Who is Soha Ali Khan?
It is a question that the Bollywood actor is forced to answer fairly often, such as the time in July 2015 when she was accosted at the department store, Selfridges, by a gaggle of young, selfie-seeking Indian women, leading an English salesperson to inquire if she was famous. Before she had time to compose a full reply, she had already been introduced: “That’s Saif Ali Khan’s sister!”
That, she supposes, was valid, but so is her chagrin at having her older sibling’s reputation precede her own for the umpteenth time. So, soon after that Selfridges encounter when she found that she had some time on her hands, Khan decided to take stock of her own accomplishments in a rather public exercise — detailing the high, and low, points of her life in her autobiography The Perils of Being Moderately Famous.
At the time she set out to write the book, Khan acknowledged the possible abortiveness of her literary endeavour. “To write a book don’t you need a story to tell? A story worth telling?” she openly wonders in the book’s introduction, candid in her doubts about her own significance. By the book’s end, however, she comes full circle, realising that she has, in fact, been writing all this time for her daughter in utero, to whom she dedicates the effort.
So what will little InaayaNaumi Khemu, born September 2017, draw from this book, along with the hundreds of readers who have “bought/borrowed/shoplifted” a copy?
For one, some family history. Khan’s journey from a student at the University of Oxford, to a stint in investment banking, to Bollywood actor (she touches little on her vision for Renegade Films, the production company she has founded with her husband Kunal Khemu) are detailed. Other milestones of her life, such as travels in her youth, finding love and having a baby are also to be found here. In a fairly linear, chronological order, The Perils of Being Moderately Famous finally tells the world the Soha Ali Khan story — in an openly self-deprecating style.
The humour is not thoroughly hilarious on all attempts, but you’re sure to crack a wry smile at the fact that Khan is laughing at herself, or at least her predicament, as “the youngest (and lesser known) member of a somewhat notable family.”
She recognises that she must relate the illustrious history of this notable family, ie the Pataudi-Tagore clan, in order to effectively tell her own. So she dedicates her book’s two initial chapters to a series of interesting revelations about her ancestry, such as why her paternal family, the Pataudi clan, never moved to Muslim-majority Pakistan — her grandfather Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi “never believed in the idea of Pakistan” or a country based on religion — or how the seed of interfaith marriage was sown in their family decades ago when her paternal grandparents set the trend of “marrying for love and love alone”, or in what way exactly her mother Sharmila Tagore is related to the legendary Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.
These are perhaps the most memorable parts of the book, brought to life with a great set of pictures, from stately portraits of her nawabi grandparents to a rare photo of Khan’s whole family — did you know Soha and Saif have an elder sister named Saba who designs jewellery? — to scans of Tagore’s poems written for Khan’s maternal grandmother. If nothing else, the book will definitely make the reader more informed in a conversation about one of Bollywood’s reigning families.
Khan appears to reward her readers’ patient perusal of Pataudi-Tagore history with a few pages of ‘Saifeena’ — her brother Saif and his Bollywood superstar wife, Kareena Kapoor — but she really says very little about them. Instead, she cleverly makes it about herself, about how she dodges the ingenious ways journalists devise to get family scoops from her. I suppose that’s reasonable revenge. The remainder of the book is Khan’s recollection of perfectly ordinary experiences: going off to college, living alone for the first time, early career frustrations and the like.
Curious readers might find it of particular interest to learn how she met and married fellow actor Khemu or her account of the stops and starts of her Bollywood career. She faithfully tells (as far as we can tell) how she quit her banking career for what was to be her debut film, only to be replaced by Rani Mukherjee just days after resigning from her job. It’s the kind of crushing disappointment that would make anyone’s heart stop. In that way, these chapters humanise Khan, the self-professed modern-day nawabzadi or princess, and may even provide solace to anyone struggling to come into their own.
As a lesser star, for lack of a better phrase, how Khan grappled with very natural feelings of personal inadequacy may be interesting for some readers. This is perhaps why she felt compelled to write this book, to set the record straight, to gently wrest the mike from her more famous family members’ hands in order to tell her own tale, because she is often only asked to fill in the gaps in theirs.
She repeatedly denies the need to measure her success against her family’s — even though she once dubbed herself a mere “working actor” in comparison to her mother, who is “a superstar, a living legend, Bollywood royalty” — and her tone acquires a matter-of-factness when she shares how she reconciled with this: “I have achieved a level of success and fame that I can comfortably call my own, but that level is moderate in comparison with the achievements of my various family members. And therein lie the perils. Perils which, if you were made of flimsier stuff, would nibble away at you and leave you feeling less than whole.”
The writing of an autobiography in itself makes the subject vulnerable and here Khan is actively sharing her vulnerabilities with the world. She also takes this opportunity to bust some myths about herself. She writes, “I chose to be a film actor, not for fame or money, but for the job, the creative fulfilment I get from walking in the shoes of another person”, adding that it was “not, as people assume, the easiest thing to do, but the most difficult decision of my life.” And she recounts how, after a shaky start, box office duds and mean reviews, she triumphed with the biggest role of her life, as Sonia in Rang De Basanti and how her favourite role is of Nikhat in KhoyaKhoya Chand.
As she discusses her marriage and pregnancy, she also pens some words of support for single women and working mothers, words that can’t be said enough in a world that judges women for nearly every choice they make, so Khan should be appreciated for that.