My first impression of Sonam Kapoor was that of a little girl trying to behave all grown up. She was assisting Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Black and trying to make herself useful on the sets. Appropriately enough she was dressed in a black salwar-kameez. Everybody on the set treated her with smiling indulgence. Typical, when you are a star-kid born with a golden spoon. People are prone to feel they have to bear with you even if you are very good at what you do.
The ‘F’ world followed Sonam ever since she was launched as a leading lady in Saawariya. I refer to her reputation as a‘fashionista’. The word is used dismissively to ridicule her other abilities as an actor, as though being fashionable(along with being beautiful) discounts Sonam from any chance of being a competent actor. We do that to beautiful people , especially women all the time. I once had a long conversation with Aishwarya Rai(then, not a Bachchan) on this and she said how tiring it was to be constantly called beautiful. Also read: Happy Birthday Sonam Kapoor: When Mrs Ahuja Said, "If You Look A Certain Way Or Wear Nice Clothes, People Underestimate You"
“As if it disqualifies me from being anything else. It is very annoying. And beyond a point, how happy can you be being beautiful if you are not allowed to be anything else?” Aishwarya reasoned. Katrina Kaif too has faced the same dilemma. To be (beautiful) or not be(talented), that’s the question. It has taken Sonam 8 years to give a performance she can show her grandchildren one day to prove she was an actor who mattered in Hindi cinema. Of course Sonam disagrees. She feels she came into her own when she did Aisha, Raanjhanaa, Khubsoorat and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. But honestly the ‘F’ word followed her through her career until Neerja. Also read: Happy Birthday Sonam Kapoor: Anil Kapoor Shares Adorable Childhood Pics; Pens A Heartfelt Note: ‘Watching You Grow Has Been A Dream Come True’
So what strange alchemy transpired in Neerja to cross that barrier that separates the lookers from the performers? I feel it is more to do with motivation than anything else. The story of Neerja Bhanot needed to be told and it had to be through Sonam. Not many people know this. But when the casting was being done for Neerja other names came up for consideration, most prominently Deepika Padukone. Strangely the director felt Sonam to be closer to the real Neerja Bhanot than any other actress.
With biopics the casting is always a question of how to zero in on the right choice. Would Attenborough’s Gandhi have been the same if Naseeruddin Shah and not Ben Kingsley played the lead? Would Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen have been as searing as it was if some other actress and not Seema Biswas had played the part?
Neerja was destined to be made with Sonam in the lead. It ends all speculation on whether beautiful well dressed women can be good actors. Poet-author-thinker Javed Akhtar calls it the chal-jhoothi-koi-itna-khubsoorat-kaise-ho-sakta syndrome: some women are so beautiful people refuse to believe that they can be skilled at anything else except good looks. They can, provided we stop looking at them , and really start looking AT them.
Image source: SpotboyE archive