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Exclusive: Simply Sonya

February 14, 2010

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Sonya Jehan is radiant. The world knows her as a half-Pakistani Indian actress and we are quite happy with rights on her being just that. Born as the legendary Madam Noor Jehan's granddaughter to a Pakistani father (Akbar Rizvi) and French mother (Florence Villier), she is now married to an Indian banker (Vivek Narain) and is shifting homes from Delhi to Mumbai as we speak.

And of all the traits she carries in her genes — fame, France, a penchant for performance, a love for food and simple elegance — the Pakistani gene is the most dormant. She speaks Urdu, but often chooses not to and when English and French roll off her tongue much more easily, you could never guess that she was anything but French.

The give-away, if any, is her offhand sense of style, which lends her originality beyond Noor Jehan's opulence and her mother's French chic. These are the two women — both of whom have incredible individual identities — who have had the maximum influence on her personality but Sonya has emerged very much her own person.

She has a deep, melodic voice that is trained to sing like Daado (as she fondly calls Noor Jehan) and she has a love for food like her mother (who lives in Karachi and owns the only French restaurant in town). Sonya dabbles in films and dreams of opening her own restaurant in India one day. But she isn't terribly committed to any one profession. She is someone very comfortable in her own skin, apparent as she walked out to greet us in worn out denims, Kohlapuri chappals and a brown shawl to shield her against the unexpected Karachi chill.

“I was supposed to be here for only a day,” Sonya explained her lack of clothes (for a wedding and unexpected shoot) with a warm smile. She was in Karachi for only a day or two as she waited for a work permit. Despite having a French passport, her Pakistani lineage requires her to have a permit if she is to act in a Bollywood film. She had been cast in the lead role opposite Abhishek Bachchan for an upcoming action thriller, Crooked.

Not that her life was hanging by a thread in anticipation. Sonya was distressed as she realised that she probably wouldn't get the visa in time for the opening shoot (which was the next day) but she managed to brush it off with nonchalance. She was more concerned about getting back home to her two-year-old daughter, Noor, now the third and perhaps most influential female in Sonya's life. How is she, I asked. “Aah, she's perfect,” came the reply with a grin that comes only to a doting mother in love.

While her little one is her pride and joy, her next big budget venture promises to take her professional profile to new heights. She plays a small but significant role in Karan Johar's My Name is Khan (which released worldwide this Friday), alongside Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol.

Sonya plays Rizwan Khan's sister-in-law, an American Muslim woman teaching at a university in the USA. A far cry from her last two roles — as the feisty Ratanbala in Khoya Khoya Chand (2007) and the glamorous Mumtaz Mahal in Taj Mahal (2005) — this role has her covered up in a hijab. It appears to play to a stereotype while trying to break the stereotype simultaneously. But despite the de-glossed character, this may be her big Bollywood breakthrough. And then there is the experience of working alongside Shah Rukh and Kajol.

“It was amazing, what more can I say?” she smiled. “Shah Rukh is approachable and incredibly humble. He talks to everyone on the set, from the doorkeeper to the director. My first shot was with him and I was nervous because, well, he's Shah Rukh Khan. But he has a knack of putting everyone at ease within minutes. He immediately welcomed me and told me that he was a big fan of my grandmother. Shah Rukh is a director at heart and sort of takes things in control. Kajol is such a superb actor and they both have incredible presence and input on the sets. It was quite an experience.”

How did she land the role? Did she feel being half-Pakistani played its part in chance as it gave her character a third, realistic dimension?

“I don't think the casting had anything to do with my being Pakistani. I auditioned for the role. Plus, the film is not about terrorism as most people believe,” she clarified, though most people must have watched it by now. “It is primarily a love story that throws some light on the lives of Muslims post-9/11.”

Sonya was in India during the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai city. Did she feel stigmatised at that time?

“Well, I wasn't shouting my Pakistani lineage from a rooftop,” she said. “It was traumatising for me personally because people I knew died in those attacks on the Taj. I think that we all look at certain kinds of Muslims all over the world with suspicion now; I know I do when I'm in London. It's the natural fallout of what's been happening. But that isn't the epicentre of the film.”

She added that more than making it big in films, she would like to play a role in bringing peace in the subcontinent, between India and Pakistan. She would love to be part of the collaborative efforts being made to create creative links between both countries.

So far none of the Pakistani actors who have set foot in Bollywood — Meera, Javed Sheikh and Humayun Saeed — have really made their mark and one wonders whether Sonya will manage to make a difference. Her first two films didn't do too well but MNIK promises to be a box-office hit, if nothing else.

“I don't know whether this will be a breakthrough in my career because that's not what I'm thinking when I sign a film,” she responded. “I sign it for the story, the script and the overall experience it'll bring me. That said, of course I'm hoping for the film to do well and for people to appreciate my work. I'm just not looking to be the next big star,” she concluded with a laugh.

Sonya carries Noor Jehan's flair for drama but lacks the salt that Noor Jehan had, and that is perhaps imperative to any successful Bollywood heroine, even today. Sonya Jehan is undeniably beautiful but possibly too westernised in her looks to appeal to a local, mass audience. But then again, Bollywood is at the crossroads of change and this may be the best time for her to cut into it. She has trained in classical Indian dance as well as classical singing. She says she can sound a lot like her grandmother. And she has the one rain dance (from Khoya Khoya Chand) to prove that she has what it takes, if masala is what Bollywood is looking for.

A week after returning to India, Sonya called to confirm that she was unable to get the work permit and had lost her Crooked role to Kangana Ranaut.

“It's unfortunate that I wasn't able to do the film but now that I'm in Bombay there will be much more to do. There will be more opportunities and I will be able to juggle them better with motherhood,” she said. “But I'm not thinking of films right now. I've just landed in Bombay and I'm in a cab, apartment hunting. I think settling down is going to be the most important thing in my life for a while.”