SOHAILA KAPUR: The Person & Her Legacy!by Aparajita Krishna June 4 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 24 mins, 10 secs
Sohaila Kapur belongs to a very rooted and empowered artistic and cultural legacy. She has, in her individual way, made her own space, writes Aparajita Krishna
She was born in a Punjabi family to parents Dr. Kulbhushan Kapur and Sheil Kanta Kapur. Her father was the physician to the former President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Her mother was sister to the famous Bollywood Anand trinity, Chetan, Dev and Vijay. They were Sohaila’s maternal uncles. The reputed film-director Shekhar Kapur is her elder brother and they have another sibling, Neelima Nischol, late film actor Navin Nischol’s wife.
We get talking on her work and the familial tree.
In the present, one would define you as an experienced Indian actress, television personality, writer, theatre director-designer-playwright and lyricist. You have travelled your own path and built an admirable niche for yourself. How has the journey been as a creative professional?
The journey has been fantastic. There was a time when I would have said that it was checkered because of the struggle to manage all. But it brought to mind the multi-armed goddess Durga’s image, which is essentially what a woman is, a multi-tasker. Today, I can look back with affection and say, ‘It was all worth it’.
During your childhood and growing-up years did you have a ringside view of the arts and films in particular?
We are three siblings. I was born in New Delhi. On both, my maternal and paternal side, I have award-winning artistes. My maternal uncles were the iconic Anands of Bollywood, Chetan, Dev and Vijay, multi-tasking actors, writers and directors. Dev Anand won the Dada Saheb Phalke Award for contribution to Indian cinema, in his life. Chetan Anand’s first film, Neecha Nagar, won the highest honour, the Grand Prix, at Cannes in 1946, the only Indian film to have done so, till date!
On my paternal side, my taya's (father’s older brother's) daughter, is the renowned art critic, historian and curator, Geeta Kapur, who is married to one of India’s top artists, Vivan Sundaram, himself the iconic painter, and Amrita Sher Gill’s nephew. Geeta, like her father M.N. Kapur, is a Padmashri awardee. Her younger sister, Anuradha Kapur, is a former director of the National School of Drama Delhi, and a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee. My older brother, Shekhar Kapur, is an internationally respected, Padmashri, Bafta and National Award winning film director. How could I not be inspired by all these illustrious relatives?
Apart from that, my school, Modern High, or ‘MHS’ as it was called by us students, encouraged excellence in the arts. It was one of the first public schools to introduce the study of fine arts. We had the best teachers taking classes in painting, sculpture, photography, dance and music. This was thanks to our principal Mr M N Kapur, the father of Geeta and Anuradha Kapur. Both Shekhar (he was in the same school) and I discovered a love of storytelling and drama from our cultural activities at school, like theatre and ballets, that were essential parts of our house functions and Founder’s Day celebrations. So yes, both families and my school gave me a ringside view of the arts that helped me make my career choices.
Did your uncles or their films willy-nilly shape your inclination for the arts?
Most definitely they did. Their films and careers allowed me to dream of a similar career for myself.
What are the fondest memories that you hold of your childhood, especially in connection with the arts and films?
My fondest memories were that of going to Mumbai with my mom during holidays, meeting my uncles and indulging a little in my dreams by visiting their film sets and watching them work.
Did your brother Shekhar Kapur’s work as an actor and then as a unique director influence your work-view?
I saw little of his work as an actor. I did see his films as a director and admired them, but I carved my own creative path.
You are quoted saying in The Hindu, dated Oct 12, (2018) that you wanted to be an actor when young. “I had the looks, talent and offers. I was told very firmly by my family that ‘the boys' could do it but certainly not us girls” You were offered a big film opposite Rajesh Khanna, but your family put their foot down. You seethed, but didn’t have the courage to rebel. A part of you also understood that they feared the casting couch and were protecting you. “Those days, ‘good girls’ were hardwired to keep their virginity for their husbands. It is an ogre, this casting couch.” So, Sohaila, tell us how you overcame the limitations of those mandates.
True. Although I resented it deeply then, as I was passionate about acting, I realize now they were being protective. The world has changed. Parents now encourage their children to follow their dreams and if I was a young girl now, I certainly would have headed that way. But today too, I am free to satisfy those cravings. I have fulfilled my domestic duties. I have taught my son to be independent. My circumstances also played a role and so did his streak of independence. And at my age, the fear of sexual exploitation has no place. Also, the OTT platform has opened up many opportunities for older actors and so there is a variety of work.
You graduated from Delhi University. What was your ambition as a graduate?
I graduated from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, in Political Science and then went on to do my Masters, too, in the same university. I also completed a diploma course in journalism from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Delhi. There were no courses in journalism in the university then. Journalism was my second option and my mother’s first, for me!
Did theatre figure in your college life in Delhi itself or after moving to Mumbai? Which are the plays that rest in your memory? And the theatre directors, playwrights who shaped you?
I began my theater journey in high school. A few of us got together and started Ruchika Theatre Group, which is still functioning under Feisal Alkazi. My most remembered moment was performing in Steven Sater’s ‘Spring Awakening’, directed by Feisal Alkazi, opposite a good-looking young actor called Aditya. I had a huge crush on him! It was pure pleasure attending rehearsals with him and I’d fume with jealousy if he chatted with the other girls! I was 18 and feelings are intense then. I also remember being totally comfortable with the audience and my performance flowing effortlessly. Later, I got a lot of accolades for it.
The other play that I remember vividly was A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, with Sunit Tandon, the well-known Doordarshan news reader and anchor. The play was a challenge. Just the two of us seated and reading letters. It taught me the importance of voice in theatre, as a tool to keep the audience rivetted. It was an experimental play and I think we were the first to perform it in India. Decades later, it was adapted by Javed Siddiqui as Tumhari Amrita, performed by Farooq Shaikh and Shabana Azmi, and became a huge success. Later came its sequel, Aapki Soniya, starring Sonali Bendre and Farooq Shaikh. A similar format was used for Kaifi Aur Main, written by Javed Akhtar, starring Akhtar and Shabana Azmi. But we were the pioneers!
When I came to Mumbai, one of the plays that come to mind is Main Zinda Hoon Main Sochta Hoon, an adaptation of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, directed by Nadira Zaheer Babbar, for Ekjute. I was new to Mumbai and playing the lead, costarring rising stars Anupam Kher, Satish Kaushik and Sushmita Mukerjee.
I remember Anupam watching me enact an emotional scene, his hands were on my shoulders and he didn’t give me the required reaction. It unsettled me so much that I fumbled my way through the change of my top, because the material was caught in a hook. That was the other unsettling moment… changing a blouse on stage, in front of a live audience, especially when it refused to be quick! I knew I had arrived in no-holds-barred Mumbai, in this play, which taught me to focus on the action on stage no matter how disastrous the circumstances!
I also recall playing the role of Bakri in the eponymous play and enjoying the delighted squeals of the kids, as I bleated and skipped around in the audience at Prithvi! Another memory is that of whipping Shabana Azmi hard on stage, at Prithvi, in an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, titled Sufaid Kundali. Shabana winced and complained about the pain later, but exhorted me to continue with the same ferocity for the other shows, as it brought authenticity to the scene. I admired her commitment and dedication. Both plays were directed by the veteran, M.S. Sathyu.
Another play that comes to mind and which taught me a great deal was the Greek tragedy, The Trojan Women, directed by the maverick director, Veenapani Chawla. She had a unique style for which she became famous later, but this was one of her first offerings. It used Chhau for movement and we had to learn it. At the end of the day, we used to moan and groan with pain but remembered the adage, ‘no gain without pain’. The play had utterly different dynamics and mesmerized the audience. This too included stars like Javed Jaffri, Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan, Sanjana Kapoor, Sushmita Mukerjee and Babla Bhattacharya.
The theatre directors who shaped me were Om Shivpuri (who taught us drama at the school), Satyadev Dubey (who taught me the basics and then threw me out of the group!), M S Sathyu and Amal Allana. The playwrights I took to were August Strindberg, Ibsen, Eugene Ionesco, Girish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar. In films the directors I learnt from were Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani.
You started your professional career as a journalist with The Times of India, Bombay, where you worked for ten years. Then you took up the editorship of Care. And then followed free-lance writing. Over a hundred articles of yours got published in newspapers and magazines. You taught the students of journalism the art of reviewing at the Times Media School, New Delhi. Which years were you a journalist? How do you look back to those years?
I was a journalist from the 1980s right up to 2014. I switched from print to TV, having worked with the Canadian channel CFMT (now Omni) and subsequently the Lok Sabha television, which had just started when I returned to India. I think the years in journalism helped me focus my thoughts. It helped me hone my writing craft and anchoring skills. It gave me the confidence to face the camera and think while I spoke. I have a lot to thank journalism for. It was my second choice but first career.
In 1983 you also authored a book on Indian esoteric rites, called Witchcraft in Western India. Interesting subject. This led to your selection as the anchor for a National Geographic Channel (NGC) film on the subject titled Indian Witch Hunt. It won the best NGC film award in 2004 and has been telecast several times on NGC and Discovery channels.
Correct. The book went into a second print. The subject has still not been explored enough in print, even after all these years, but movies and OTT are flush with stories of the supernatural!
Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan, a musical, was the maiden play written and directed by you. It premiered at the prestigious Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh (2002). In India it opened in December 2008 as Mahim Junction and has performed at various venues in India and abroad. It won the Herald Devil award in U.K. and had favourable reviews in the foreign press. How did you attempt and execute what would have been a big challenge?
The musical Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan was written by me and directed by Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork - he runs the Jaipur Literature Festival. I directed Mahim Junction, which was the same play but with a changed title because it was a different production. I wrote the play while I was in Canada. It was a recap of the formula Bollywood films of the 1960s and 1970s. How much I laughed while writing it!
It’s the first play that married films to theatre; now they are a dime a dozen. I look at it as an affectionate tribute to the films of my childhood, that allowed me to dream. It had the stereotypical characters from that time, including a transvestite, who is a prostitute and a small man, impolitely called bauna, or dwarf, as a havaldar. These stereotypes still remain a part of commercial cinema, even after all these years! While Sanjoy’s production toured the U.K., mine opened in India, at the behest of ICCR and the NSD. It travelled abroad through the ICCR. It was rough putting the show together with a cast of 18 amateur actors, some of them complete newcomers in the craft. I feel the popularity of the show was also due to the fact that some of my small-town actors got to travel in a flight for the first time and that too internationally. Somewhere their goodwill helped.
As a playwright your other plays include A Christmas Parable and A Club of Her Own.
Add to that Obsessions, Panchatantra, Good Boy, Bad Boy (for kids), Dracula Meets Page 3, and also, Kuch Life Jaisa.
You also directed the play Rumi: Unveil the Sun (2018), which got critical and popular acclaim. It was nominated for best play produced in India and you got nominated as best play director at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) in 2008 at New Delhi.
It got the best supporting actor award for Danish Husain and travelled to London for shows. We sold its original music CDs in the foyer of the auditorium.
Your directed play, Albeli Naar (2018), was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. How did you address its adaptation? As patriarchy too? You placed it in Delhi and Haryana.
Yes, I immediately saw it as a situation in North India, where women are still subjected to discriminatory social norms. Haryana has hard-core patriarchy, even though its women are athletic and sporty. As wives and mothers, they are expected to follow feudal conventions. Katherine’s rebellion in the original version presented an interesting counterpoint to Petruchio, a macho land-owner, who came to ‘buy’ a wife much as he would a cow, for his farm. The circumstances created some really funny scenes between the Haryanavi dialect-speaking hero and his convent educated fiancé. The adaptation became a whole new, rollicking play, with the serious issue of misogyny at its core.
Real Theatre ought to be majorly indigenous. Ours borrow from folk stories and legends, which are given a contemporary twist. Just as Shakespeare’s works are treated in the west. You made an interesting comment on the net, “But there is another source from which our theatre borrows, particularly theatre in North India, and that is Bollywood. It is common practice today to include original songs and dances from popular cinema or a slightly changed version to dodge the copyright act. Adding to this melee are the Indianized versions of Shakespeare’s plays, some of them commissioned by the Globe Theatre, Britain, that narrate the story through a Bollywood style song and dance routine.” Do inform.
No tale in the world is original. The experience has happened somewhere or the other in the world. It is only in the telling or interpretation that it appears new. As Indians we are passionate storytellers. That is evident from our epics and literature. The entire gamut of the human experience is contained in them, so we don’t really need to borrow from the west. But we do because we grew up in a westernized world. Time has come full circle. We are relying more and more on our epics and folk tales now to tell our stories cinematically, on OTT and on stage. The characters of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are universal and relatable. Shakespeare enjoys the same status.
You are quoted saying in 2016, "I feel theatre develops as much as its practitioners do. The more educated and socially aware you are, the newer and more relevant your theatre will be”.
The other plays authored by Sohaila, many of which have been performed, include Obsessions, A Club of Her Own, A Christmas Parable, Dracula Meets Page 3 and the musicals, The Monkey Man, The Great Indian Wedding - written for film maker Shekhar Kapur, Mahim Junction and Kuch Life Jaisa.
Tell us about the musical play, Why, directed by Shekhar Kapur and set to music by A R Rahman. A 45-minute musical in English, with stunning visuals projected on the largest 360-degree projection screen, it was premiered in January at Expo 2020 Dubai. Shekhar Kapur has described the spectacle as "An anthem to our planet, to our Mother Earth". He is quoted saying, “We invite you to join us in a journey of rediscovering your childhood and once again ask, ‘Why?’" Tell us of the experience. Did it have an 8-week run premiering in January 2022? Did it play in India?
Yes, it had an 8-week run. I was part of this unique project. It was a huge success. Audiences were repeated. A few saw it more than 10 times! I contributed to the script and wrote 4 songs, with music by A R Rehman. The lyrics of the nine songs were penned by Dana Dajan, a London based singer-song writer, our own Chennai based rapper Shivang and myself. One of the songs written by me, Dance of the Atoms, was a big hit with the audience. The entire track is on Apple Music now. I knew there were repeat audiences when they started clapping and tapping their feet the moment the song started. I felt particularly honored when Rehman told me that I had given him a hit song and he performed it at some of his live concerts! It was my debut in lyric-writing. It has not opened in India.
It was a philosophical musical about a little girl called Curiosity and her grandfather called Wisdom, and their relationship. The concept and the story were by my brother Shekhar. He was also on the advisory board of the Expo. The script and production were by an Australian company called Artists In Motion, the world’s foremost company in animated projection. The show was performed with live action and projections on the world’s biggest dome, the Al Wasl.
Sohaila has also adapted several European plays that performed in partnership with the British Council, the Max Mueller Bhavan and the Swedish Embassy. She has been part of the Expert Committee for the first Ibsen Theatre Festival in Delhi and was part of the Expert Committee for Production Grants under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture for two years. Added to that she has been a judge for National Television Awards for 3 years. She went on to adapt The Ramayana for the American movie channel, HBO. She also made 3 short films, Anubhuti (2011)), Parinday (2012) and Mulaquat (2019). Mulaquat was screened at The Great Indian Film Festival, held at Expo 2020.
One of your major interests is working with children. Your company, Katyayani, held several theatre workshops, including one with Amity School. The workshop concludes with a production by the students.
Yes. I also held four workshops for children at the Shri Ram Centre in Delhi. I directed a play, Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, for their Repertory. It also traveled to Bhopal.
Some well-known actors who worked with you at the beginning of their careers are Huma Qureshi, Kunal Nayyar, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Mantra, Danish Husain, Raghav Chanana and Vidushi Mehra. Was it as co-actors or under your theatre direction?
They all worked under my direction.
You were the presenter of 'The Great Indian Witch Hunt' on National Geographic Channel in 2005?
Yes, I was the protagonist playing myself, Sohaila Kapur, the investigative journalist. It was called Indian Witch Hunt. It ran on NGC (National Geographic Channel) and Discovery for many years. It won the Best NGC award for that year. We were invited to receive it at Singapore.
Now coming to you as an Actor. You started with Indian television right from the golden days of DD programming, which in retrospect emerges to be the best catalogue of our Indian TV fare. One goes back to your work in Bharat Ek Khoj (1989), directed by Shyam Benegal. Which are the parts that stay with you? You played Roshan Ara, Janaki Devi, Nafisa, Madanika.
Perhaps Madanika, because it was classic Kalidasa and had many emotions and also Roshan Ara, because it was a strong character and because I shared screen space with one of my favourite actors, Om Puri, who was playing Aurangzeb.
DD serial Kehkashan was based on the lives of India’s revolutionary poets. It had you co-act with Irrfan Khan who played Makhdoom. You played his love interest. How do you look back on that important subject on TV? And on your co-actor?
It was a pleasure working in Kehkashan. The serial was dedicated to post- modern poets of India. Makhdoom, played by Irrfan, was one of them. The series was directed by Jalal Agha. He was dynamic, witty and kept us all on our toes. Irrfan was quite young and this was one of his early screen assignments. He was a fresh graduate from the NSD, Delhi. He was quite reserved, keeping to himself, but flashed his dimpled, shy smile at me, when we met on the sets. You could see the intensity in his eyes even then. Do witness the romantic song picturized on both of us.
You also acted in the serial Banegi Apni Baat.
Yes, it was Tony and Deeya Singh’s first small screen venture, I think. Irrfan Khan was in it too, but we were from two different families in it. It was a huge hit and people still remember me for it.
You were in the cast of film Rukmavati Ki Haveli, directed by Govind Nihalani. It was adapted from Lorca’s The House of Bernada Alba. It featured such noted talents as Uttara Baokar, Jyoti Subhash, Ila Arun, Kitu Gidwani, Pallavi Joshi among others. Govind Nihalani had adapted the play to a Rajasthan milieu. Tell us of the experience.
Yes, I played Damayanti, one of the sisters in it. Uttara Baokar played the matriarch and Jyoti Subhash her confidante. It was an amazing experience with Govind Nihalani. A formidable director. He rehearsed it like a play and then filmed it. The other director who rehearses the scene like a play is Ram Madhvani. Except he uses a 3-camera set-up.Rukmavati won the National Award for best sound. It was a novel experience for me to watch myself on the big screen during the national film festival.
Interestingly, later you adapted the same play back on stage as Bebe Ka Chamba and directed it.
Yes, I did. And it was an experience in itself.
You acted in Kabir Khan’s film Phantom (2015). It starred Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kaif. Yours was an important character of a nurse who gives a twist to the story. An important film in your career?
Though only my second film after Rukmavati and my first commercial one, it remains one of my most important films, given the layers to my character. Here too I was directed by one of India’s most talented directors, Kabir Khan. His style was gentle, persuasive.
In 2016 came film Dev Bhoomi. In 2018 came Daas Dev in which you acted as Sushila Devi. In Satellite Shankar (2019) you were cast as Shankar’s mother. In Chhote Nawab (2020) you played Sakeena Ba. You were also in Where Did I leave My Purdah (2021). Same year came film Tadap directed by Milan Luthria. Which of these would you pick to be of most relevance?
Perhaps my role as Sushila Devi, the party head, who keeps the seat warm for her heir and son, in Daasdev, directed by Sudhir Mishra. It was the most relevant.
In the Web-series Aarya (2020), you played Rajeshwari Rathore, in season one and two. As Aarya’s (played by Sushmita Sen) mother you put up an impressive performance. Your gin loving, strong headed character was one of the highlights of the series. Tell us about your experience of working with director Ram Madhvani and Sushmita Sen.
It was a pleasure working with Ram. He encourages subtle performances and every character has grey shades. In that sense his style is more European than quintessential Bollywood or Hollywood. Sushmita is a gem of a person. Warm, affable. She calls me Ma off set too and in that way maintains our on-screen chemistry. She is a very fine actor who was not given her due because of her glamor. Directors saw Miss Universe, rather than the actor in her.
You were in the Web-series Bhaukaal season 1 (2020) and season 2 (2021). It was directed by Jatin Wagle. Anything you would want to share?
Bhaukaal was based on a lower middle-class family that was involved with the U.P. mafia. I have always been offered roles of sophisticated, upper-class women. This was a change. Here I was an outspoken religious woman, who tried her best to convince her nephew to quit the mafia. He considers doing so, but by then it’s too late. We shot in the gullies and streets of U.P. near Lucknow.
I had to fall in one of the scenes. I did and scratched my wrist and then panicked, thinking I would need a tetanus injection because the street was filthy. But then I told myself that this is how more than half our population lives. And not everyone has access to a tetanus injection!
What are the acting and direction projects lined up?
I finished a sit-com called The Pickle Factory. I have shot for a film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Diana Penty titled Adbhut. Then an advertising film with Alia Bhatt for Titan watches. I just completed shooting for a daily soap, Ziddi Dil Maane Na for Sony Sab. My track is already running on the channel. Now I’m shooting for a new web- series, Jail no 6, a unique story, the first of its kind on the Indian web. Besides that, I am directing 5 plays for YouTube in Delhi. And a play for the stage in Dubai next month. So, it is a hectic summer.
Do inform us of your assessment of your brother Shekhar Kapur’s directorial work in India and abroad. What distinguishes him from others here and there?
I think what distinguishes my brother from others, both here and abroad, is his philosophical mind and the poetic treatment of his films. He may be making a commercial film, but he will couch it in spiritualism and poetry and yet it will remain conventionally entertaining. I am amazed at his ability to inhabit two worlds at the same time. Much like my song written for the musical ‘Why?’ on quantum physics, where atoms inhabit many universes simultaneously!
On a personal note. Do share what you want to about marriage, children and your view on the Indian woman 2022. How is she poised? Even though ‘She’ is of a diverse and countless numbers.
As a mother I believe that you must love your child, but not smother him/her. It is a tough world. If the child is secure in your love for him, he can be given lessons in independence.
This is the decade of the female. The feminine divine as some people call it. Women have to realize it and rise up to the challenge. They have begun to. You have many women heads of states and decision makers in the world today. Where women score over men is in their ability to multi-task and yet remain compassionate. They don’t have to emulate men. They have their own unique identities. That will soon make them the dominant force on this planet.
More power to Sohaila’s work and her being. Ending on the note of her couplet/quote - Dimag ki salakhon se nikal O bande/Dil ki udan ko pankh de!