March Cover: Sonam Kapoor On Fashion, Fame And Feminism For The #MeToo Generation

BY Olivia Phillips / Mar 1 2020 / 15:00 PM

Fashion, feminism, Time's Up, Me Too… Olivia Phillips puts the world to rights with actress Sonam Kapoor, the Bollywood royal with a rebel heart

March Cover: Sonam Kapoor On Fashion, Fame And Feminism For The #MeToo Generation

Sonam Kapoor is holding court in a palatial, window-filled duplex suite in Abu Dhabi’s Jumeirah Saadiyat hotel, bathed in the kind of golden, streaming sunlight that definitely helps with the whole untouchable, movie-star glow thing. Surrounded by tea, cake and her loyal coterie of ladies-in-waiting, there’s a distinct Marie Antoinette vibe - minus the wigs, as far as I can tell. She’s even corseted in her own ultra-2020 way; poured into an impeccably sharp, structured black velvet suit by Peter Dundas, heavy with floral beadwork and as decadent as the confections laid out on the table.

“I just wanted to feel fabulous today because I’m so tired,” she laughs. And we get it. New season Peter Dundas would put a pep in anyone’s step, and Sonam knows it more than most. She is, after all, a fashion girl - and not just in a reductive, regular-fixture-on-the-best-dressed-lists way. No, the actress talks with confidence and depth about the transformative, often political nature of style - even dropping in the relatively esoteric ‘hemline index’ as a reference - but is equally as excitable relaying her plans to track down some sold-out, highly coveted black patent thigh-high boots from shoe designer du jour, Amina Muaddi. A girl after our very own hearts.

“Fashion and art is in my blood,” she explains, citing going along to a model fitting with her mum, a fashion designer, at the age of six as the moment that changed it all for her. “I was fascinated. The models were just so free!” she says, eyes wide at the memory of them flitting from look to look; relaxed, beautiful and totally comfortable in their own skin. A fantasy world that made a lasting impression.

“There are some things that are just entrenched in my and my sister’s DNA. We’ve always loved and had a lot of respect for fashion… and not necessarily just from the point of view of a consumer. It’s more about enjoying the creativity of it, especially in the age of social media where you constantly have the latest It-item merry-go-round. That’s why I really appreciate couture, and high or fine jewellery. Those are things that should never go out of fashion - they should age beautifully and their value should increase over time.”

Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery necklace in white gold with diamonds, rubellites and pearls. Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery ring-bracelet in white gold with diamonds, rubellites and emeralds. Dress, POA; Headpiece, POA, both Giambattista Valli Haute Couture

We give ourselves brief permission to gaze out of one of the giant windows and idly wonder what this philosophy means her wardrobe at home in Notting Hill must look like. An emporium of couture dreams, no doubt. “I have two or three pieces I would save from a burning building,” she says, gamely playing along with one of our favourite questions. You’d be surprised how much you can tell about a person by what they choose.

“I have an Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking suit - one of the original ones,” she tells us with understandable pride. “And I bought this cage corset from Gaultier. You know, one of those with the conical bra. It’s amazing,” she grins. “And then one of Valentino’s original red dresses. Although I really hope my house doesn’t burn down… I’d have a heart attack. I’ve been collecting vintage since I was 15!”

It’s quite the sartorial line-up, and satisfyingly enough, one where each piece is as iconic as the last - but not just in terms of aesthetic appeal. Unwittingly or not, Sonam has chosen designs woven with seminal feminist power and history; each one shorthand for very specific moments in time for gender politics. Most clothes hold stories in their seams, but these ones are manifestos.

They’re apt choices for a woman who not only unashamedly celebrates the beauty of fashion, but who has also become just as known for her outspoken feminist spirit, both on- and off-screen. “You have to lead by example,” she tells me. “When you make choices - especially in a country like India where there’s a lot of misogyny and chauvinism - the choices you make are so important where films are concerned. A film will live on beyond you. We all have social media these days, right? But there’s only so much you can communicate through it that will stick around for posterity. You can like an Instagram post that’s insignificant, or tweet something with only a limited amount of characters, but when you participate in film, I feel it can genuinely change things because it’s two hours of you telling a story. That stays with people.”

Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery necklace in white gold with diamonds, turquoise and pearls. Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery bracelet in white gold with diamonds, turquoise and pearls. Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery earrings in white gold with diamonds, turquoise and pearls. Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery ring in white gold with diamonds, turquoise and pearls. Dress, POA, Ralph & Russo

Her earnestness is infectious - but mostly because what she is saying is just so damn true. Art can change people’s minds - and that’s real power. “Whatever work I do as an artist has to be a reflection of my moral compass, and what I believe in speaking out about. So yeah… I do ‘strong female leads’,” she says, the smallest hint of an eye-roll creeping in, the remnants of probably having said that turn of phrase a million times. Perhaps it’s getting patronising - or hackneyed - like so many things relating to the fight for equality. “I am very careful to make the women I represent, women I would want to know.”

It’s an honourable stance, and one she’s had quite a number of opportunities to pursue, despite initially not wanting to go into acting at all (“I wanted to direct,” she tells me, “It took two years for them to persuade me to get in front of the camera instead.”) Those ‘strong female leads’ she’s talking about have ranged from Zoya Haida in Raanjhanaa - “I feel like that character changed the way people looked at me as an actor,” she admits, the film widely considered as a turning point in her career - to Neerja Bhanot, the real-life heroine who died saving hundreds of passengers on the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986.

“Zoya made some desperate choices, was a really strong girl, and came out on top. Then there was Khoobsurat where I played Mili. It was a Disney film and what I loved about it was that it told young girls that you don’t have to change yourself or look like a traditional princess to marry a prince. You can be clumsy and dress the way you like and people should love you for who you are. It’s a basic idea, but especially with Instagram being so prevalent these days I feel like a lot of girls don’t realise it’s ok to be awkward and to be yourself,” she says with a smile.

“And then the other film was Neerja, the biography of the air hostess who was 23 and saved everyone’s life. She came from the same socio-economic background as me, she also lived in Bombay, went to a similar school, was brought up in the same way… I felt she was like me, she was just a regular girl,” Sonam explains. “She is the only person who has won an award in India, Pakistan and America for bravery,” she continues with visible admiration. “You go and watch these superhero films and you realise that normal people can be superheroes. The only way you have courage is to work through your fear. You’re far more courageous if you’re actually scared of what you’re doing.”

Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery tiara in white gold with diamonds, emeralds and pearls. Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery necklace in white gold with diamonds, emeralds and pearls. Bvlgari High Jewellery ring in white gold with diamonds, rubellites and rubies. Dress, Dhs4,055, Bazza Alzouman

It seems remiss not to ask the obvious at this point. What’s the most courageous thing she’s ever done? “Becoming an actor,” she answers, not missing a beat. Staying with the superhero theme, she laughs, “I know it’s cheesy, but what Spiderman says is true; ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ And I do feel responsible.”

Responsible enough to put her name to countless philanthropic causes, but also to use her craft to move crucial conversations forward - and often against a highly problematic cultural backdrop. “For me, female empowerment is very important, especially because I’m from a side of the world where women have always been second-class citizens.” We point out that it’s a global issue, not necessarily just specific to Asia, but instead something that impacts every woman in one way or other.

“Yes, that’s true. I mean, whether it’s pay disparity or the way we’re treated. But for example, in India I’ve done a couple of films with big male movie stars and I wouldn't get as big or as nice a room as them, or they’d be put up in a better hotel… They’d also be paid significantly more, and then they’d try to explain to me, ‘Oh, it’s a commercial venture… let’s see how much your Friday opening will be.’ So I was like, ‘OK, I’ll work with less successful actors in that case, and see how much they get paid.”

The indignation bounces off her, and her crew of female employees all shuffle uncomfortably as her words hit home. Here are a group of women - myself included - that have all been there. Perhaps not in an identical sense, but who have all certainly felt incredulity at the sheer imbalance in the world, or been angry at the brazenness of the status quo. With that week’s Oscars red-carpet conversation still reverberating online, I ask what she thought of Natalie “Here are the all-male nominees” Portman’s cape, stitched with the names of all the female directors that were snubbed at this year’s awards - a prime example of how clothes truly can become a call-to-arms.

Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery Poncho necklace in pink gold with diamonds. Dress, Dhs52,000, Valentino

“Yeah, I saw it,” she says. “I love her and I think she’s quite incredible. She's made some hard choices as well with her work. You know, I was a little stressed out during the start of the Me Too movement. There were a lot of genuine cases, and also a few that weren’t, and I thought that it would impact it in a negative way. My husband said something amazing… he said that it’s been so imbalanced for such a long time that it has to go the other way for the scales to be centred. Yes, people are pushing it way too much… especially in India, it was impossible for anyone to have a conversation with anyone without a huge fight. [My husband] said it's very important for men to stand up for women, and the more men do that, the better it will be.”

Aside from a cheerleading husband, Sonam does have one other piece of ammunition in her armoury that most of us don’t - a powerful Bollywood superstar, Anil Kapoor, as a father. Is he part of the problem, or part of the solution?

“He didn't understand it,” Sonam tells me about when she recounted her experiences on set to her dad. “My father is such a feminist and he just didn't get it. I would say, “Dad, they’ve done this and that, and he would say, ‘So walk off the set.’ And I’d tell him how much competition there was, and that someone else would get the role, and he’d say, ‘That doesn’t matter.’ And sometimes I couldn’t do it. He was right.”

Like anything so complex, though, there are nuances to this - ones Sonam addresses without even having to be asked. “I have a safety net, unlike a lot of girls,” she acknowledges. “I have a family that can take care of me and a father who believes in me. For him, there’s no difference between my brother and I. So I can make those hard choices - but it’s easier for me to make them than anyone else because I’m operating from a position of privilege.”

Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery necklace in platinum with diamonds and pearls. Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery earrings in white gold with diamonds and pearls. Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery bracelet in platinum with diamonds and pearls. Bvlgari Jannah High Jewellery ring in white gold with diamonds and pearls. Dress, Dhs4,720, Marques’Almeida at Matches Fashion. Hat, POA, Georges Hobeika

She sighs, “Initially a lot of male actors were like, ‘Oh we don't want to work with Sonam because she won’t do a certain thing, or she won’t behave in a certain way, she doesn't toe the line…’ Really chauvinistic stuff. It used to be so hard, but now there's slowly more respect for it. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you have all this money, your father is so-and-so… and they’re right. But it’s up to you - if you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth then you already have an advantage. You can’t just be the poor little rich girl or feel sorry for yourself - no. I have to make those harder choices and pave the way for other women after me. My whole team are women - and we need to lift each other up. There are thousands of years of patriarchy to cut through.”

I look round and her team smile. They’re in good hands.

Photography by ÉRIC GUILLEMAIN
Styling by ANNA CASTAN

Editor in Chief: Olivia Phillips. Art Director: Oscar Yanez. Photography Assistant: Stan Reygrange. Make-up: Arti Nayar. Hair: Alpa Khimani. Producer: Khushi Rawat. Set Designer: Samantha Francis. Fashion Assistants: Anna Smolenko, Nour Bou Ezz, Rima Varghese.

With special thanks to Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort