It's 4:30pm, London time. A make-up-free Sonam Kapoor Ahuja appears on my Zoom video screen and her face broadens into a wide, warm smile. "Oh my God, hi!" she exclaims, "I haven't seen you in forever!"
The last time I met Sonam was in 2019. We were in a studio in Mumbai, not a mask in sight, and I watched as the actor tackled, with equal gusto, the clothes on the styling rack and views on women's issues. We spoke about her role as a small-town queer woman in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga; her love for homegrown labels; and her assured definition of feminism no longer a call for bra-burning, but to push for equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal choices.
For the last few months, Sonam has been in London with husband Anand Ahuja ("I visit India so often, a lot of people don't realise that I actually live in London," she says). She has been working with Anand on some of his brands (including the collections at community-first fashion label, Bhaane), and creating content for her Instagram feed (her candid video series, where she opens up about her struggles with PCOS, received a barrage of gratitude messages from women who had been suffering in silence). And soon, she will begin shooting for the Hindi remake of the South-Korean film Blind, where Sonam will play a visually-impaired girl who gets involved in a hit-and-run case.
I compliment Sonam on her recent Halloween costume, a striking homage to Marilyn Monroe, complete with the glamour girl's signature curls and red mouth. Sonam points to the make-up artist who is patting her eyelids with eyeshadow. "Maria Asadi did the make-up, and Aamir did my hair," she says."It's the same team... We were having some fun."
Playful ghoulishness aside, the thing that has been giving Sonam the terrors is "what's been happening in the film industry, over the past few months."
"I wasn't in the line of fire," she says, "but it has been traumatising to see what my colleagues have been through, and the witch-hunt that has taken place." Sonam shakes her head. "I feel scared...women are such soft targets," she says. "Nobody has ever spoken about a man in the way women are being spoken about right now. It's almost like we have gone back several decades...where, if you are a woman in the film or fashion industry, you are not thought of as an artist or a creative person. Instead, your moral character is questioned."
I interpret her response as a reference to the highly sensationalised coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death. The weeks following the tragic incident threw up a frenzied blame-game, with drug-use allegations and death threats hurled at several female actors. The conspicuous absence of male actors through the 'trials', remains an unsolved mystery.
"We are artists," Sonam stresses. "What is the difference between us and a male actor or director? They are made into 'heroes and women are made into conniving witches! It makes me nauseous and sick. And it's even stranger that some women are pushing this narrative forward... There is a lot of unlearning that needs to happen."
Over the years, Sonam has been trying to make sense of the jigsaw world we live in and the changes it desperately needs. And her vocal support for the issues that matter to her--women, children, and animals--has been growing bolder by the day. Her Instagram feed religiously draws attention to gender inequality in India (in 2019, she rejected Women's Day celebrations by quoting the Economic Survey 2018 finding that showed 21 million "unwanted" girls were born the previous year). She has been the goodwill ambassador for the Fight Hunger Foundation and Cuddles Foundation, and has helped raise funds for several causes, from wildlife caught in the Australian bushfires to children suffering from cancer and, more recently, providing N95 masks to Mumbai police personnel. Behind the perfectly curated outfits worn by India's best-dressed celebrity lies a woman who is not your classic stereotype. Instead, it is one acutely aware of her potential as an agent of change.
These days, Sonam has been thinking a lot about ways to protect women in the film and fashion industry. "This is something I really want to work on, because I feel we are vulnerable, and it's crucial to figure out a system where we can protect ourselves." There isn't a concrete plan in place yet. But you can be certain it's coming. "I don't know how I will do it exactly..." she says, leaning towards the screen. "You can only use your voice right now, but I do want to figure this out. I certainly want to speak to the women in the media, to female editors... The media has more power than anybody! They don't realise how much power they have to change perception and drive a narrative."
I volunteer information about a dream passion-project of my own, where a community of women come together like 'sisters' to support each other, mentor other women, and promote pro-equality narratives. In 1940, feminist Vera Brittain observed: "The friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women...have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted." In 2020, it is regrettable that the statement still holds true and that, in both film and pop culture, women's friendships are often portrayed as unidimensional and plastic, routinely woven with jealousy and cattiness. Sonam nods in agreement. Sisterhood is a cause she has championed long before it surfaced in mainstream song lyrics (or the script of the women-led Veere Di Wedding, which lauds female friendships). The actor's followers will be aware that being a part of Sonam's eco-system means your achievements will be publicly supported, your efforts acknowledged and promoted, and your trolls fought back with. Sonam has spoken often about being a 'girl's girl', and she says she has learnt a lot from the women in her life. "From my mom, I learnt that you can have it all! You can work and be an amazing partner and mom. I believe only women can do that; there is a reason we can multitask," she explains. "From my sister [Rhea Kapoor], I have realised that you can be intelligent, successful, and empathetic you can be all those things, and you don't have to be a shark in order to be successful. And from my friends, I have learnt that female friendships are everything! They're what make you feel safe and at home."
The actor also counts her husband Anand Ahuja and father Anil Kapoor in her list of 'feminist men'. "They are both progressive, thoughtful, and smart men. I think a lot of their success can be chalked up to how they believe that women are better than them," she says.
The film industry, writ large, has failed to take responsibility when it comes to sexism and abuse. It's a system designed to objectify women, and Sonam recognises that while things are slowly changing, there remain gaps that need filling. "There still exists this idea of working with the "big heroes" to succeed," she sighs. "And female actors need to be a certain way, dress a certain way, and talk in a certain way to "fit in". You still have your teams reminding you to 'fit the mould'. I'm fortunate that my team isn't like that, but it happens all the time!"
The solution, says Sonam, lies in a complete reconditioning of mindsets. "Look at the way song lyrics or scripts are written about women...that needs to change. The way woman are portrayed and talked about in the industry is not okay, and as women, we should not agree to work in those films because we are just harming ourselves. There is no price too high, especially considering all that has happened over this year... Each one of us needs to make better choices, or we will be subjected to a witch-hunt and we will be burnt at the stake!"
Photographs: Carla Guler
Stylist: Jennifer Michalski-Bray;
Make-Up: Maria Asadi;
Hair: Aamir Naveed;
Fashion Assistant: Kayleigh Dennis;
Location Courtesy: The AllBright Mayfair, London.