When I propose the idea of having a chat over breakfast to Sonam Kapoor, she responds enthusiastically.
She also, at that very moment, decides what we'll be having for breakfast and where.
"I want to eat South Indian food at Dakshinayan," comes the prompt reply. It's a restaurant known for its South Indian fare, and located a stone's throw away from her house. I find out later that she enjoys going there for a meal on the weekends.
I worry about our conversation getting interrupted by selfie seekers, and sure enough, a bit of that does happen, but thankfully it doesn't become a problem.
Dressed impeccably in a black and gold ensemble, she arrives on time at the packed Juhu restaurant. A wave of recognition and palpable excitement ensues. A middle-aged woman gestures for a picture. Sonam obliges.
"I come here quite regularly. The people here know exactly what I like, even the amount of sugar I like in my filter coffee," Sonam says, as she is greeted warmly by the staff. A celebrity sighting might not be a rarity in Juhu, but having a famous and bonafide star show up unexpectedly at the next table for Sunday breakfast is rather exciting even in these parts, the ground zero of India's popular Hindi film industry.
This year has been off to a terrific start for Kapoor, with universal acclaim for her performance in Ram Madhvani's Neerja. She's now working on home production Veere di Wedding, which will also feature Kareena Kapoor Khan and Swara Bhaskar.
Launched in 2008 in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya, Sonam has been choosier than many of her contemporaries. Deepika Padukone, who was launched the same day as her, for instance, has done 30 movies so far, as against Sonam's 14. But apart from notable performances in films such as Raanjhana, and Dilli 6, 2010's Aisha established her as Bollywood's style queen, which is of tremendous value to brands selling to the Instagram generation.
This morning, she orders a breakfast of steamed idlis, masala dosa, medu vadas and filter coffee (at the end of the meal, please).
Sonam confesses to being a foodie, and says she stays fit by working out. Torturous dietary restrictions are not her cup of tea.
On this day, a bodyguard and a publicist accompany her. Apart from them, her team comprises a second bodyguard, a hairstylist and two managers. What's it like to work with her? The publicist, fittingly, says it's great. Sonam herself says she's a tough taskmaster and occasional screamer.
But they have all been together since the beginning of her career, and she seems to dread the idea that they might leave someday. "I cannot imagine life without them, we've been with each other since I started out as an actor. They know everything. And they're good at controlling it because very rarely does something about my personal life come out in the papers," she says, laughing.
That's also perhaps got to do with her relatively controversy-free personality, I suggest, munching on the medu vadas while she digs into idlis, suppressing a smile.
"That's true. I have never dated anybody from the industry, never had a scandalous affair with someone, I avoid parties and I cannot touch alcohol."
Not even occasionally?
"No, I can't do alcohol. I'm literally curled up in my bed with a book by 10 in the night almost every other day," she says, before being rudely interrupted by a man who's pointing his camera in her direction.
This doesn't go down too well.
"Sir, I am not an animal in a zoo. Why are you filming me like that?" she says, loud and stern, and the buzzing restaurant falls quiet at once. "You want a picture with me, you can ask and I will give it to you. It's very rude of you to photograph me without asking."
After the privacy invader has been told off, she says, "Do you think people are scared of me? I think so," she says, half-smiling, pleased at herself for having dealt firmly with the star-struck man.
I lost out on a lot of films because of my father. Salman Khan didn't want to do Prem Ratan Dhan Payo with meSonam Kapoor
The conversation soon takes a philosophical turn as Sonam delves into her larger role as a celebrity who's had a privileged upbringing. "I believe in a higher power. I think we've all been assigned roles so we can contribute to society in the best of our capacities. Sometimes, when I'm sitting in my car I wonder, why is it that I'm in a fancy vehicle and the guy there has to beg for a living? If I've been fortunate enough to come from a prosperous family, I should even out the equation by giving back," she says, talking about Cuddles Foundation, an NGO that looks after the post-treatment rehabilitation of cancer patients, which she's actively supporting.
Sonam reveals that for the longest time, she felt guilty about being part of a wealthy family, but it was tough to articulate that inner conflict and, more importantly, find someone who'd understand her predicament.
"It took me a while to shake that off because I was surrounded by people who constantly made me feel like I was some entitled brat. I refused to take anything from my father (Anil Kapoor) because of that and he used to get frustrated. There were days when he'd say, 'What's the point of me having done so much in the industry when you want to do everything on your own?' Now, I've made peace with it as I feel I've been born into a family, given this talent to make a difference and I'm not going to let some outsider guilt-trip me into believing that I'm just a girl born with a silver-spoon who had it easy in life. That's very unkind and an unfair judgment."
The breakfast has just gotten heavier.
I point out that it may come across as an 'unfair' judgment but it isn't an inaccurate one. She, like Alia Bhatt, Shraddha Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha and even Kareena Kapoor, has had it relatively easier in terms of finding work in the industry.
Sonam begs to differ.
"But the top heroines today—Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra—are both women who aren't from the industry. And are you telling me that Alia Bhatt is where she is because of her family and not because of her talent? Nepotism exists everywhere but that doesn't make the journey any easier."
Watch Sonam Kapoor speaking about a memorable meal.
While grappling between idlis and a portion of masala dosa, Sonam has framed nepotism as something of an obstacle rather than an easy all-access pass.
"I lost out on a lot of films because of my father. Salman Khan didn't want to do Prem Ratan Dhan Payo with me. He was like, 'Anil Kapoor has been my close friend. How can I romance his daughter?' It was really difficult and weird."
She points out that all the directors she's worked with—from Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Saawariya) to Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Dilli 6) to Ram Madhvani (Neerja)—have never been professionally associated with Anil Kapoor. She seems keen to establish that despite being Anil Kapoor's daughter, the work she has got was solely on her merit and not because of her father's goodwill or his connections.
"Farah Khan is one of my mother's best friends and yet I haven't done a Farah film, nor does she look at me as an actress she'd want to cast. It's a different, non-work relationship," she says in a self-assured tone.
It's a business and nobody will invest crores in the film's production, and another few in marketing only because you're related to someone.Sonam Kapoor
She says that she's spoken about this in the past but nobody wants to give it credence. "It doesn't suit the popular narrative, which is that of an industry girl having it easy. This version almost contradicts it. At the end of the day, people, including journalists, are biased and believe in what they choose to believe in," she says, sharply. I wonder if she is worried that her words will yet again fail to win against the popular view of actors from film families, or worse, stand their ground under deeper scrutiny.
After all, Sonam's brother Harshvardhan Kapoor got his debut film, the yet-unreleased Mirziya, because Rakeysh Mehra saw him on sets of Delhi 6, on which he was an assistant. While he may have genuinely been inclined to the craft of filmmaking, it could've also happened because he was Anil Kapoor's son and the brother of the film's leading lady.
But Sonam contradicts that with a well-thought argument. "It's a business and nobody will invest crores in the film's production, and another few in marketing only because you're related to someone... and completely talentless. It just doesn't add up. You audition. I auditioned for Saawariya along with Shivani Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor and Deepika Padukone. There's a process and we are all equal when we go through it. I even auditioned for Delhi 6 and projects for Yash Raj Films. I didn't just wake up one day to have all these films in my roster!"
The elaborate breakfast is done, and we call for Dakshinayan's famous filter coffee, a must-have. I ask Sonam how she spends her free time when she's not telling off prying fans and inquisitive journalists.
"I fly off for vacations (Maldives is one of her favourite vacay spots) with my girlfriends. They are a bunch of non-industry friends who I'm the happiest with. I'm also a voracious reader so books pretty much keep me occupied when I'm not reading work-related stuff," Sonam says.
Her most memorable vacation, so far, has been to Italy with her family, about seven years ago. It was the first family vacation the Kapoors took.
"It was so incredible to spend time away from Mumbai as we all realized that being actors we're constantly engaged mentally, physically and emotionally. Italy really brought the whole family together and numerous holidays later, I still cherish that vacation as it changed dad's view on what vacations are for! He was always reluctant to take one."
As we sip on the coffee, I ask her what she's reading currently. "I'm mostly consumed by a lot of articles online as I am closely following the Trump campaign. Now imagine if that guy becomes the leader of the free world! It disturbs me to even think about that, it's wrong on so many levels. As if things in India aren't bad enough already."
Sonam is referring to the the country's growing saffronization, from increasing censorship to the Film And Television Institute of India controversy to the beef ban to cow vigilantism.
"It's disgusting to see how restrictive things are getting. And people don't seem to know what's happening around them, it happens at such a subliminal level. You should read what I posted on Independence Day."
What did she post?
"It's by Rabindranath Tagore," she says, before going on to quote the first stanza from the poet's "Leave This Chanting".
"Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads!
Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark
corner of a temple with doors all shut?
Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground
and where the path-maker is breaking stones.
He is with them in sun and in shower,
and his garment is covered with dust.
Put off thy holy mantle and even like him
come down on the dusty soil."
It's nearly time for us to wrap up our breakfast, which she says was heavier than intended.
It's been fascinating to get this glimpse into the world of Sonam Kapoor, someone who's been labelled as a fashionista so forcefully that it's rare to hear her talk about something other than fashion.
While the label in itself is rather well deserved, it obscures other dimensions to her, causing her to be seen as someone who might have an opinion solely on sartorial choices and vacation spots."That's my problem with labels. I dream of a country where people aren't identified by types. A homosexual isn't called a homosexual but just another human being. Where LGBT are just letters and not a community that is stigmatized. Where there is no distinction based on anything, not even between men and women. Where you're free to love who you love, where you're free to make a movie on whatever you like, where there's complete freedom to exist. It's a lot of wishful thinking, but then why not?" she says, gesturing for the check.
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