on the actor's trail

Not just Alia Bhatt’s mummy: Soni Razdan on her screen comeback ‘Yours Truly’

The actress has headlined Sanjoy Nag’s ‘Yours Truly’ and will also be seen in the spy thriller ‘Raazi’.

Soni Razdan has always been a bit of an oddity in the Hindi film industry. The British-born actress made her screen debut in Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane in 1981, and became a familiar face after starring in the popular television drama Buniyaad on Doordarshan in 1986. Razdan has also notched up a series of acclaimed roles in arthouse films in the 1980s, including Mandi, Trikaal and Saaransh, apart from appearing in mainstream and stage productions, where she worked with the likes of Satyadev Dubey. More recent appearances include Monsoon Wedding, Page 3, Jaaneman, Patiala House and Love Breakups Zindagi.

These days, of course, Soni Razdan has been reinstated in popular consciousness as Alia Bhatt’s mother.

“I am always incredibly proud to be known as her mother, but I am also an actor and unfortunately no one has approached me in a while with any work until now,” Razdan told Scroll.in. At a time when “stereotypes are being broken and women are playing roles beyond that are centre stage and not mothers in the background”, Razdan hopes her eagerness to get back to work will be broadcast in the filmmaking community.

Perhaps she is being modest, because she recently wrapped up Sanjoy Nag’s Hindi movie Yours Truly, in which she plays the lead. This is the first time in years that Razdan has been offered a film that puts her in the spotlight, and the 61-year-old actress says she is enjoying it.

Soni Razdan in Mandi. Courtesy Blaze Entertainment.
Soni Razdan in Mandi. Courtesy Blaze Entertainment.

“It is very rare at my age to play such a central role, to get an offer like this to begin with is quite unusual,” she said. The film is based on a short story by Annie Zaidi, about a woman who lives a solitary life and is about to retire from her job. Also starring Razdan’s husband, the filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, Pankaj Tripathi and Aahana Kumra, the movie deals with loneliness and love, and has Razdan excited about the unusual plot and treatment.

“It is not a run-of-the-mill story,” she said. “It gave me the usual opportunity to get into someone’s head and explore a life that is very different to mine, at least on the surface.” As she immersed herself in the character, she began to find certain similarities with her own life. “I went against conventional wisdom to study acting in the UK, where I was on my own, alone and quite lonely,” Razdan recalled. “I drew from my memories of the time. That’s what happens once you get into the role. You find things in common with your past or present. It is no longer about imagining a character and space. But you bring all the experience and understanding you have acquired over the years to the role. It was very exciting to have been challenged this way.”

Born to a German mother who used to be a nursery school teacher and a Kashmiri architect father, Razdan continues to think of herself as a misfit. “I was at a disadvantage when I tried to be an actor,” she said. It was the late 1970s, when the Hindi film heroine had to pack in a generous amount of oomph in order to be part of male-star driven projects. “There were the likes of Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, doing extremely glamorous roles, and I did not see myself fitting in.” Rather than try to blend in, Razdan chose to focus on her passion. “My understanding of an actor is simply this – if you want to act, it does not matter what your role is. Whether you are doing a play or a television show. You just act. I don’t know where and when acting became all about being the glamorous babe in movies where all the attention is on the clothes and makeup and very little on the craft.”

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Baby Steps.

Razdan says she did not look for lead roles, and the only thing that kept her going was her hunger for acting. “Television, movies, theatre, I did whatever was offered to me,” she explained. “I just wanted to act and I guess this come from my theatre background.”

The narrative has been very different for her daughter, who is already a star at 24. Alia Bhatt, who was launched with Student of the Year in 2012, has moved from strength to strength, showing a natural ease with both glamorous and gritty roles. “She is born into a family where her mother and father [Mahesh Bhatt] have already carved out a niche for themselves,” Razdan said. “Unlike me, she came into a business that was ready for her, and since then she has worked with the top production houses in the country. Her life has taken on a different trajectory. Alia tells me that she regrets the fact that she missed out the struggle. I tell her that all this sounds very romantic but you will have your own struggles too.”

Razdan says her daughter may have been fortunate to have been offered the kind of projects that have helped her experiment and grow as an actor, but her life is still a work in progress. “This profession is not without its struggle, and without the struggle you never really touch home base,” Razdan said. “Despite the opportunities, it does not come easy to Alia. We did not know and neither did she know that she will be an actor some day. Life is all about a lot of accidents, after all.”

That her daughter has been eclectic in her choice of projects when she could have easily remained cast in the Student Of The Year mould is thanks to her genes, Razdan feels. “Kudos to her for taking up challenging films – she has definitely inherited that renegade gene from her parents,” Razdan said. “At least her father has it in abundance.”

The mother-daughter pair will be seen together on the screen for the first time in Raazi, a spy thriller directed by Meghna Gulzar and adapted from Harinder S Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat. Razdan plays the mother of Bhatt’s character. “But I cannot play her mother in every film,” Razdan said with a touch of mock despair.

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Saaransh (1984).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.