ELLE Cover Star: Sobhita Dhulipala On Books, Work and The World Of Glamour

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Karuna Ezara Parikh the author of a novel, The Heart Asks Pleasure First , and a book of poems, Where Stories Gather and a close friend of Sobhita’s. Karuna chats with Sobhita for this ELLE Cover.

“I first met Sobhita in 2014 on the Kingfisher Calendar shoot. As our crew sat down to lunch in the Philippines, we noted we were minus one person–that girl with the dreamy eyes. As we finished, she drifted in wearing a short skirt, more schoolgirl than sexy–an image exaggerated by the book she clutched awkwardly to herself. ‘Where were you?’ someone asked, exasperated. So softly, we had to lean in to hear, she said, stricken, ‘I’m sorry, I was reading.’

Printed Blazer dress by Manish Malhotra

If today I had encountered the oft-repeated story of how this nerd entered the Miss India pageant on a whim, I might have been sceptical. But on the second day in the Philippines, curled up in her room she told me exactly this. She reiterates it now, laughing. ‘I was someone who used to mock pageant girls, but there I was, one of them.’ She says she finds this happening often, that something she dislikes later flips. ‘It’s made me very wary of what I diss.’ On the bright side though, this ‘inconsistency’ as she calls it, has served her well, adding, ‘I find myself disintegrating in the mundane.’

Multi-colour acrylic embroidered gown (Diffuse collection) by Manish Malhotra.

As with the pageant, various turning points in her life came through impulse. The truth is, she easily admits, she did it to feel cool. ‘There was a boy I had a crush on, I thought maybe if I win…’ She explains how she was searching for validation, but was hit with so much more. ‘I was young. The kind of young that did not grow up in a metropolis.’ A part of her wants to laugh off her naïveté, but she is gentle with this past self, mourning her softly, ‘There was an innocence before…’ Then referencing the loss of it, ‘I say this without bitterness or resentment, but those were not good years.’

Demi crystal-studded sheer cowl dress and jewelled handcrafted and hand-strung top, both by Itrh.

I witnessed those years. When it’s Sobhita’s turn to shoot she’s laced into a precarious swimsuit. She arches her back shyly. It’s common for the other calendar girls to watch, and today is no exception. They snigger, cruelly whispering about her body. Sobhita isn’t the same reed-thin size as them, that’s for certain, but there’s no denying–and just as I think it, the photographer looks up and says to their annoyance–‘She’s so sexy.’

Printed Blazer dress and black slit pants with print detailing, both by Manish Malhotra.

Since her role in the show Made in Heaven, the way she looks is a charged topic on the internet, ranging from comparisons with Angelina Jolie to jibes about surgery. Asked directly, she responds with the clarity of someone who’s given it deep thought. ‘I grew up as somebody who didn’t feel pretty, and sometimes I still struggle to enjoy the compliments because I’m angry with how I was made to feel for so long.’ Bravely she continues, ‘So often in the early half of my career, people were unkind. It really affected me. Today I’ve developed my sense of self, and grown as a person. I suppose a little success helps confidence,’ she adds wryly.

Multi-colour acrylic embroidered gown (Diffuse collection) by Manish Malhotra.

With tender vulnerability, she speaks of working on herself with intention, to not carry these past patterns. Surprisingly honest, she adds, ‘I understand what I have going for me, and I respect it.’ This awareness in an industry where false humility is worn as second skin, and is considered particularly unbecoming for young women to do away with, stuns me for a moment. ‘I look in the mirror and I finally like what I see. My body, my face. Denying it would be a dishonesty. To recognise with gratitude that these are gifts, is far healthier.’ She’s right of course, despite it being almost too powerful a statement. She tops it with an even stronger one–‘And then you can move on and concentrate on what you can actually bring to the world.’ Just like that, she is filled with grace. The adulation she’s so familiar with may have once been an ambition of Sobhita’s, but it never ‘directly translated to joy. You’re treated better, but do you feel better?’

Navbhumi hand-embroidered slip dress, by Rahul Mishra.

What brings joy then? Her voice lights up when she speaks of books. ‘Because I was so introverted, reading was my medium of discovery.’ Recently, she saw a thread about her passion for reading being a pretence. ‘Wherever we’re guilty is where we feel offended. When I read that, I didn’t,’ she brushes the insult off. ‘Reading was always my balm and books remain my truest form of discovery.’ She is quick to acknowledge that some of what she reads is very pulpy – ‘there’s a chance I could be a phony?’ she asks comically, then argues that for her, ‘every book is a portal.’

Demi crystal-studded sheer cowl dress and jewelled handcrafted and hand-strung top, both by Itrh.

Make your way to her Instagram and in lieu of a bio you see what she’s reading. It’s just one way in which her social media defies a starry norm. She curses, her stories littered with ‘fucks’. She eats. We don’t just see captions about food (‘Waiting for jalebi’ or ‘Thinking of pizza’ etc.) under glassy-eyed images. Instead, there are loaded thalis and destroyed burgers beneath big grins. Her captions are quick-witted, for posts that go from glamorous to comfortingly awkward in mere swipes. Also, she wears whatever she feels like, from unbranded cotton salwars to grungy jeans to full silk regalia for the upcoming Mani Ratnam film PS1. The effect is refreshingly human–contradictory and explorative.

Navbhumi hand-embroidered slip dress, by Rahul Mishra.

We discuss how there are recognizable routes for women on social media. ‘There’s hot and there’s cutesy and I don’t know which is more annoying,’ she says. ‘I struggle with being “easier to consume” so the halfway point is this, trying to be real about what’s out here.’ Real isn’t always streamlined, and her multiplicity may not work for publicity, which prefers a single, manicured persona to project. It works for her though, and is the thing that allows her to feel relatable and tangible to us in a way many of her peers do not. The other benefit? That she can trust her audience is real. They’re here for her, in all her raw, messy avatars alongside her more polished ones. ‘It’s a luxury to be seen and loved for who you are.’ She wraps up our chat by saying with equanimity, ‘I don’t romanticise anything because I have been able to have most of it without having to suffer greatly for it. The longing persists…but only for the things I have been denied.’ Something tells me, she’ll get them. “

Content director & editor: Kamna Malik; Photographer: Taras Taraporvala; Jr. Fashion Editor: Shaeroy Chinoy; Hair: Justine Rae Mellocastro; Make-up: Eshwar Log; Production: CutLoose Productions; Editorial Assistant: Riya Suresh; Assisted by: Komal Shetty, Kawya Gharat (styling), Omisha C (make-up), Mitesh Mirchandani (photography); Artist’s management agency: Spice 

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