It was my first time talking with a famous Bollywood actor, and I hadn't been sure what to expect. Someone encased in glittery make-up and a cloud of perfume, perhaps, wearing expensive designer clothes and toting a branded purse, shielded behind enigmatic dark glasses? To my delight, Sonam K Ahuja exploded all these stereotypes. Dressed casually in a blue top and comfortable pants, her eyes shining behind elegant but functional glasses, she exuded inner and outer beauty as she greeted me enthusiastically. Maybe I was biased because she was waving a copy of my newest book, The Forest Of Enchantments (HarperCollins), saying she was excited to start reading it. We bonded further over the fact that we follow each other on Twitter. Intelligent, thoughtful, down to earth, and always ready for a laugh, Sonam was a delight to converse with as we talked about everything from her memories of falling in love with reading as a child, the next book heroine she’s bringing to life, and why she’s finished with labels of every kind.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Sonam, I’m delighted to know that you’re a big reader. How did you develop this habit?
Sonam K Ahuja: My mum is a reader. You always want to be like your mum. My mother is beautiful. She used to model. I was like, “Oh my God, this beautiful woman with big glasses is reading all the time. Maybe I should read, too.” That’s how I started. Also, she used to read to us when we were younger. And she wouldn’t finish the story so we’d always want to know the end. And that was very smart.
CBD: I used to do exactly the same thing with my boys! I would read them half the story and then leave the book out there. And then they were forced to read the rest.
CBD: How do you make time for reading in spite of your hectic schedule?
SKA: I don’t feel complete if I don’t read. It’s a habit. I read in the morning, I read in the evening, I read whenever I have free time. I’d rather be reading than doing anything else. I am not a very social person. I don’t go out too much. I don’t drink. So that’s my entertainment. I wake up at 5.30am and I go to sleep by 10pm. When I am in bed before I sleep, I either speak with my husband or read a book. I am a very quick reader. So I can finish a book in three or four days.
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CBD: What kind of books do you most enjoy?
SKA: Depends on my mood. Right now I am reading Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, which is more academic. I don’t need books to be super-entertaining. I was 14 when I read Leon Uris’s Exodus. Some all-time favourites are Frankenstein, Perfume, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, and Moby Dick. I like Jane Austen, obviously. I made a film inspired by her novel. I like Indian authors a lot as well.
CBD: So many books are adapted into movies nowadays. Are there some adaptations that you’ve really liked?
SKA: Godfather. It’s blasphemy to say it, but I just thought the film was better than the book. I also liked Gone With The Wind and Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
CBD: When reading, do you ever think, “Wow, this will make a great movie”?
SKA: Yeah. [I felt that way about] Battle For Bittora by Anuja Chauhan. I bought it and we’re making a film out of it. And I bought another book called Govinda by Krishna Udayasankar. A book that you wrote, Sister Of My Heart, about two sisters who are not really sisters, would make for a beautiful film as well.
CBD: Thank you. So glad you liked it. Why do you feel reading is important today with the many distractions that we have?
SKA: Reading makes you have more empathy and more patience. You build more of an imagination. I understand people better because I read. Books have taught me that human beings have a huge capacity to be good—and it’s always a choice.
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CBD: Tell us about adapting [Anuja Chauhan’s] The Zoya Factor for your next film. What drew you to that story and that role?
SKA: Zoya’s a mess, a huge mess. And she’s unbelievably real. A lot of characters that I’ve played, they have a sense of self and confidence. I don’t think I’ve ever played somebody who’s such an absolute mess! Zoya is very real and she’s very lovable. She’s also very, very funny.
CBD: Do you consider the fact that young people look up to film stars as role models when choosing your films? Like, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, for example?
SKA: I don’t want to be immodest and say I can be a role model, but I do believe as somebody who has a platform and who is relatively famous, I have a responsibility to do things that can be aspirational. So a film like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha... was important for me to do. [Playing] Sweety’s role was very challenging because she was just one beat off. I wanted to capture that. She is very uncomfortable all the time because she is trying to hide who she is, but at the same time she is desperate to be who she is. The film is about breaking out of boxes, it’s about telling people that it’s okay to be who you want to be and love whom you want to love. It’s a very simple message. I hope people get it.
CBD: Right. And I think it really sensitively portrayed something that’s a real issue in every community.
SKA: It is not only about LGBTQ, it is about all labels. My dad and I did the film together and we had really intense discussions about this at home. I was telling him that at every point, in India especially, we tend to want our child to get married to someone, or go to a certain school. We are constantly conforming and compromising.
CBD: We have all these images in our head…
SKA: Preconceived notions of what our child should be or our wife should be or our husband should be, or what our lover should be. And we impose that on other people. Everybody is stuck in this box of who they are not. So the whole idea of the film was that there shouldn’t be any labels, there shouldn’t be any idea of who you should be. You should just be who you want to be.
CBD: Who is your favourite feminist literary icon, and why?
SKA: Elizabeth from Pride And Prejudice. She’s very proud, but she wants someone to love her for herself and she wants to marry who she wants to marry. I think for that day and age, she was especially empowered and amazing.
CBD: What was the first book you read that influenced you deeply?
SKA: Mahabharata. I started reading it when I was 12 or 13. It’s my favourite book.
CBD: How many books do you own?
SKA: I have books everywhere. I have three houses and there are books everywhere, in my office too. Maybe 2,000. I have more books than shoes!
CBD: That’s a lot! Okay, tough one: if you were to read just one book for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?
SKA: Mahabharata. It’s brilliant, funny, and adventurous and it’s got so many stories. Every time you read it, you find something new. I love Draupadi.
CBD: I think you’d make a great Draupadi in a movie!
SKA: I get to have five husbands? (laughs)
CBD: I think you can handle that!
SKA: But she loves only Karna. And Krishna—he’s her real soulmate.
CBD: That is true. Because Draupadi symbolises the soul’s progress, and ultimately this soul realises who her true love is—the divine.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning and bestselling author, poet, activist, and teacher of writing. Her latest book, The Forest Of Enchantments (HarperCollins) is now on stands.
PHOTOGRAPHS : BIKRAMJIT BOSE
STYLING : RAHUL VIJAY
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: NAMRATA SONI
ASSISTED BY: AKSHITA SINGH, DIVYA GURSAHANI, DHVANI JHAVERI (STYLING)
LOCATION: KROME STUDIOS, MUMBAI