From the outside, Indian actress and real-life princess Soha Ali Khan leads a charmed life.
But up close, this Bollywood blue-blood is just like most ordinary folks — if you don’t count the palaces and swathes of land in her name.
Like most working women out there, the 43-year-old talent is keen to strike that elusive work-life balance.
The daughter of late cricketer Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi — the last ruler of the princely state of Pataudi until 1971 when India abolished royal entitlements and became a republic — and actress Sharmila Tagore belongs to a new breed of ‘working royals’ who wants a solid acting career, while being an ‘involved parent’.
But her work alone can never define her, she points out, since being a hands-on mother to her young daughter Inaaya with actor Kunal Khemu gives her incredibly joy and purpose. Now that her daughter is no longer a toddler and is a sprightly four-year-old who can communicate effectively, Khan is now ready to follow her own artistic pursuits.
She had willingly taken a sabbatical to focus on her child in her early formative years, but her return to mainstream entertainment wasn’t harsh or hostile as expected. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that there was a lot of work out there for 40-something actors, an anomaly for most actresses in Hindi entertainment a decade ago.
Bollywood has been notoriously ageist with actresses often having a shorter shelf life than their male counterparts, but the explosion of web series and the mushrooming of digital platforms is creating a new order where female actors are now age-agnostic. Even if veteran actors like Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan continues to rope in co-stars that are half their age, there’s now space for female talents who have crossed their 40s.
“I don’t think that such work would have existed a generation ago. Even three years ago, if I had come back to just doing theatrical releases there would have been nothing for me. But today, I am having to say no to a lot of work,” said Khan. Recently, she turned down interesting offers in projects where she had to play a lower middle-class protagonist or an author in a drama set around the world of publishing due to lack of time.
“Look at Raveena in ‘Aranyak’ or Sushmita [Sen] in ‘Aarya’ — these are wonderful women in their 40s still ruling the roost … They got good roles where they are on the posters … Times are changing for the better,” said Khan. For the first time, actors have begun questioning who the writer of a show or a movie is as opposed to just sticking to traditional ideals like who the hero or a producer — who does the heavy lifting — are, points out Khan.
And that’s precisely why she gravitated towards the zany female-fronted web series ‘Kaun Banegi Shikharwati’.
The show, which was written by a female writer Ananya Banerjee and stars Naseeruddin Shah as a goofy king who makes an outlandish plan to choose his successor by pitting his four disparate daughters against one another, tickled her interest. So you have four young women scrambling to sit on the throne and Khan plays the sibling who believes that she’s the most worthy candidate as heir apparent.
Seasoned actors like Khan and Lara Dutta team up with Anya Singh and Kritika Kamra as sisters who are tasked with bizarre contests so that they can have a shot at ascending the throne. The show, directed by Gauravv K Chawla of ‘Bazaar’ film fame, premieres on Zee5 on January 7.
“This is a fun, very bright and glossy show. It just takes you to a world where you feel you are a little bit stuck in the past and who are trying to be relevant … Think wonderful actors, great comic timing, ridiculous situations … It’s chaotic, but enjoyable,” said Khan.
Khan, who has acted in a lean but solid catalogue of films such as ‘Rang De Basanti’, ‘Tum Mile’ and ‘Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns’, is actor Saif Ali Khan’s sibling. She’s also the author of a witty memoir ‘The Perils Of Being Moderately Famous’.
Excerpts from our edited conversation with Khan on the relevance of royalty in modern times, fighting stereotypes and more.
You are a real-life princess. Did your pedigree help you get this role in ‘Kaun Banegi Shikharwati’?
I am sure it added a little authenticity to the project if you have the token princess who will teach them all the airs and graces. I’m saying this because my other sisters are not here [laughs].
I think director Gauravv drew a lot of inspiration from some members of my family, I won’t tell you which ones because I don’t know if it’s favourable or not. But it has been an education for me. I learned a lot about the members of my own family when he said: ‘Oh, you know this story is inspired by so and so and so’. Gauravv has also worked with my brother [actor Saif Ali Khan] in ‘Bazaar’ and he has been to our ancestral home in Pataudi several times. So, he was inspired by our family and I do think that’s why he thought of me for this project.
What I love about your show’s trailer is that the royals here don’t take yourself too seriously. Your on-screen father is just kooky and goofy. Plus, none of you ladies seem particularly qualified to be on that throne either ...
A: I am certainly qualified. But you’re absolutely right about my other three sisters. They are not qualified and they can’t tell their heads from their feet. But I am in touch with the traditions of Shikharwati. I have maintained a connection to my roots whereas my other siblings have not done so. I believe I am serving a higher purpose and it’s not just about acquiring wealth. I have devoted myself to an ashram and serving people. That’s what a good leader does.
So you believe you are a worthy successor than your siblings …
Yes, I am the only choice!
It’s also female-fronted series … And that must have been a big draw?
People are now wanting to see themselves on the screen. There was a time — perhaps a generation ago — where we wanted to escape. But we are now looking for authenticity and we’re looking to relate to the characters on the screen. We are seeking some sort of a cathartic experience after seeing ourselves there. So we don’t want to be whisked away to Switzerland every 10 minutes. We don’t want to only see beautiful and faultless women on screen anymore. You want to see a few women who have a few wrinkles and who are in their 40s and who are complex. They are not all vanilla and self-sacrificing just like the real me and this character that I play. People are excited by that in India and beyond. My character appears to be self-sacrificing, but when push comes to shove all of my belief systems about not believing in worldly wealth and competition is challenged. She’s fighting for her own space. She believes she’s only worthy of wearing the crown because her sisters are such nincompoops. She believes that she has a higher purpose in life.
Do web series give actors like you more room to play with since it’s not bound by running time like a feature-length film?
You get so much more time to take the character to places and as an audience you get to connect not with just one person and you get an understanding of where everybody is coming from. Since the writers can flesh out the characters, it’s a satisfying platform and a medium for an actor. There’s so much more that you can do. There’s a lot more being given to you.
So you are in a good spot …
Firstly I want to say that I am just very content because I’ve always said that work is a part of my life, but it doesn’t define who I am. And in the past three years since I became a mother, I was obsessed with being a mother and being there all the time for my child. But ever since my daughter has become a little more independent and now that we can communicate better, it is healthy for me to step away and get back to doing things that I enjoyed doing just for myself. And by that, I mean not with my husband, my mother, or my daughter.
We do lose ourselves, especially mothers. So it’s important and imperative for me to do things for myself. Luckily, I discovered this world when I entered my forties. There’s work out there. Perhaps a generation ago, I would have been struggling. Now there are shows on science fiction and any other genre. You are getting scripts that are questionable but you also get a show like ‘Hush Hush’ on Amazon Prime. And you are keen to be a part of such shows … I believe in striking a balance. I am an involved parent and we are a nuclear family. We have a young child and it means a lot of professional sacrifices as well. So for the last three years there was a huge amount of sacrifice. But now I feel like I can have my cake and eat it too. I am able to go away and work and also be there as a parent.
Comedy isn’t an easy genre to crack. But what are your thoughts on it?
It’s a very difficult genre and it’s not something that is given its due. People tend to take dramatic roles very seriously and those are the ones that win all the awards. But comedy is very difficult to do and very good actors have excellent comic timing. They are even able to even pull off loud situations and characters, but they do it with so much sincerity and subtlety that you buy into it and you find yourself laughing. And that’s why I wanted to be a part of this project because there are excellent actors in it. Actors like the legendary Naseer saab [Naseeruddin Shah], Raghubir Yadavji and Lara are so good at doing comedy ... There’s a fine line between comedy and becoming a caricature ... There’s a lot of cattiness and competitiveness among us siblings, but we didn’t want to be stereotyped. I strongly believe in child order and how each child based on whether they are the first, second, or third child falls into these patterns ... My brother is a typical first child, but I won’t expand on that. But I have this genuine middle-child syndrome. I had to rely on charm and diplomacy to get my way. In this show these four siblings suffer from that. Lara is the eldest and is the big bully for all of us where she’s telling us what to do, but she comes from a good place. Anya plays the youngest child and lacks confidence. Kritika and I are the middle children ... But we never end up being caricatures.
Don’t miss it!
‘Kaun Banegi Shikharwati’ is out on Zee5 on January 7