Breaking the mould

Breaking the mould

By PREETI SINGH | | 24 September, 2016
Soha Ali Khan. Photo: Abhishek Shukla
Over the last few years, Soha Ali Khan has carved a niche of her own in Indian cinema. Her filmography includes movies that are socially engaged and that often touch directly upon subjects like Indian politics and history. She speaks to Preeti Singh about her upcoming film, 31st October, which is based on the 1984 riots, and about her flourishing career in Bollywood’s off-beat segment.

Q. You earned your Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. So how come this career shift from academics to acting? 

A. I really enjoyed theatre and I always wanted to do it. Education is not only a means to a job. So I wanted to study because I enjoyed studying. And now, I don’t know for how long I would do acting. But it’s always a good thing to have an education behind you so that you can do something else, and I am sure that after all this, I’ll do something else. 

Q. You have several offbeat films to your name, like Chaarfutiya Chhokare, War Chhod Na Yaar and now 31st October. What makes you deviate towards this kind of cinema?

A. I get offered these, and for me, it’s not about the budget of the film. It’s about the people making it. It’s about the experience, it’s about my role. And a lot of people come to me with message-related films. I don’t feel that every film has to have a message: that’s not true at all but sometimes nice films come along which have a good message and sensible too. And you feel like it might be one way to influence people and make them think. 

Q. How different is your character in your latest, 31st October, as compared to the work you’ve done before? In particular, how difficult was it for you to play the role of a woman caught up in the 1984 riots?

A. Well, I am playing a real-life character for the first time. I am playing a sardarni and a mother onscreen for the first time. So it was very difficult. It was emotionally taxing of course because it is a one-day story. You have to play the same role every day, you have to wear the same clothes and live the same scene. It was certainly very exhausting. But that, I think, is a challenge especially when you are playing a real-life character onscreen based on a real-life incident that actually happened. So, there is a responsibility which comes with that, when you know that you are part of something with which a lot of emotions are involved. 

Q. This film has also faced many difficulties, not least because of the sensitive subject it deals with. What do you have to say about the way the project was delayed due to challenges faced by the filmmakers?

A. Well, it’s unfortunate for us. It was stressful for our producers. For eight months, the film was stuck with the censor board. We wanted to release it last year, as 31 October fell on a Friday, and it was also 31 years after 1984. So, it was a nice time to release but unfortunately, it got stuck. There were also some problems on the set which was destroyed so, it has been difficult — but now I am very excited as it is ready for release on 7 October.  

Q. What was the idea behind making this film now as the incident it is based on — the ’84 riots — took place a long time ago? 

A. Many people are asking why did you bring this subject to the fore again after 32 years, but I know that there are a lot of people who haven’t got closure and those people matter and their stories matter. It is an uncomfortable part of our history, and something which you are not proud of should not be neglected. This needs to be shared. Also, I don’t know why any other film like this hasn’t been made before. But we felt, our producer and the writer felt, that a mainstream film on 1984 riots has not been made. And the story needs to be told. As an actor, I wanted to be a part of it because it’s a great role for me. I want people to watch this film and appreciate this film and to accept the message of the film, because it has a very positive message. Yes, 3,000 members of the Sikh community were killed on the night of 31 October 1984, but there were also lots of Hindu and Muslim families that sheltered people and kept them in their house and put their own lives in the danger to protect them. 

“I do think that celebrities are targeted but I also think that celebrities choose to become targets —they put themselves in the glare and under the spotlight. Since celebrities are public figures, people look at them as role models too. But I keep saying that celebrities should not be your role models —because actors, especially, are there to break the rules, to challenge social norms and to test the limits of society’s boundaries.”

Q. You were recently attacked on social media for having visited a temple. Do you think celebrities are easy targets now, in the age of Facebook and Twitter? 

A. Yes, I do think that celebrities are targeted but I also think that celebrities choose to become targets —they put themselves in the glare and under the spotlight. Since celebrities are public figures, people look at them as role models too. Being a soft target is a part of the job. But I keep saying that celebrities should not be your role models —because actors, especially, are there to break the rules, to challenge social norms and to test the limits of society’s boundaries. We are not like politicians or teachers who are bound by social norms.  

About the temple episode, I said what I had to say. I said, my religion is nobody’s business and if I want to go to a Gurudwara or a Ganpati pandaal it’s not anyone else’s businessI was brought up in a way to respect all religions and traditions. That’s the upbringing I have had — and if your upbringing has been different, and if you think it’s wrong to go to other places of worship, then it’s your opinion. I respect your opinion and your right to speak your views — that is what freedom is all about. I read social media sites, whether the comments are good or bad, as long as the thing is put across not in a violent way. But sometimes it gets very personal. We must remember that we come from a country that has so much diversity. We all celebrate Diwali, Eid and we all have national holidays on those days because we respect each other’s traditions. This is the strength of India. 

Q. You have expressed the wish to work as a producer and writer in the near future. If given an opportunity, what kind of films would you like to make? 

A. When I am a producer, I would like to be successful and get my money back  [laughs]. As an actor, I don’t think of box-office success. I want to make something that will be sensible — it can be romantic, it can be comic.  I love comedies, but it should be witty and intelligent

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