Between her recently published memoir and her baby daughter Inaaya Naumi, Soha Ali Khan is a busy woman these days. Before she embarks on a country-wide tour to promote The Perils of Being Moderately Famous, we caught up with the Rang De Basanti star. The publication follows several high-profile celebrity memoirs, but is unique in that the writer makes light of belonging to an all-star family (her parents are Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore, her brother is Saif Ali Khan, and even her nephew Taimur is a household name).
From her father’s endearing quirks to her mother’s illustrious family tree, her relationships and her struggle with writing, Ali Khan’s debut is a breezy and riveting read. Excerpts from an interview.
One of the most poignant portions of your autobiography is the chapter about your father, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. You write about him with great tenderness, revealing a very different side to the man whom most of us remember as the dashing cricketer married to the nation’s sweetheart. Was it difficult to write, especially the bits about his last days in the hospital?
It was a struggle. In fact, the whole book was a struggle. Sometimes I was up at 2 o’clock writing, wondering if anyone out there will know that I am speaking from my heart. I didn’t know who would be reading it, and how would they interpret it. Would they understand me at all?
I am quite a reserved person, I prefer to remain on the surface most of time. And there I was, writing about my abba, my career, my insecurities, sitting in my bed. I had to remind myself at times that this would be out in the public domain and people may or may not appreciate how vulnerable I feel, how much I had to struggle. Writing about someone else, or a relationship is always difficult because you feel more responsible. My father was also a very reserved person. This was my perspective.
Certain excerpts about my father were taken from an earlier book by Harper Collins that appeared in 2011, called Nawab of Cricket.
You write about how your decision to pursue acting was one of the toughest decisions in your life and yet, you enjoyed the process.
As a student of literature, I really struggled with my writing. I have mentioned in a chapter how my teacher said that my writing lacked empathy. And she suggested that I try theatre, to help me put myself in someone else’s shoes, and that could help me write better.
The ability to empathise, to imagine how would it feel to be someone else, is an important quality in an actor and a human being. It makes you tolerant and more sensitive to how different people react in different ways. And it did. Eventually I aced my literature exam.
How would you compare your acting to writing? In your book you are not someone else, and are quite candid about it.
Writing an autobiography is also like stripping away of the masks. We play certain characters in life. Put on our heels, put on a smile for an interview. Especially as women, we are multi-tasking, wearing different hats all the time.
I enjoyed the process of being without the protective layer of makeup, about being Soha and writing about my life. It was scary, yes. But I am not anxious to know if people will understand my humour and realise that I am actually laughing at myself.
You never seem to take yourself seriously and often talk about your vulnerability and insecurity with self-deprecatory humour.
My mother, who has read the book at least six times from cover to cover, felt the same way. She thought I was being too harsh on myself and had exposed myself too much. She was concerned about me, and the fact that many people perhaps wouldn’t get my brand of humour. She wondered why did I had to reiterate the fact that I am five years older than Kunal [Khemu, her husband]. But she was only being protective.
I think, and I don’t want to sound arrogant about it, that the ability to laugh at yourself comes from a place of strength. It is a sign of security. The best way to deal with the world is to laugh at yourself before anyone else does. You can say it is kind of self-defence.
Most celebrities who are writing about themselves are careful about creating a certain impression. But you seem to revel in the ordinariness of your life. Was your family okay with it?
This book is my tribute to my family. And they had to be okay with it. I did read out the relevant parts to Kunal and some chapters to my brother, who gave me some critical feedback. It was important for me to have all their opinions, my mother being in her seventies, my brother in his forties, Kunal in his thirties.
There is a chapter that says ‘All Roads Lead to Saifeena’, and you have written about being hounded by the media for information on your family. You have obviously not had the best of relationships with the media.
I have always taken it in the right spirit. The important thing about being being in the public eye, and what makes people interested in me, is the people I am related to. There is a lot of interest about my family, my mother, sister-in-law, brother and now my nephew Taimur, who is fast becoming the biggest celebrity in the family.
While it is an interesting place to be, it can also be quite frustrating. Sometimes I try to point it out to the journalists who turn every occasion and opportunity to find out about my family, and they to get embarrassed and say, “Editor water us to ask this question.”
Was writing the book a cathartic experience for you?
Extremely. I am not a very consistent writer. In fact, right after I started on the book, I got pregnant and for three months I could not do anything. Then I decided to write about the pregnancy, which appears at the end of the book.
There were times when I was up all night writing. Sometimes I would read out to Kunal and he would tell me if it sounds exactly the way I would speak. You see, I am not a very expressive person. I hate answering phone calls, and prefer texting. I realised I enjoy expressing myself through written words more than talking. And writing this book was an extremely enjoyable experience for me.
Your father, as you have written, was somebody who never switched on his mobile phone either, unless he wanted to call someone.
Yes, that’s right. And I am quite like my father that way.