The first time I met Sonam Kapoor, it was like a tradeoff with her father, that old Bollywood warhorse Anil Kapoor. This was November 2007. She was making her debut with Ranbir Kapoor in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s romance Saawariya. I was editing Bombay Times. Anil had wrongly been informed that I was running a negative story on his daughter. And a comparatively positive one on that Diwali’s other debutante Deepika Padukone, who was coming on the same Friday with Farah Khan’s romcom Om Shanti Om opposite Shah Rukh Khan. Like an outraged Hindi film dad, he found out where I lived and came over to fight. My building watchman, unimpressed by his big Merc, engaged Anil in a fierce argument and refused to let him park. I went down and fetched him.
It took me little time to convince Anil he was wrong. His temper blew over. And he stayed on to have a drink, chatting late into the night, and went away as a friend. Before he left, Anil promised to bring Sonam for the Bollywood party my paper was hosting the next week. He was true to his word. Sonam turned out to be beautiful, gracious and charming. She shyly hung on to her father’s protective arm and told me, “This is my first public outing!” I never met her after that. Until this week, 12 years later, to do an interview for her coming of age film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga on tender, same-sex love and a family’s ability to see relationships and people trapped in them with compassion. She’s now Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, a National Award winning actress, a fashion icon, taller and more elegant than ever before. I watched her delicately making her way across a stage at Mehboob Studio to where I was waiting. A cup of black coffee from home in hand. Dressed, I was later told, in a kaleidoscope tweed patchwork skirt and top by Escada, wearing black kitten heels, her hair tied in a wispy low bun, lush pink makeup. She kicked off the heels, eased a stiff neck and flashed me a million watt smile.
Sonam Kapoor and Anil Kapoor in a poster of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga
Your first film with your father. What’s Anil Kapoor like at home? Anything like your screen father in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga? Well, if you’re asking if he’s loving and understanding – then yes, the happiness of his children is paramount to him. This is an unconventional film. You accepted it because it gave you a chance to act with your father? Wouldn’t you be happier doing, say, a Dil Dhadakne Do with him since comedy is his forte and yours? I accepted Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga before I knew my dad was going to be offered it. For me, it’s always about the screenplay and script. Dad and I have been offered films together before. But nothing that was as compelling as this. As for Dil Dhadakne Do... I would love to work with Zoya Akhtar one day... yeah, I would also love to do a comedy with dad. I love comedy and I know he does too. The posters talking about setting love free. What do you mean by that? Love is an emotion that has many manifestations. But I think it is the purest form of any emotion. With all the negativity and hate in this day and age, the world is very corrupted right now, but I believe love is something that is very pure still. So any kind of love should be encouraged and not judged. That’s what it means to let love be free.
A poster of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga
The title of your film was the name of a popular song from your father’s 1994 patriotic romance 1942: A Love Story. What do you remember of that film?
I was, what, nine years old when the film came out? I’m 33 now. I remember my mom taking me to Gaiety-Galaxy-Gemini to see it. I was howling because I thought they (the British soldiers) were really beating up my dad (who played a revolutionary) in the film and I had no idea this was not what was happening. Later, when I was assisting Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Black, he told me he had directed the songs of 1942: A Love Story with Farah Khan. So I saw all the songs over again because I hadn’t seen them in years and this time, I fell in love with them and the music.
Anil Kapoor in a still from 1942: A Love Story
Would Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, a poignant film on same-sex love, have been possible before the Supreme Court scrapped Section 377 of the IPC that was a draconian law targeting people of varying sexual orientation? Deepa Mehta’s 1996 romantic drama Fire that showed a passionate relationship between Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das went through the fires itself...
Well, I signed the film before the landmark judgement on Section 377 last September. I signed it at the same time I did Sanju – that was two-and-half years back. Ignorance is a lot like hate. The only way to get rid of ignorance and hate is with love and understanding. I think Gandhiji was a prime example of that. He basically won us our independence through love and peaceful methods. The only way to tackle a situation like this (the relationship in the film) is through love and sometimes through art. I don’t think there is any other way. That’s why a film like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga comes out with a ‘U/A’ certificate. It’s a huge jump from Fire which got an ‘A’ rating by the censor board.
Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi in a still from Fire
Was it okay to discuss same sex love and the LGBTQ community at home when you were growing up?
Yes, of course. My mom’s from the fashion industry and she had a lot of gay friends. A lot of my best friends are gay. I come from a very liberal, progressive household. The very fact that I’m doing this film with my dad should be comment enough about my upbringing and the kind of values I’ve grown up with and the moral compass my family adheres to. We are very typically Indian. Not the new India we are seeing right now. We (my sister Rhea and brother Harshvardhan) were encouraged not to be sexist, racist or homophobic but to be open-minded, honest people with good moral values and progressive ideology. I’m proud of the upbringing my family gave me.
Even then, were there any awkward moments shooting with your father?
Not at all. I don’t even think it crossed my mind. I would only be awkward if I’m doing something I know my parents wouldn’t be okay with. Like an item number that I’m pretty sure my parents would be looking down upon. But this is definitely not that kind of film. We’re in 2019 – not the 1990s!
Anil Kapoor and Sonam in a still from Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga
Did the film’s writer Gazal Dhaliwal, a trailblazing transwoman who was born with Gender Dysphoria, help you to flesh out your, er, lesbian character?
Yes, Gazal has firsthand experience of being different. Of what society considers different. She was a big help.
You have been a strong supporter of the LGBTQ community. Did anybody from there kind of help you with this role?
I don’t see any difference between somebody else and me. It’s just who you love that’s the difference. What was interesting for me was playing a girl who wasn’t ready to accept herself and is scared her family might not accept her. This could be about anything. It could be her sexuality, the career choices she wants to make, about getting married to somebody from a different religion. I could identify with her. When I was 18 or 19, I wanted to be an actor and I was scared to tell my mom because she came from a very educated family and I had decided to stop my studies at that time. For me, the character’s choice in the film was very similar to that. It’s an emotion I could lend to my role. I think there are a lot of stereotypes the media and film industry have propagated about the LGBTQ community which aren’t what it actually is. We are all individuals. Just because in the film I love somebody that might not be from the opposite sex does not mean I had to learn something from them. Love is love, you know, at the end of the day...