Back to the Futureby Dhruv Somani May 29 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 39 secs
Film historian Dhruv Somani, in conversation with Sonu Walia, who had quit the Bollywood scene prematurely but is raring to face the lights and camera again.
On the Filmfare Award stage, when she won the Best Supporting Actress Award for Rakesh Roshan’s Khoon Bhari Maang, a remake of Return to Eden, she had confidently said that she hopes to win many more in the future. Unfortunately that was not to be though, perhaps because she upped and quit the scene prematurely.
Kickstarting her career as a model, she won the Miss India title, acted in a bunch of films and TV serials, but then vanished from the scene. She married an NRI Surya Pratap Singh and settled with him in the U.S. until they returned back to India in early 2000s and launched their own production company. Curious to know more about Sonu Walia, I tracked her down for an interview. Excerpts:
Could we start with your modelling days and the Miss India triumph?
I chose to model to become financially independent of my father. I thought of becoming a journalist (laughs)but it wasn’t a well-paid profession then. I got some photographs taken, got an overwhelming response from the ad agencies. So in a way the ramp walk became a cake walk.
I started from Delhi. Wherever I went I was welcomed with open arms. I met Mr. Mitter Bedi who advised me to come to Bombay immediately. It worked well for me since my parents were stationed at Deolali at that point. I had earned around Rs. 2500 from a modelling assignment with Hemant Trivedi and I borrowed Rs. 1500 Rs from my father and landed in Bombay to stay at a friend’s friend’ house for a few days.
Mr. Mitter Bedi immediately gave me an assignment of a calendar shoot - I was dressed like a Brahmin in a Maharashtrian saree. I felt that I didn’t look like a Brahmin but they were convinced about the look. The outcome was fabulous. With that money I could afford to rent out a place on my own.
I had already started modelling. In 1984 I did a fashion show for Miss India at the Shanukhananda Hall, the year Juhi Chawla won the crown. It was a very prestigious platform and I decided to participate next year. I did the Miss Bombay pageant where I was the first runners up. Even though I didn’t win, I wasn’t disheartened. I participated in the contest again and funnily called it destiny or luck, I was adjudged as Miss India while Miss Bombay became the first runner-up.
You debuted with Khoon Bhari Maang. Don’t you think it would have been better for your career to debut with a more conventional heroines’ role?
Being conventional was never my style, I wanted to be different, do something out of the box. Gudduji (Rakesh Roshan) narrated the script but before signing me he wanted to see my work. Luckily, I had finished Akarshan (1988), so I showed him some reels of the film during my dubbing sessions at Dev Anand saab’s studio. Just when I thought I had bagged the role he threw a bouncer at me, asking me if I knew dancing. I said yes, and then showed him the song from my recently shot film Mahaadev, after which he signed me for Khoon Bhari Maang - it was the first film to be released.
I could instantly imagine myself as Nandini in Khoon Bhari Maang. Nandini was a strong girl blinded by love for a man who was betraying her and using her for his own greed for power and money. She realises her mistake a little too late but sacrifices her life for her friend whom she had also betrayed. The film released on August 12, 1988 and won me the Filmfare Award for the Best Supporting Actress.
You looked exceptional in the film with your overall style and costumes. What was it like working with Rekha?
I had shopped for some clothes for Akarshan from Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla’s store Mata Hari. So when I signed Khoon Bhari Maang I asked them to come on board for the film. Since they were big fans of Rekhaji, they agreed instantly, I was praised for my wardrobe. For the song Jeene Ke Bahane Laakhon Hai, Abu-Sandeep made a constructed sari for me, which became a trendsetter - there are zillion versions of that sari in the fashion industry till today.
Rekhaji was very simple but a very private person too. I had a couple of scenes with her and she made me feel comfortable. In fact, I had missed one of the dance rehearsals with Kamal Masterji for the dance competition song, Main Haseena Gazab Ki, because I was doing two shifts. Rekhaji scolded me for missing my rehearsals, which was sweet. She was quiet and very focused on the sets, she did her job while I did mine without any hassles. I was never in awe of her as I was always a huge Dharamji and Hemaji fan. If I would be in awe of anyone it would definitely be of them. (laughs).
Tell us about Akarshan – it was a bold film ahead of its times? You were also seen in other films like Apna Desh Paraye Log, Mahaadev, Clerk (1989), Mahasangram, Tejaa, Hatim Tai, Agneekaal (1990), Khel, Haque, Numbri Aadmi and Thalapathy (1991).
I thoroughly enjoyed doing Akarshan with Akbar Khan and director Tanvir Ahmed. My clothes were again by Abu-Sandeep while my make-up was by Mickey Contractor who was new then and was working with an actor for the first time.
I was signed by Mukul Anand for Mahasangram, he was my rakhi brother and had told us all to shoot a crucial song while he was away in Dubai for some urgent work. He wanted me to be in a white sari in the song Dhak Dhak Dhak Dil Dhadke opposite Aditya Pancholi. Abu-Sandeep gave me a pretty constructed white saree and we shot the song in three days under their guidance. Mukul was pleasantly surprised or rather stunned since he had envisaged a girl dancing in a plain simple white saree. The song suddenly became a glamorous seductive number.
I enjoyed doing Hatim Tai with Jeetendraji and Sangeeta Bijlani as I have always believed in magic. Even my song in Thalapathy was applauded, I was one of the first Bombay stars to work with Mani Ratnam sir and the song became quite a craze. It blazed the way for lavish sets and high production values.
Gudduji’s Khel was shot in Nairobi. I reached the location after about 10-15 days of the shoot. My first scene showed me landing in a small aircraft. The pilot didn’t realise that there was a technical fault in the brakes, the plane didn’t stop and banged straight into a wall. I was petrified and also worried, a damaged aircraft would cost a lot to the producer. They had to call for another plane to shoot the next day, it went smoothly and that night the unit laughed, saying Tara Jaisingh (my character in the film) had arrived with a bang.
I also loved working in the Mahesh Bhatt-produced Haque. It dealt with political corruption. Paresh Rawal was playing my father, a corrupt politician, and I take a stand against him. It was a character I could relate to as I was idealistic - I still am but not so vocal about the subject nowadays. The film continues to be relevant to the conditions prevailing today.
Tell us about Tehelka? How was your experience of working with your favourite Dharamendra?
When he narrated the script to me, Anil Sharmaji had told me about four characters. I was given an option to choose any one of them. Unfortunately, I declined to choose as I could not connect to any of them. He was really sweet and after a month he called me back to his office and showed me the jacket and the peach-coloured scarf, which he wanted my character, Jenny D’Costa, to wear – she was a widow with two small children and the part was opposite Dharamji.
It was an important role, Jenny helped the Indian Army to enter Dongrila. I jumped at the opportunity of working with my favourite Dharamji whom I idolised. His comic timing is so remarkable that it became difficult for me not to laugh during the shoot.
Dil Aashna Hai is another film you did, which was directed by your other idol Hema Malini. Don’t you think it was risky to do that role? Dimple Kapadia and Amrita Singh who were your seniors then.
How could I ever refuse Hemaji whom I’ve always adored? And I found it challenging to be with big stars on the sets. I had always enjoyed working with my seniors like Dimple, Rekha, Vinod Khanna, Dharamji and Kabir Bedi. I was so much in awe of Hemaji that I don’t remember looking into her eyes, I would always listen to her instructions with my face downwards (laughs). Ironically, I was shooting 15 days a month with Dharamji and the other 15 with Hemaji. I was on a high, totally elated.
Sangeeta Bijlani and you entered the film Industry almost at the same time, and you did Hatim Tai (1990) and Numbri Aadmi (1991) together. Was this a coincidence? Even in your modelling career you both were seen together. Tell us something about your equation?
By the time I started modelling in 1983, she had already been working for five years or so. Since we were both tall, we were seen together in many fashion shows. Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) was released and so was Juhi Chawla’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). Sangeeta made her debut with Hathyar (1989). So, we all made our film debuts around the same time.
I must compliment you for your command over Hindi. One rarely comes across models and actors talking in shudh Hindi without any accent?
Thank you indeed! I give the credit for that to my schooling. Being an Army brat, I studied at convents and the Kendriya Vidyalaya. I was topper in Hindi as well as English.
Are there any film offers, which you rejected or could not do which you later regretted?
Yes, I had rejected Aaina. The male lead was to be played by Deepak Malhotra but subsequently Jackie Shroff was signed. The role offered to me was done by Amrita Singh. At that point I didn’t want to play another grey character, I did not want to be typecast as a vamp. I refused the role, not realising that it was a Yash Chopra film. Another role I regret rejecting was for the film Agneepath, which was eventually done by Neelam. I was not keen to play Amitabh Bachchanji’s sister, I wanted to play his heroine (laughs).
Which of your friends in the industry are you still in contact with?
We were all working two-three shifts a day, we never had the time to make friends. Yet, I connected well with my co-stars like Dimple with whom I did two films. Kimi, Sangeeta and I had a tremendous bond, we were all ex-models and had participated in many fashion shows. So, when we meet, we pick up from where we left off the last time. I am in touch with Akbar Khan who’s a dear friend.
Social Media has become the mantra today. Are you active on any social media platforms?
Social Media is a wonderful way to connect with people. I am active on Instagram. I was there on Facebook and Twitter but I don’t use them much. Instagram is a place where I enjoy connecting with my fans and friends besides Whats App.
There was considerable talk of your uncanny resemblance to Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman. Did you ever feel the pressure of being pushed into that mold?
Honestly, I was being compared to them from my school days. I would perform on stage in school as well as in college and it was suggested that I should be like them. In fact, my friend Kimi Katkar did once mention to me to be like them since both Zeenat and Parveen had left the industry and that slot was lying vacant. Ironically, I also happened to do Akarshan, which was originally planned with Parveen, then offered to both Dimple and Anita Raj. Ultimately, I was signed on as the heroine.
If Khoon Bhari Maang were to be remade today, who could enact the roles of Rekha and you?
(Laughs) I guess Kangana could play my character of Nandini and Aarti could be played by Deepika Padukone as she can look both deglamorised and glamorised. They both are fantastic performers, it would be like a clash of titans.
With all the boom in OTT platforms, would you be open to acting again? Are you doing any roles today?
I have just done a 15-minute short film, I played the role of a psychic healer, which I loved. Hopefully, it should come out soon. Of course, I would love to act again. I have always done unconventional roles, which were different, more real and ahead of their times.
The OTT has opened doors for everyone and it’s an actor’s dream to perform the kind of roles depicted in some of the shows. The content is often so authentic and factual. There is no black and white today, it’s all grey as we are in real life. So yes, I would love to start all over again.