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December 08, 2017

Soha Ali Khan On Her Legacy And The Joys Of Writing

Text by Huzan Tata

“I find writing very cathartic and therapeutic, because it helps you get a lot of things off your chest. It’s a cleansing process in many ways.”

Oxford-educated, well-travelled and a voracious reader, the actor’s autobiography moves you to both reflect on life and chuckle at many of its moments. Soha Ali Khan, who debuts as an author with The Perils Of Being Moderately Famous, talks about her illustrious history and the joys of writing.

What was the major impetus behind penning your autobiography?
I always put off writing a book, because I didn’t think I had 40,000 words in me. It was a daunting challenge. Even when Penguin approached me, I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off. I thought maybe I’d write an introduction, and if that works out, I’ll take it ahead. I was non-committal for quite some time. But I had so much fun writing it! I was thinking about writing fiction, but I didn’t really have a story in mind that I wanted to share with the world. So I thought, why not borrow from reality? Sometimes the best stories are real ones. I’ve always thought that there are elements of my life that I would like to share with people, especially to clear up some misconceptions they may have about what it’s like to belong to a famous family, a ‘royal’ family, what it’s like to be a modern-day princess, what it’s like to be Saif Ali Khan’s sister. I thought it might make for an interesting read. Beyond that, I think I’ve had certain experiences that I could share with people in hopefully what’s a relatable way.

What was the hardest part about writing this book?
I think it was about getting the right balance between being honest, because you’re talking about deeply personal things – insecurities, competition, the future, about being unknown – and opening up to an audience you don’t know. While writing, sometimes you forget that people are going to read it and judge you, and have opinions about it. For me, it was coming to terms with the fact that – as a private person – I was opening up about my life.   

Unlike other autobiographies, though your book does talk about your failures, it has not taken too serious a turn…
It was certainly my intent for the reading to be light and breezy. I don’t take myself seriously, and I get a lot of comfort from that. I don’t like to dwell on mistakes, the past, and things that have gone wrong. I feel like there are insights you can learn from, and I’ve shared some of them. But the point is not to mope. The idea was not for the book to be lacking in substance, but I wanted to keep the tone humorous, because I feel that – whether it’s a movie or a book – humour really helps. Some books I’ve read that have moved me the most are those with humour. One minute you’re laughing, and then one line hits you and moves you to tears. That’s the most powerful thing. I’ve talked about professional failures, how I felt after my first movie review, what it was like losing my father and how I came to terms with that – I’ve tried to be quite brave about it, as much as my personality allows me. Because time has passed, it enables you to do that. It would have been difficult if I was still in that moment.

The chapters on your travels through Europe and Africa during your university years are quite delightful.
Yes, I feel like travel is a huge part of my life, and relates to so many things. It relates to education – a lot of exposure comes from travel. I feel that especially when you live in a city like Mumbai and work in the Hindi film industry, and if you’re even moderately successful, you can get quite a big head. You can think the world revolves around you and the 100 people that make up the industry. You need to get out, and remind yourself of where you stand in the world. At the edge of the Grand Canyon you realise how tiny and insignificant you are in the universe. Or just go to Paris or a place you’re not recognised, and do silly things. It’s lovely and liberating.

Writing about one’s life involves reflecting on the past….
I think it’s been great fun to revisit certain things, and it’s been difficult to revisit certain things. It’s also been educational. I really hadn’t known the exact connection between Rabindranath Tagore and my family or a lot about my Bhopal lineage, like what happened in my great-grandfather’s time, how my grandparents met and that there was an objection to their marriage. It was fascinating to write this book, for so many reasons – mainly to learn about myself and, of course, the whole process of writing. I find writing very cathartic and therapeutic, because it helps you get a lot of things off your chest. It’s a cleansing process in many ways.

Do you remember the first time you felt moderately famous?
I’ve always known that I was from a famous family, but that I was entirely non-famous. Sometimes you’re famous by virtue of your surname, by being someone’s daughter. When I went to Oxford University and saw my father’s name (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi) on the plaques, or when people knew that my father was who he was, I was known to them because of that connect. Only after working in films was I more aware of my mother’s achievements, because we didn’t actually watch a lot of Hindi films while growing up. It was actually when I was asked to speak at Harvard once that I watched a lot of Hindi movies and Satyajit Ray films that my mother had been in. I’m constantly learning about my family and my place in it. Sometimes people recognise you for who you are as well, and it’s nice when they know your name and have seen your movies. More often than not, I’m recognised because members of my family are more famous than me. But because it’s been happening for so long, even though there are times when it can be irksome, it doesn’t really bother me. 

What’s the last autobiography you read that impacted you? What kind of books interest you?
I’ve read Andre Agassi’s Open, which I really loved, and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom, which is beautiful. I’m always reading two books at once, one fiction and one non-fiction. It’s because I really enjoy learning, and I feel that the books you read, whether about politics, history or economics, teach you about yourself and what’s happening in the world. I love fiction too, as the style of writing transports you to a certain place, and makes you feel a certain way. Some of my favourite authors are P.G. Wodehouse and Julian Barnes. I love Salman Rushdie too, who mixes a bit of history with fiction, which is a dangerous space.     

If you had to sell your book in one sentence….
I think you should just pick up the book and read the first page, and if the style appeals to you, then go ahead. I would love the book to sell itself.

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