Sonam K Ahuja on Veere Di Wedding, Me Too, her new name and trolls she has decided to call 'Hindu extremists'

Anna MM Vetticad

June 21, 2018 11:19:41 IST

Sonam K Ahuja nee Sonam Kapoor walks in for this interview with an air of self-assured calm. The effervescent response to Veere Di Wedding has given her renewed confidence in her chosen path, and she looks relaxed in a voluminous homey outfit, her pretty face unburdened by makeup, hair flowing freely on to slim shoulders as we sit talking in the drawing room of her home in one of Delhi’s most exclusive residential areas, where she spends part of her time since her marriage in May.

Her sister, producer Rhea Kapoor, was scheduled to join us on Skype from Mumbai, but cannot make it. No matter, Rhea is ever-present as we chat about Veere Di Wedding, misogyny, why Bollywood is afraid to comment on politics, and something that has lately pre-occupied sections of the public: Sonam’s new name post-marriage. Excerpts:

Has any reaction to Veere Di Wedding surprised you?

I was surprised that people were so accepting of the film, Anna. I know I sound slightly disillusioned, but I did not expect it. We were not getting the finance we deserved and needed for the film till somehow Ekta (Kapoor) and my sister Rhea fought tooth and nail to get money. I know many people have made fun of the product placements, but Anna, we had no choice. I was like, you try make a film with four women leads out of which one is about to get married, one is married and a mother, the other is considered a krantikaari (laughs) Swara Bhasker who’s Leftist, and Shikha Talsania that not many people know and who’s bigger than typical female leads. In such a misogynistic society, like, what do you expect? So it’s validation and hugely surprising that it is doing so well.

Two years ago I made a comment that I don’t understand why John and Varun Dhawan are getting the kind of money they are getting to make Dishoom (2016), and Bebo and me who are as successful as those two are not. I guess it’s karma or just a circle, our film opened bigger than theirs on a Friday. Do you understand what I’m saying?

(Note: Veere Di Wedding’s net domestic collections on Day 1 were Rs 10.7 crore. John Abraham’s Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran released a week earlier, earning Rs 4.82 crore on its first day. October starring Varun Dhawan netted Rs 5.04 crore on its opening Friday this April. Source: trade reports.)

That 90 percent of critics have liked it and it has done well makes me feel validated and hopeful. Sometimes being a woman in the film industry makes you feel slightly dejected. Even if you stick to your idealism – and I think I’ve done a good job of that – sometimes you feel, like, sad. Because as a woman you are treated as a second-class citizen.

That’s why we decided to go with #ImNotAChickFlick (the hashtag slogan prominent in Veere Di Wedding’s promotions) because at the end of the day Rhea was like, you call Top Gun an action film and Rush Hour an action comedy, why is every film about women put into a chick flick category? She was like, in the ’70s they came up with this terminology and it’s extremely derogatory. We’re a dramatic comedy. Chick flick is a disgusting term. They think Sonam Kapoor and Rhea Kapoor are gonna make floozy cinema, so they want to constantly term it that.

There is an expectation of grimness from female-centric films. Veere Di Wedding’s women deal with serious issues, but it’s not a grim film. Did you expect a backlash against that?

Ya, and we did get that by one or two reviewers, that where is the depth? And I was like, we don’t want to peeto it that there is a woman whose mother is pressurising her because of societal pressure to marry even though she’s beautiful, successful, a great lawyer, but she feels she’s incomplete because she’s not married because everybody makes her feel that way. There are issues about wedding expenditure, divorced women being ostracised, women having commitment phobia, marriage outside the community. There are lots of issues but we were trying to do it in an easy way so it doesn’t become like, (she raises her voice dramatically) oh my god, this is the issue. We wanted to say things but in a pretty looking, positive way.

Why do you think for so many people the film has become about that one scene and one dialogue about masturbation?

Because people are mental. (She cracks up as she continues) It’s like people asking Bebo, me and Swara: weren’t you like, scared that you’ll be abusing so much? Honestly Anna, we didn’t think, oh we’re abusing, oh no there’s a masturbation scene, oh no. Twenty years ago a girl would have thought, “Oh meri shaadi nahin ho rahi hai. What is this gonna be a reflection of? Oh mera divorce ho raha hai screen pe?” I don’t come from that worldview.

My father (Anil Kapoor) has constantly said he’s a feminist, and he’s brought me and Rhea up like that, so when I came to the real world, which is Bollywood, and suddenly I was not given the same room as a hero or not paid the same amount or treated in a certain way, I was in shock. Because I never thought there was a difference between my brother Harsh (Harshvardhan Kapoor) and me and my sister. In fact, when I told my Dad I didn’t want to go to college, that was what stressed him out. Not that I wanted to become an actress. You know what I’m saying?

I see this discussion among social media trolls. Not regular people, just…

Hindu extremists? I’ve decided to call them Hindu extremists. (Laughs).

Ya, okay, Hindu extremist trolls on SM have reduced Veere Di Wedding to that masturbation scene and one dialogue about masturbation. Why do you think that’s happened?

(Pause) Because of insecurity?

About what?

Insecurity because we’ve broken the glass ceiling, we are not showcasing what they think is the abla naari, the correct Hindu woman, the one who needs to be rescued. It’s a misogynistic society so it’s like when bullies understand they have no real power. You know what I’m saying? Anything that’s uninhibited is a show of strength. And certain people don’t like that show of strength because you’re standing up to the bully in a way.

Could it be that many people do not want to see women as deriving pleasure from sex? They want women having sex as a duty?

That’s what I mean by abla naari. It’s empowering when a woman has control of her sexuality and doesn’t at that point need a man for that. Some men are not okay with that.

Sonam K Ahuja

Sonam K Ahuja

For me the overriding aspect of Veere is that marriage is not treated as the ultimate goal. But many people are reducing it to a film about women smoking, although there is only one smoker in the film. Why do you think that is?

Basically they’re saying if you’re empowered you have all these bad habits, but again it’s, like, a judgement, Anna. Uh. (She sighs loudly in frustration) These people think women who are feminists are smokers who work 24x7, don’t have a family life, drink, basically women who they think are of low moral character. But I’m saying all kinds of women are there in this world and that’s what we were trying to show through these four.

The other side to this is that some Bollywood films use smoking as a metaphor for empowerment, including the otherwise lovely NH10Mardaani and Lipstick Under My Burkha. This is problematic. Is smoking a metaphor for empowerment in Veere Di Wedding?

Not at all. But a choice is a choice. I am a proud feminist. I do not think anybody should smoke – it causes cancer and it’s really bad for you. But you should have the choice.

To have a bad habit.

To have a bad habit. Or to use a bad word. Or to have extra-marital affairs – not that I believe you should cheat, but I would never judge. I don’t know how to explain it.

Do you mean you would not judge a woman differently from a man?

Exactly. Like Swara’s character tells Avni ki “you’ve become Tis Hazari ki tawaif (translation: the courtesan, or more likely, hooker of the courthouse) because you had an affair with your boss." She’s like, “Usko toh kuchh nahin bolte. Vohi thha biwi aur bachche samet. Main thhodi thhi. Mujhe pata bhi nahin thha. (He was the one with the wife and children, not I, but no one taunts him. I didn’t even know.) Why am I getting a bad reputation? Why isn’t he?” That is telling. That’s the general mentality. It’s the same with smoking. So to change the mentality sometimes I guess you go to another extreme to be like, it’s okay for women to smoke, drink and do whatever they want. This is coming from a woman who doesn’t smoke or drink.

One troll called on self-respecting Hindus to boycott films with Sonam, Swara, Kareena, Kalki, Huma and others who participated in the placard campaign for the Kathua rape victim. Did this worry you?

No. Because I don’t think they have that much power. They tried to boycott Padmaavat and it made Rs 300 crore. I think it just adds to our publicity.

But controversies are double-edged swords.

Of course. They’ve gone to IMDB and destroyed our rating. So much negativity can get to you, you know. You can only have skin that’s that thick. It’s hurtful to some extent, but you also feel sorry after a point because you’re like, so much hate in one person, she obviously has no job. Anna, I feel so lucky I’m doing so many things that I don’t have time to think negative of others. Can you imagine the time these people have to make six to seven accounts, troll people? I was in shock when I heard from friends who run social media companies and stuff that people get paid to do this. Like, people are actually paid to spread hate, which eventually can become, like, hate crimes.

Which is why I’m saying controversies are double-edged swords.

Of course. My sister told Swara and me, “Please for the next 40-50 days when we’re promoting, don’t provoke it, just ignore it.” Adil Hussain told me, “Sonam it’s amazing that you’re so vocal on social media, but you have a bigger platform like cinema that you can use to relay your thoughts and to advocate change.” I agreed with him. You know Anna, you have your articles, your reviews, I only have Twitter and Instagram to kind of say things but I feel like it gets lost, and when I do films that say something, I want to not have the fear of, oh my film’s not going to release because of. If there’s something important I want to use my voice for then I want to use my voice for that, but I’d rather say it through my art and my actions.

But sometimes these statements are important.

No, they are, but not for everything. Because it gets diluted. You’ve seen what happens on social media. You’ve been trolled so much, Swara and I’ve been trolled so much.

Maybe things would be easier for people who speak up if more people spoke up?

But there aren’t that many people speaking up.

Why doesn’t the Hindi film industry unlike, say, the Tamil industry and Hollywood, speak up?

Because the media’s not on their side.

Is the Tamil media on the side of Tamil stars? And the media was very supportive of your Kathua campaign.

Ya? But when Shah Rukh or Aamir said something there was a lot of negativity.

That’s because they spoke post 2014 about the atmosphere of intolerance and certain TV channels are behaving like ruling party mouthpieces. But the media is covering, for instance, a Kamal Haasan or Prakash Raj who speak unrelentingly.

So, see, my father hasn’t been very vocal about political things at all. As an artist he wants to be diplomatic when it comes to politics. He doesn’t feel like it’s his place to say anything. But for something he really believes in, which is female empowerment and the girl child, he works a lot with NGOs, Anna. For him that is most important.

But public verbal statements are also important. If more of Bollywood spoke up, wouldn’t those of you in that placard campaign have faced less trolling?

I guess so. I think there’s a lot of fear right now. You know what I’m saying? Everybody else is super diplomatic. I don’t know any other mainstream actress who talks about it.

Shouldn’t they?

They will not. I don’t think at this point there is that courage. I mean Swara has a lot of courage you know, she is my best friend and I guess I sometimes draw courage from her. I’m a little more passive than she is about certain things, I like to see how things come through. She is more reactive about certain things. It takes a lot of courage. Eventually everyone has to work, take care of their families, and the industry is so competitive.

Like for example about equal pay, everybody is like, why isn’t the Me Too campaign happening in India? But how do you do it? Like for example, I lose a lot of work because I insist on the right money. But two other girls will say, “We don’t care, we will do it for this much.” Then I’m like, oh my god, I’m losing out. It takes a lot of grit and self-belief to say no. You know. Everybody doesn’t have that idealism, and for me it’s slightly easier because I have a safety net that my sister will make a film for me, or my father is Anil Kapoor, and I now have my money. I don’t need to work for a living, I never did, I work because I really want to. You know what I’m saying? Some people don’t have that Anna, so how can we judge them?

But across the world and India, we have examples of vocal film industries. You said Me Too hasn’t happened in India, but actually before the Harvey Weinstein reports came out in Hollywood, in Kerala a Women In Cinema Collective was formed and the media in the north didn’t cover it. Silence is specific to Bollywood culture.

I don’t know why. I speak up. Swara will. Kalki (Koechlin) and Richa (Chadha) to a certain extent. Who else? I mean, Anushka is very progressive, but you can’t force anybody to speak you know. That’s like forcing a gay man to come out. That’s unfair. It takes a lot of courage to do that and sometimes it’s not about courage, sometimes you need to be sensitive. It’s wrong to push someone to come out and say, “Oh I’ve been raped” or “I’ve been molested” or something like that.

No no, I’m not shaming women of Bollywood for not speaking up about their own sexual harassment. I’m talking about Bollywood in general being silent about political issues in general.

Well, it could be three things. One, fear. Second, they don’t give a shit. Third, they believe in what’s going on. They’re either sexist, racist, homophobic or communal. It’s the only thing I can come up with. (Laughs)

Sonam K Ahuja

Sonam K Ahuja

In Veere Di Wedding’s credits you are Sonam K Ahuja. I’m not telling you how to live your life, but you’ve worked hard to establish Sonam Kapoor as a brand, and for public figures the name is the gateway to the brand, so why not Sonam Kapoor Ahuja? Sonam K Ahuja sounds like a whole new name.

Anand and I had a very long conversation you know, and we obviously want to have kids eventually, and he had this one friend who had a very long name, his mother’s name, father’s name, blah blah blah. I said, see anyways it’s a patriarchal concept, I have my father’s last name, I don’t have my mother’s name, and I want to be part of your family as well, and he wanted to be a part of mine. So first he said, shall I do Anand Ahuja Kapoor or Anand Kapoor Ahuja? And you do Sonam Kapoor Ahuja? I was like, that’s still my father’s name, no? How will my kids have my name in some way? Then he said, should I keep Sonam in the middle? So I said fine.

Now Sonam Kapoor Ahuja becomes very long, but in our passports I’ll be Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and he will be Anand Sonam Ahuja. Which I think is amazing. Because I wanted to have the same name as my child and I wanted my child to have my name as well. For now this was the best compromise we could come with, Anna, where our child has both our names which has nothing to do with my father, but I still have my father’s name because I love him and my progressive thoughts come from him, but I also wanted my husband’s name and he wanted my name.

So your children will have Sonam Ahuja in their name?

Yes. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but we really thought about it. If and when we have children, that’s how it will be.

But my question about brand identity?

I understand what you’re saying. But I’ve never thought of myself as a brand. I’ve always thought of myself as an actor and a recognisable face. And the whole of India has seen my wedding (laughs) and I really don’t give a shit about what my brand is.

Dhanush once told me not much grows under a banyan tree and I was like, if I shine bright enough, a shadow can grow. I’m a product of my upbringing, but I’m also just Sonam. Everybody will recognise me as just Sonam, forget Sonam Kapoor. You know?

Rhea’s and your careers are so closely linked.

Ya, she runs the production company, but unofficially we’re partners. We make films together, I act in them, but I don’t want to be called producer. That’s my sister. I wanna be the hired hand. But yes we are partners. In films, fashion, everything. Eventually I want to direct, my sister will still be my producer.

How is it working so closely with your sister?

Rhea and I were taught to support each other. We mutually respect each other. She has a better IQ, I have a better EQ. We have bad fights once in two years but that’s for something stupid, never work. We complete each other in a way.

We are two peas in a pod. We are very different but we have had a very idealistic upbringing. Very artistic household, very progressive, the way we think is extremely progressive, you know. Like I didn’t know people were homophobic in this world. I swear Anna, I literally thought sexism, homophobia, racism and all did not exist in the world, like literally till I was 20 I was living in my house and the school that I went to, UWC (United World College of South East Asia, Singapore), which is basically on the principles of the UN, so you feel like these things did not exist. When Rhea and I came out and realised we need to try to fix things a bit in whatever way we can it became a like-minded point of view and we tried to do what we could, but she’s my best friend too.

The reviews have swung from one extreme to the other. Would you address those who feel Veere Di Wedding’s feminism is superficial?

Hmm. Today a journalist asked me, “What is your work-life going to be after marriage?” I said please ask Shahid Kapoor that question and then come back to me. When he gives you an answer, I’ll give you mine. He was taken aback. Cos I was like, will you ask the man that? So reviewers who think Veere’s feminism is superficial, will they say the masculinity in Salman Khan films is superficial? Do you understand what I’m saying? I don’t think they understand what it is for a woman to even come here and make a film like this. A Neerja is an easy film to call a feminist film. Forget the story of Veere, the very fact that four women like Kareena, me, Swara and Shikha have done such a film, produced by two women, and that is a story about four women is a statement in itself.

Images by The House of Pixels.

Companion piece: Anna M.M. Vetticad’s interview of Rhea Kapoor

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 12:50 PM