It's a long and dusty drive out to the desert. As I hit Dubai’s city limits, with nothing but endless road stretching before me, the petrol lights flicks on. The map confirms my fears – I’ve long since passed the only garage in a 40 kilometre radius. There is a Bollywood superstar waiting at my destination so turning back is not an option. I push on, windows down, air-con off, radio silenced, conserving every bit of juice the tank will gift me.
This all means that I arrive at Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa fraught, on edge, yet counting my blessings. I had been pre-warned about the scale of this particular production, so I’m secretly hoping to slip in somewhere at the back, unnoticed. But I’m out of luck. Despite swarming with a team of 24, including photographer, videographer, couturier, seamstress, make-up artist, hair stylist, and half of Team Bazaar, the inner courtyard is a scene of unexpected serenity. A camera clicks on a test shot, gentle laughter reverberates around the walls as the camera crew trade industry stories, and time is idly past waiting for the nod – the arrival of said Bollywood star. And then she’s here, Sonam Kapoor, gliding down the stairs in a black gazar dress by Ashi Studio, with ostrich feathers cascading behind her. With hair roughly but expertly pulled back into messy braids, and dewy make-up reinforcing her natural beauty, she looks majestic; noble-like but tougher, stronger somehow. Like a beautiful medieval princess warrior from the Middle Ages.
Suddenly, the courtyard bursts into life. An umbrella pops open to shield her from the sun, her skirt is puffed, skin dabbed and loose tendrils tamed. Camera shutters focus, body positions align and voila, the shoot is seamlessly underway.
This isn’t quite what I had expected. When propositioned with shooting – and later interviewing – one of India’s biggest movie stars, whose current film Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (PRDP) is sweeping up at the Bollywood box office, named the second highest grossing film of 2015, I steeled myself for more theatrical histrionics.
But today is devoid of any such incidences. Thirty-year-old Sonam is, as I learn, as far from prima donna territory as it’s possible to get with such rich lineage in her blood. Her father Anil Kapoor is currently celebrating a prolific, 40-year career in Bollywood, alongside a successful crossover into Hollywood in films such as 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire and 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, with Tom Cruise. Sonam’s grandfather, two uncles, aunt and sister are also Bollywood thoroughbreds.
Were Sonam to emit an air of affection, I feel it would be somewhat justified. But there’s no trace of it. As the crew deftly flits around her, she chats openly with the photographer about the shots, discusses her angles and how to catch the best light, and gently swats a fly away, laughing, “Well, at least the flies like me!” Her requiescence is charming.
Black gazar ‘Sabrina’ neckline dress with antique golden embroidery by Ashi Studio
But we’re not done. We have seven more outfit changes to go. The second is a beautiful black gazar dress embellished with antique gold embroidery. It makes Sonam look statuesque, elegant, almost swan-like. So much so that the photographer, Kurt, quotes a line from Ask The Dust by author John Fante, that says “…She’s like a swan across a sidewalk.” I understand the reference. It is Sonam’s gracefulness, strong femininity, toughness framed by a soft edge... A beautiful juxtaposition.
When we break for lunch, Sonam eschews the idea of eating in her room in favour of joining the 24-strong crew at the hotel’s banquet buffet. She eats, she laughs, she fits right in. Bar the make-up and coiffured hair in contrast to the team’s tatty shoot attire, you’d be forgiven for not noticing her presence.
Then, as we wait for a fleet of cars to transport us to the next location, Meydan’s sprawling 500-person events arena, Sonam’s presence causes a stir. The hotel’s security guards want to take pictures. Can they? Should they? Yes, of course, she answers politely, as five men beam beatifically into their camera selfies. Does she understand the impact of that moment? Probably not, but that’s part of her charm.
The sun is setting when we arrive. The light is as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it, bouncing off sand-coloured walls and casting graphic shadows across the endless rows of steps. Sonam is tired, but it’s understandable. Following a last-minute press conference in Mumbai for PRDP, she touched down in Dubai at midnight, turned out the lights at 3am, followed by an 8am call time for our shoot. But she soldiers on regardless. The only hint of weariness in a courteous request for a chair to rest on for a minute. The dresses are heavy, laden with beautiful embellishments, rich fabrics and layers of tulle. The penultimate outfit – a nude gazar cropped top, high-waisted skirt and embellished tulle-embroidered cape – is her favourite. She immediately places two orders – one in pink and one in peppermint. It’s easy to do when the couturier in question, Saudi Arabian Mohammed Ashi, is on set and present for personal requests.
The dresses in question are part of 25 pieces for Ashi Studio’s S/S16 couture collection, to be shown in Paris in January. It’s testament to his relationship with Sonam, whom he’s been dressing for the past 18 months, that he made eight pieces in advance, especially for her shoot with Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. And these aren’t the kind of dresses that get dreamt up overnight – each one takes between two to three months to make, with four petites mains working on each piece. It is Sonam’s “chameleon style and old world elegance” that drew her to Ashi originally, followed by his desire to collaborate on something completely different and unexpected with her for our cover.
We discuss this ‘chameleon’ quality’ when we meet in her room at the One&Only Royal Mirage the next day. While I’m looking slightly more put together than before, Sonam is bundled up on the sofa in PJs and a dressing gown, sans make-up and clutching a cup of tea. She has flu, but as I offer my sympathies, she smiles and bats them away. “I was sick yesterday too, but when I commit to something I like to go full on, otherwise I’d rather not do it all.” She describes “waking up each morning and feeling like a different person every day. I’m like Sybil from that book by Flora Reta Schreiber,” she says by way of explanation, “She had multiple personalities. Wearing the pieces from the shoot is like acting, you have to embrace who you are at that point, and who this person is... You should never let the clothes wear you. You have to understand the outfit, like an actor has to embrace a role.”
Black gazar ‘Sabrina’ neckline dipped hemline couture dress with embellished ostrich feathers, Ashi Studio
Read the full article in the December issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, out now.
Styling: Katie Trotter. Photography: Kurt Iswarienko. Hair: Sofia Sjoo. Make-up: Namrata Soni. Photography assistants: Stowe Richards, Vikram Gawde, George Hughes. Fashion assistant: Alina Alam. Producer: Nina Ross. Sonam Kapoor wears Ashi Studio. Shot on location at Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai