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January 28, 2019

Father-Daughter Duo Anil Kapoor And Sonam K Ahuja On Their First Film Together

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

Ahead of the release of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, we catch a glimpse of the creative chemistry that sustains this project

This week comes a movie, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s production Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, creatively helmed by debutante director Shelly Chopra Dhar. The coming-of-age film explores the nuances of a love story with a twist (it is being talked about as being one of the first mainstream movies to deal with a lesbian love story, remember Fire that came earlier?) The screenwriter of this love story is a transwoman, Gazal Dhaliwal. To add to its X-factor, the father-daughter star combo – Anil Kapoor and Sonam K Ahuja – are appearing together for the first time in a movie.

I am scheduled to meet Sonam and Anil a few days before the film’s release. Getting them on the same platform is exciting, for both have in their own way pushed the envelope on celluloid. Sonam has proved her mettle in movies like Neerja, Padman, and Veere Di Wedding, and the National Film Award winner is now breaking fresh ground in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. Her father Anil – who can rightly be termed evergreen – was part of the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire. And amongst the legion of films in the National Film Award-winning actor’s kitty (Tezaab, Parinda, 1942 – A Love Story, Pukar, Gandhi…My Father and so many more) one that particularly stands out, especially now, is Ram Lakhan that has just celebrated 30 years since its release.

In a conversation with Verve on a Sunday evening, the two speak about their work, their rapport, the challenges and highs of working together….

What were your first thoughts on reading the script? What made you sign it?

(Sonam K Ahuja) SKA: I thought it was a fun, easy, beautiful and important film. And I found it to be very relatable. What truly drew me to the story and the character was the fact that every child, no matter who or what they are, is craving acceptance, love and friendship. But eventually, it is not only up to them to find it, but it is up to their friends, family and the people around them to support them and give it to them. It doesn’t matter what you want to do, who you want to be with or where you want to be, you feel validated only when your friends and family accept you. It does not matter how strong-willed you are.

What was it like working with debutante director Shelly Chopra Dhar?

Anil Kapoor (AK): Working with a first-time director is always scary, for me at least. One has put in so much to reach where one has reached. You have worked very hard and ultimately it is our profession. When I go on the set every day, I want to be comfortable with the people I work with, people who know their job. With a first-time director, everything is new. But when you commit to doing a film, you hear the story, the script and you hear who the producer of the film is. I knew Vinod is there. He is not the kind of person to give a film to a person he does not trust or believe in. Of course, I do not entirely go with his judgement. I use my sensibilities and I said let me take this gamble. I think it has worked.

SKA: I have worked a lot with first-time directors. I have worked with the best directors and the films have not worked. I have worked with first- or second-time film directors and they movies have been runaway successes. When a director comes to you with idealism, sensitivity and honesty and they have a very clear vision of what they want and they believe in, I feel that it is important to work with people like that. That is why I decided to do this film.

What came to mind when you were told that Ek Ladki Ko Dekha – the iconic song from 1942: A Love Story– was going to be used as the title of this film?

AK: Initially, I didn’t know that they were going to use a part of the song as the title. But I had loved the story. When I heard that it was going to be the title of the film, I felt that there couldn’t have been a better one.

SKA: It’s a beautiful song. I was very young when the movie came out. I know a lot of people my brother’s (Harshvardhan) age didn’t even know that it was there. I remember watching the movie at Gaiety Galaxy and I had got really upset because they were beating up my dad! I thought the whole thing was real and my mother (Sunita) had to take me out of the theatre.

This is the first time you two are acting together. What took you so long to do this and what was it like being on the sets together as co-actors?

AK: Both of us felt that we could not have asked for a better story together – it is necessary that somewhere she I are both happy with our respective roles. We are professionals and want our roles to be good enough. For me, it was scary. I was nervous as hell. I was tense. I didn’t know how it was going to be. I have my own way of working and she has her own way of working. I am a father but I am also a professional. It is Vinod’s film, we’ve worked together earlier. It is a small- budget, tight film. We had to do it correctly. Especially since the subject was sensitive. Plus it was my first film with my daughter and I wanted working with me to be a good experience for her, more than me. Initially, she was very sure that she did not want to work with me. But I was desperate to work with her, not just as an actor but as a director as well. And today whenever anyone asks me why I have not become a director, I tell them if I ever become a director, I will direct my daughter. Otherwise I will never become a director. She says forget the direction part, I don’t want to act with him.

SKA: It is very hard to move out of the shadow of a very successful and great parent. I had to find my own path in my own way. I didn’t want to piggyback on him. I already had his name and am very grateful for everything that came with it and the privilege that I take ownership of. I just wanted to find my own path and I think I was pretty successful in doing that. But honestly I did not find anything that was good enough for both of us to work together. And earlier, I didn’t feel likeI was experienced enough to work with dad. I was pretty immature when I was younger. I still don’t think I am very mature but there is a lot of maturity that has come in to deal with certain situations. I feel that I could have waited for two more years to work with dad, to become smarter and mature to handle myself, but this film was so important for me and I did not feel that anyone except my dad could do this role. So when Shelly said she was going to dad, I couldn’t think of a better cast. And when I came on the sets, it didn’t feel difficult at all. It was cool even though we have different working styles. My dad and I both prepare a lot before the film starts. But when I am on set I am very instinctive. My preparation comes during pre-production, during workshops. He has a different way. He is more meticulous in the way he does his part.

Did you end up taking work home?

SKA: The kind of hours we work on set, we don’t want to take work home.

AK: We just want to sleep at the end of the day!

The equation between Sweetie and her dad Balbir, how similar is it to the real life relationship that you share?

AK: It is not. That is what made the film and the role so interesting for me. It is very different from what we are in real life. I was worried about getting it right as you are also limited by your physicality. And when you have raised the bar, you cannot get away with just faking it or doing it in a half-baked manner. The characters and the relationship had to be believable, real.

SKA: My father has never said no to me at all, if I wanted to do anything. And this girl is not argumentative at all.  

Was it easy to get under the skin of Sweetie?

SKA: I am not a shy person at all. She is extremely shy and has a hard time finding her voice. And she comes from a small town. She is the complete opposite to me. I have been encouraged to have a voice and an opinion. I have been brought up in a liberal household. The only thing that I could connect with her is that every young person has a hard time accepting themselves for who they are, accepting their reality and they want to connect with someone. No matter which strata they come from, connections and love, finding who they are, finding the person they want to be with are important. That was my anchor. Once I found that, she just flowed for me.

Which of your roles have you found the most satisfying?

SK: I am never satisfied with anything I do. I am constantly critical. But in my last few films I’ve had the privilege of working with great directors and doing the roles that I really loved. Plus there is a film that will release soon, The Zoya Factor – that has what I think is one of my best performances. I give the credit to my director. I obviously loved Raanjhanaa – for me it was a breakthrough. I really loved Neerja, but that was because of the director. I would also pick Khoobsurat for my performance.

AK: I loved Saawariya – it was all about the music and both of them looked so beautiful. There was a poetic quality about it. I felt the first half of Raanjhanaa was brilliant. Of course, Neerja was stupendous. I loved Veere Di Wedding. And overall Khoobsurat was a great film from our company. If it had come today it would have been a bigger success.

SKA: Most of dad’s films are spectacular. I would pick one from every decade. 1979-1989, Woh Saat Din and Mr India; 1989-1999, Lamhe1942: A Love Story, Tezaab; 1999-2009; Slumdog Millionaire, Welcome, No Entry, he has done so many films, I cannot think of any more! 

What have you learnt from each other?

SKA: He has taught me that hard work and sincerity are the two most important things. And that I should not take my work for granted. For, when your time is good it is easy to get away with a lot of things, but when it is not, if you are not hard-working and you do not put yourself out there, then nothing comes of it. And even if you might have luck on your side, without hard work the luck does not mean anything.

AK: I’ve learnt everything from her. I have learnt to be compassionate, generous, kind and spontaneous. I have learnt from my children to chill a bit. It is not all about work. I have learnt to go for a holiday!

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