January issue 2016
“I think drama flows in my blood.” Sonya Jehan
With her chiselled features, flawless skin and toned form, Sonya Jehan is a vision. She is also utterly natural, comfortable in her own skin and unaffected by the awe she inevitably engenders. Currently visiting Karachi to promote her debut in Pakistani cinema for the upcoming Lollywood coming-of-age story Ho Mann Jahan, Madam Noor Jehan’s stunning granddaughter — effervescent and warm — is an interviewer’s delight.
Sonya resides in neighbouring India, and is probably the only Pakistani actor so far to have shared substantial screen time with the fab Bollywood trio: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol and Karan Johar in My Name Is Khan. Quite an accomplishment for a mother of two — who looks anything but!
Dressed down in a simple striped collared shirt, a pair of jeans and chappals, at her mother (of CafÃ© Flo fame) Florence’s residence in Karachi, Sonya chats with Newsline about her upcoming venture, family, food (it’s in her genes after all!) and her life in Delhi…
How did you get the role in the upcoming Pakistani film Ho Mann Jahan?
The director, Asim Raza, called me last year with the proposition of doing this movie. He told me about the script and I really liked it — I could relate to the character he wanted me to play.
I have worked with Asim before, I know his method. He is extremely meticulous and he loves what he does. There is nothing better than to work with someone who has a passion for what they do. At the same time, Asim is extremely humble and treats everyone like family. It’s lovely to work in that kind of atmosphere. He’ll sit you down and explain everything to you in a very nice manner. If you’re doing something wrong, he won’t tell you on the set, in front of everyone. Instead he’ll take you aside and tell you what to do, how you can improve. He is a great director to work with, so when Ho Mann Jahan was offered to me, I flew down from Delhi and met Asim and the entire team. That was it. It was not a difficult decision; in fact, I didn’t really have to think much about it. It was very easy to say yes.
There is talk of your role being that of an older woman who plays off against a younger man. What is your character in Ho Mann Jahan?
The story is about three young college students with a passion for music. I love music, and I’ve been to college and love college life.
However, that is not the role I have. I am playing the character of an older, independent, mature, headstrong woman. I could relate to her because she reminds me a lot of my mother. She is a restaurant owner, as is my mother. The character I play is someone who people look up to, who could be your guide and mentor.
There is said to be a love triangle, or a love square, in the film…
[Laughs] Yes, there is an element of love in the script. What’s beautiful about the script is that this is a movie the whole family, people of all ages, can go and watch, and everyone can relate to at some point. It’s a very sensitive film, a beautiful story, done in a beautiful manner, thanks to Asim Raza’s touch, about respect and friendships and love and betrayal — things that everyone goes through in life.
Given that the film is in Urdu, would you say you encountered any difficulty with the language?
Absolutely! I am very embarrassed and ashamed of myself for being unable speak Urdu fluently. While I speak both French and Urdu easily enough to communicate with people perfectly, I can’t really read either. English is the language I am most comfortable with. So because I don’t think in Urdu, when I have to learn my lines, I need to study them like a passage. And I struggle with that, because my emotions get left behind.
How was your experience with your co-stars in Ho Mann Jahan?
I have worked with the crew before, but it was the first time I worked with the three leads. I knew of them of course, but I met Sheheryar for the first time. This is his debut and he has done a fantastic job. He’s got a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and an incredible presence on screen. He was great to have on set because his energy drives everyone else to push themselves as well.
Mahira is a beautiful actor. She’s very good at her craft, very natural, and as a co-star she’s very giving. She doesn’t have any airs about her. If the director says ‘we’ll do one more take,’ even if she thinks her take is fine, she has no issue and will do it again. Adeel is also a great actor. He’s a very analytical kind of a person; he analyses everything and dissects the character. He goes really deep into the personality that he is portraying.
Did you have any dance sequences in the film?
No, I don’t have any dance sequence. But I’ve learnt the Shakar Wandaan. I think the whole nation has learnt it!
Would you take up a dance sequence if it were offered to you?
Yes, I would do it. I love music and dance, and I respect the art form of dance. I have trained in Odissi. But I would not do an item number. I’m not going to be prancing around in a miniskirt. That’s not me.
Could you tell me how you started out in the film industry?
I never planned to become a movie star, if that’s what people are calling me [laughs]. I was studying print media in London and I had just graduated when Akbar Khan, my director for Taj Mahal — which was my first movie — contacted me. He had heard about me and my grandmother and he wanted a fresh face, so he offered me the role.
At that point, I had just finished my studies, and I thought why not, I’ll just go to the audition; I probably won’t get the role but let me go and check out India, it’ll be a holiday. And I was dating an Indian guy at the time, so I said, ‘okay I’ll also meet him and see where my relationship goes.’
I auditioned, got the role and decided to stay back and do the film. It was just supposed to be a 6—7 month project, which ended up lasting three years. So in the process I got married [laughs] and the rest is history…
How was the audition?
Oh, auditions are the worst for me! I hate auditioning. I feel so exposed. As a person I’m very open and bubbly and can talk to people very easily. But when it comes to being in the limelight, I’m a bit shy and I have become even more like that with age. As they go along, some people become more confident in this field; I think I am becoming more self-critical.
I believe when you go in for an audition, you really have to leave everything behind. I go for auditions with a lot of ‘Oh, should I do it? Will I be able to do the movie? What of my kids, my mother. Is it worth it, going through this trauma and stress?’
How was your experience working with SRK, Karan Johar and Kajol in the Indian move, My Name is Khan?
I don’t think many people get the opportunity to work with Karan, Shah Rukh and Kajol in one film. It was incredible, an almost outer body experience.
I grew up watching Shah Rukh and Kajol — I love her! I think she’s a fantastic, beautiful actress, just amazing. She can be giggling one minute, and then when the cameras are rolling a moment later, she’ll start bawling, if the scene requires it.
Now that is someone who has mastered the craft — which I have not yet, and which I hopefully will one day…
Shah Rukh is also amazing, he’s fun. Of course he’s a superstar — he walks on to the set and there’s a hush when he enters. He has a certain air. But he’s very friendly, not at all arrogant — and he’s wonderful with his fans.
For example, when we were doing an outdoor scene, we would have thousands of people wanting to watch. They were cordoned off by bouncers. But after the scene, Shah Rukh would go to them, sign autographs and take selfies with them. He’s a very nice person, and realises that without his fans he’s nothing. He respects them, which is amazing for someone of his stature!
After working with the big three, how were you received in India and Bollywood in particular?
I was already in India, and had done two films prior to this. That’s why I got the role in My Name Is Khan.
Yes, there are visa issues. To get a visa for India is very tough! But I have not really ever had any other issues. The film fraternity is great; they are very warm. I think acting and politics are very different. Unfortunately, the two countries don’t see eye-to-eye, but I think the actors from across both sides of the border do. So I have never had problems with my co-stars, my team or my crew. I’ve never felt any hostility fortunately. And I’m married to an Indian; I think that may make a difference. Maybe I’m a bit more welcome because of that, but I don’t know.
Could you tell me a little bit about your first two films?
In Taj Mahal I played the role of Mumtaz Mahal. It was my first movie with a lead role and with very old-world Urdu. It was intense! But I think my brain was also much fresher in those days — I’ve got a mommy brain now!
Khoya Khoya Chand was an amazing film! It was the complete opposite of Taj Mahal. It was a low-budget film, in which I played the role of Ratanbala. She’s this 1940s actress who has kind of reached the peak of her career and is on her way out, and new blood, fresher faces are coming in. Soha Ali Khan played the role of one of the new girls. It was basically about the struggle actors go through, the insecurity they face. They become stars, and then they have to let go of that stardom because fresher faces emerge, and people in the industry just forget about you. They’re there for you for all the good times, but they forget about you during the bad ones. It was an interesting role to play.
Have you encountered any differences between working in the film industry in Pakistan and India?
I haven’t encountered any problems with either. I’ve only worked on one Pakistani project, and I’ve loved it. Many years ago I’d say there’s was a huge difference between Lollywood and Bollywood. Now I think Pakistan has caught up with Bollywood and they’ve done a fabulous job. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic is going to change even more over time, because I think Pakistan is being able to stand on its own accord. We have amazing actors, directors, set designers, make-up artists…
How much did your grandmother, the legendary Noor Jehan influence you?
She definitely did. I think it flows in my blood, the drama. Having her in my life was a blessing. I think I’m blessed to be a part of this family. I didn’t see her as a star. For me, she was just my grandmother who would do the same things any grandmother would do: feed you with her hand, and at the same time danto (scold) you and pull your ear for doing something wrong [laughs].
But while she was a normal grandmother, she was also obviously a very busy one. A working grandmother. She was always in the studios, and I would love seeing her when she came back with her sari, her make-up, the eyelashes… I’d be like, ‘Wow! I want to grow up and become like her.’
She’s definitely inspired me in that sense. My daughter who has never met her is so creative. She likes to put on lipstick, pirouette and preen before the mirror. It’s quite cute. She reminds me of my grandmother. Noor Jehan’s genes are obviously very strong!
What is your fondest memory of your grandmother?
There are so many! One I like relating is about both my grandmothers. My French nani (maternal grandmother) and my dado (paternal grandmother) couldn’t communicate with each other in words, so they would use sign language. That was quite funny! Once when dado was visiting us in the south of France, she decided to cook desi khana for my French family. I don’t know if many people know that dado was an excellent cook, she used to make this amazing fish curry. So she cooked, and of course Pakistani food being what it is, she used a lot of oil andmasalas. I think the family enjoyed it, but there was an awful mess in the kitchen!
It is said you sing well. Do you have any plans to take that any further?
I think it’s such a great gift to have. I’ve kind of just put it on the backburner, but I’d love to start singing again. I might go back to India and start singing. But I’ll never be a a professional singer. Because having a grandmother like Noor Jehan, you can’t… I’ll never be able to reach that stature.
And what of your film career — is this just the beginning?
As far as movies are concerned, I’m not sure what the future holds. I choose my movies based not on being in the lead or whatever. I base them on the script, the director and the team. And then of course there is the time commitment. As I say in every interview, my family is my priority.
Your brother recently debuted in Dekh Magar Pyar Se, your cousin, Ahmed Ali Butt in Jawani Phir Nahi Aani. And you in this film — your first in Pakistan. Coincidence? How did that happen?
I think Ahmed bhai was always in the media because he was a singer, and he’d do concerts, etc. I think acting is for him because he’s the most hilarious person I’ve ever come across. He’s brilliant, he was born to be on the screen.
Sikander, not at all. Sikander has always been camera-shy, he’s never been into modelling or acting. I think he did the film just for the experience, and I think he had a good time. It’s unfortunate that the film didn’t do well, but he came out of it saying the experience of filmmaking was fun.
If Akbar hadn’t called me, I’d never have gone to India. I would have graduated and come back to Pakistan. And I would have worked here, and helped mum with the restaurant, perhaps opened one myself.
Your brother and mother are well known for their restaurants in Karachi. Would you dabble in the food industry?
I love food! I love cooking. So yes, eventually I would love to start a restaurant too, but right now I think my kids are too young and if I’m going to open a restaurant, it would require me to be there day in and day out, late hours in the night, for lunch and dinner. It’s a tough business to be in, I see how hard my mother works.
How much influence has your mother had on you?
She’s my biggest fan. Even if I do a horrible, hideous job or if someone takes a terrible picture of me, she’ll be like, “Oh look how lovely you look!” [Laughs]. In fact I dug out this old picture of me when I was 15 or 16, and I was modelling. In those days the make-up used to be so bad! The eyeshadow and the blush! I had this puppy fat and I just looked scary, and my mother was like, ‘Oh how lovely you look!’ And I’m looking at it and saying, “Are you blind?”
I think everyone who knows my mum knows that she’s just the most incredible human being. She’s a foreigner, living in Pakistan, with health issues. Yet she continues to run a very successful business. She’s an amazing, amazing person!
How was it to move to Delhi and make your life there as a Pakistani?
When I moved to India 13 years ago, I loved it at once! I really did. It’s an amazing country; it’s very diverse. I was fascinated by how Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists could all be living peaceably in the same neighbourhood. There’d be a temple, next to that there would be a gurdwara, and next to it a mosque, and no problem. That was amazing for me to see.
Also, another thing I really enjoyed was the fact that girls there had a lot of independence. You could take a rickshaw, you could walk on the street without getting harassed.
Unfortunately, I think there’s been a change in recent times. Delhi has become unsafe. And since it’s a city that is a melting pot, so many people go there to look for jobs, that it’s become crowded and polluted. Delhi is, in fact, one of the most polluted cities in the world, it’s even more polluted than Beijing. We have masks when we’re roaming around outside, and my kids wear masks when they go to school… by comparison, Karachi is not polluted, Karachi is fresh air.
Also in Delhi, there’s no planning, no formal structure in regard to construction and town planning. It’s a beautiful city, and so it saddens me to see how the city is not going in a very positive direction. I’d eventually like to leave [Delhi], but I wouldn’t mind staying in India. I wouldn’t mind moving to Bangalore or Pune.
So you feel at home in India…
What about Pakistan?
I also feel at home in Pakistan. In India I know a lot of people and I have a core group of friends. My circle of friends in Pakistan is very small — a lot of them went to college and never came back. So I don’t have a big social scene here, but that’s fine because I’m not a very social person to begin with. I love coming to Pakistan, leaving Delhi, but then I also love going back home!
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2016 issue.
Raisa Vayani is an Editorial Assistant at Newsline