We are taught not to judge a book by its cover. But it’s tempting to flout conventions when it comes to Soha Ali Khan’s memoir The Perils Of Being Moderately Famous. She had us at the bitingly frank title.
We couldn’t have put her reality in perspective better.
The modern-day princess and actress, who was born into the Pataudi royal family, isn’t as famous as her actor-brother Saif Ali Khan or as popular as her glamorous sister-in-law Kareena Kapoor.
Soha cannot boast of a long-enduring appeal that her actress-mother Sharmila Tagore enjoys or the perennial adulation that her father, cricketing icon Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, seems to garner. Soha hasn’t done too shabbily either, but that title indicates that she wears her fame and privilege with ease.
On the silver screen, she impressed us in Bollywood’s seminal Rang De Basanti and the poignant romance Ahista Ahista, but the voracious reader is keen to let us in on her life with her new book.
As Khan gets ready to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair on Saturday to promote her written work, we chatted to her about books, babies and more …
Who came up with the title of your book?
I came up with it. I knew that if it was going to be a story of my life, then I wanted it to be humorous. I wanted the title to capture the tone of the book — which is a little tongue-in-cheek. I wanted to use the word ‘peril’ because I love that word and it has a dramatic flair to it. It’s also an impactful word. Moderately famous is something that I am — within my family and the entertainment industry. While I am not anonymous, I am not on top of my game either. I am somewhere in the middle and that has some wonderful advantages and challenges.
How did you cultivate the discipline to write, considering that you had your baby a year ago?
I started writing this book before I knew I was pregnant. And once I became pregnant, it was tough to do films. So I took a break then and I found that I had a lot of time on my hands suddenly. For my first trimester, I was feeling all hormonal, excited and running wild. I couldn’t concentrate, but once everything settled, I began my writing. I would write one chapter a month and I planned the writing in such a way that I would write during weekends and for the rest of the week, I did fun things. That’s how I approached my writing. It was like an assignment and I gave myself a deadline over the weekend.
Like most writers, do you work best under the pressure of looming deadlines?
I have always wanted to write a book, but it was only when I signed a contract with Penguin that I knew that there was a timeline attached to it. I knew I had to submit my copy by July and that’s when I actually got down to doing it. My mother has been on my case for years because she felt I wrote well. Although I knew I would get to it, writing requires a certain discipline. That’s why we don’t write more.
Are you an editor’s dream or do you hate it when they tinker with your writing?
In my eyes, it’s not the story per se, but how we tell the story. My book is deeply personal because it’s the story of my life and each chapter is personal. It’s my voice. Anything they change, would alter that voice. I was fortunate to have an editor who didn’t interfere too much. When I sent my draft, I would correct my own punctuation, grammar and syntax. And, because I hadn’t written a book before, I didn’t know there were people who could do that for you. My book is a non-fiction piece, so I didn’t want it altered too much.
How difficult was it to open up about your personal life? Did you exercise self-censorship and did you feel vulnerable while talking about intimate parts of your life?
Yes, I felt vulnerable as my book is very personal. The struggle was to be honest and since my thoughts were going to be on paper forever, I wanted it to be true. People can smell dishonesty from a mile away. But my life isn’t just my own. It also belongs to a family that has to live under that public eye. So, when I am telling my story it is also reflective of their lives. In the chapter about my father, everybody knows he’s a private person who didn’t share his emotions or wear them on his sleeve. So when I was talking about him and whether he came to terms with his eye [sporting accident], I couldn’t reveal too much because I knew it would be unfair to him. It was not something he would approve of. Similarly, with my brother, my mother or Kareena. The idea was not to give away their secrets or sensationalise their exploits. Finding the right balance was the biggest challenge. I found that I wrote best at 2am. When you are writing in your bedroom and in your pyjamas, you tend to write things that you wouldn’t otherwise write in the harsh light of the day.
Which chapter was the toughest to write?
I found that the chapter on my career was a difficult one to write. Perhaps, I found it difficult because I was being too hard on myself. My mother told me that and asked me to be a bit more forgiving. Many have called my book self-deprecating. It isn’t. The idea is not to tear yourself down, the idea is to accept yourself and laugh at yourself from a place of confidence. People who laugh at themselves come from two places: either you are self-defensive because you know the truth or you have the ability to laugh at yourself because you are comfortable in your own skin. I hope I belong to the latter group.
Do you think that you are a misfit in Bollywood circles, who are largely narcissistic?
I have got advice from many people who say that I dress too casual and that I need to be a certain way. But I feel it’s easier to dress down and say things that are silly and not appropriate all the time. I don’t want to be someone who people expect to be. Life is too short for that.
What would you say to those who write off your book as a rich girl’s vanity project?
I would encourage them to read my book first. The minute you do, you will realise that I am not trying to convince you about how great I am or how worthy I am. It’s just me talking about my life and what some things meant to me. There will be a lot about my life that people will relate to and some aspects which they don’t. It’s not my biography.
Some readers have gleaned important life lessons about travel and life from your memoir. Your thoughts.
Honestly, my book wasn’t meant to give anyone any life lessons. I am not someone who interferes in other’s lives. My father never gave me advice, he just taught by example. I have just shared my story and you can take away what you choose from it. My social media account is not representative of what my personality is, but this book is.
Did your siblings, husband and mother vet your work?
I come from a family of voracious readers. Kunal [Khemu, husband] isn’t one, but he’s a great listener. So I would read out to him and he would react. I gave a soft copy to my mother to read and she wrote copious notes on the bottom. My brother called me up one day to say that he found my chapter about travel funny. He said being funny and poignant is a strength of a good writer. It was great to hear him say that. Stories in any form is fantastic. It broadens your horizon and creates empathy.
What’s an important life lesson of yours?
I don’t take myself too seriously. We are on this planet for a very short time and I realise that because I am a student of history. I also know that the public is unforgiving no matter how good or big a star you are. You are forgotten quickly and fortunes or fame change every Friday [the day movies release in India] for actors. So, you can’t take fame to heart nor can you base your identity on transient things like that because it’s fickle. Your sense of self should come from somewhere else.
But you are modern-day princess. Shouldn’t that count for something?
I am a student of history and I know a lot about my family. So, I don’t take that term loosely. There’s something remarkable about the accident of circumstance here. I have been exposed to a lot greatness. But my life isn’t princess-like. While it’s a title I enjoy and embrace, I wear it casually.
Moving away from books, Bollywood is going through an interesting chapter of its own — the burgeoning #MeToo movement. Do you think it’s a good time to speak up?
For centuries, women have been told that sexual harassment — like being groped on a bus or train — is routine, a part of life and doesn’t mean anything. Somewhere down the line, we forgot to react to it. But the fact that women are speaking up and breaking their silence on sexual harassment should be celebrated. It’s about time. In a broad way, we must support women who are speaking up because it takes a lot of courage to tell your story.