessed a piece of Indian cinema history being made,” he says.
As she is the first to admit, Sonam didn’t always use her power well. “My privilege comes from the family I’m born into. And my mother has always told me when you have been given so much, it’s good to build a larger table than a higher wall. It’s that old Spiderman dialogue — with great power comes great responsibility.” And she feels a responsibility to all the women — and men — who are caged in what they think society wants them to be, whether it what to study, what to look like, and indeed whom to love. She took a year off from movies after playing the usual routine glamour girl in Thank You in 2011 and Players in 2012, and a character she didn’t much care for in Mausam in 2011. Aanand L. Rai’s Raanjhanaa in 2013 saved her, she now says. “The film industry is so competitive and the desire to be rich and famous so intense that everyone becomes a prisoner of fear and of the image everyone expects you to follow. It’s exhausting.”
With Zoya Haider’s character in Raanjhanaa, she realised she would only work with like-minded people who shared her vision, so that she could feel good about getting up and going to work every morning. “Zoya’s character was grey. She used the obsessive love of one man to get to the man she really wanted. I saw her as empowered, not manipulative. I saw her as someone who was trying to make the best of what she had been given as a Muslim girl living in a conservative environment. It’s like my grandmother would save every rupee she could from her husband and put it in her potli for a rainy day. Indian women are so resilient.”
She began to understand she could stand for meaningful cinema, and play a part, no matter how small, in making good films happen. That happened to her after she played the usual routine glamour girl in Thank You in 2011 and Players in 2012, and burnt her fingers with playing a character she didn’t much care for in Mausam in 2011.
She is one of the first Bollywood female stars — Priyanka Chopra and Anushka Sharma are presidents of this select club — who realised that she may also have to make her own films if she wants to tell her stories her way. In sister Rhea Kapoor, she has the perfect partner in crime and their three films together are testament to this initially tentative and now forceful idea — Aisha (2010), which was directed by a woman (Rajshree Ojha), retold the timeless Jane Austen tale of Emma, set largely in the capital of consumerism, DLF Emporio mall; Khoobsurat (2015) performed the immense public service of introducing Fawad Khan into the lives of Indian women, before assorted bigots managed to scotch his career in India and our joy; and Veere Di Wedding (2018) did more to mainstream the orgasm than anything before and after When Harry Met Sally.
None of this is to be taken lightly, and happened clearly because all three movies were driven by powerful women behind and in front of the camera. Her next release, The Zoya Factor, is based on a book by Anuja Chauhan and produced by another powerhouse sister duo, Pooja Shetty-Deora and Aarti Shetty of Adlabs.
Sonam’s career of nineteen films has always seemed to pale when compared to her contemporary Deepika Padukone, whose debut movie, Om Shanti Om, released on the same day as hers, Saawariya, in 2007. Those were the days Sanjay Leela Bhansali was a Sonam fan. She had assisted him in Black (2005), like her co-star Ranbir Kapoor, and then made her debut with him. In an interview to India Today, Bhansali called Sonam and Ranbir special, saying they were “good looking and focused, talented, and willing to learn. It is very important to have intelligence these days, and these two have loads of it. They are not like other star kids – both of them are not arrogant because of their background. They do not want their parents to be embarrassed because of them, but to be proud of them.”
That was the last time Bhansali worked with either of them. Deepika has since become Bhansali’s muse, in three successive extravaganzas, Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013), Bajirao Mastani (2015), and Padmaavat (2018). But Sonam has worked with fine directors, too, from Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra in the under-appreciated Delhi-6 (2009) to Madhvani in the highly praised Neerja, based on the real-life heroine who died saving passengers on the hijacked flight IC 814; and from R. Balki in the biopic on Arunachalam Muruganantham, Pad Man (2018), to Sooraj Barjatya in the return of Prem, in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015).
Her overwhelming image as a woman who enjoys clothes and has a delightful tendency to pick unusual designers who then make it big also gets in the way of being taken seriously in an industry that likes cookie cutter categories. Haute couture and highbrow movies do not tend to go together, especially if they are endorsed by a woman who likes to acknowledge in public that she reads more than fashion catalogues and fine print on make-up. Sonam likes to flaunt her reading, like most auto didacts, but Bollywood finds it more charming when Aamir Khan does so.
It is interesting to see what she has done with her entitlement as a so-called Juhu princess and high priestess of Bollywood’s Nepotism Inc, the not-so-secret society that so agitates Kangana Ranaut. As Sonam puts it: “I don’t feel guilty about enjoying what has been given to me because of my father and mother or now my husband. But if you have more you have to contribute more. Because you have a safety net, you have to make tougher choices and do things in a more responsible way.’’
In the best tradition of feminism where the personal is political, she has given young women an alternative to the constructed image of beauty that she embodies. In a wonderful, brave piece she wrote for Buzzfeed, titled I Didn’t Wake Up Like This, in 2016, she said: “Like every girl, I spent many nights through adolescence leaning into my bedroom mirror, wondering why my body looked nothing like it should. Why does my belly crease? Why do my arms jiggle? Why am I not fair? Why are there dark patches under my eyes? Why am I taller than boys my age? Do stretch marks ever go away? Will this cellulite stay forever? “Itni lambi, itni kaali,” a relative casually let slip at a family gathering. “Shaadi kaun karega?” It confirmed that my greatest insecurities were well-founded.”
She has always had a habit of speaking out, and not always for a cause. Sonam has been cheeky and, some would say, audacious in the past, especially on Twitter, whether it is joining director Punit Malhotra in trading barbs with writer Shobhaa De when the latter had called her a “lassie who lacks oomph” after watching I Hate Luv Storys (2010); or whether it is reacting to a 2015 meat ban in Mumbai by tweeting, “Our country is going to remain a 3rd world nation because of the intolerant misogynistic close minded few.”
Sonam has 12.4 million followers and not all of them are good to her, but it hasn’t stopped her from standing up for what she believes in. As for the real world, she manages to stir controversies there as well, whether it is suggesting, in a Koffee with Karan appearance with Deepika Padukone, that Ranbir Kapoor could use free condoms, or again on that show, when she appeared with father Anil Kapoor and talked about Deepika’s fashion sense in comparison to that of Katrina Kaif: “Even if she (Katrina) wears a jeans and T-shirt and has her hair in ponytail.. I’d rather have that than someone who is like ‘I want to be on the cover of Vogue every three months’.”
So how does Bollywood solve a problem like Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, a posh little potentate who refuses to apologise for any favours accorded to her by nepotism; a brand ambassador who famously dissed another, older star, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, calling her “aunty”; and a star who is not afraid to empower the sisterhood — and brotherhood too? By trying to push her into a box she doesn’t fit into, that of fashion victim, the female version of Karan Johar, and the “westernised” liberal who blindly espouses every cause in need of a conscience.
But for movie-goers, she is emerging as someone who is not afraid to own up to her real self, encouraging others to do the same. “We owe it to ourselves and our families. How can we as a society ever be happy if we are not happy in our own skin?” Whatever shape, size or colour it may be.
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