January 2016: She’s self-made from the start, actor, wife and mother—this, you knew. Meet the Goth chic, deep thinker, voracious reader, design aficionado, fresh author of a parenting book and much more… Sonali Bendre is in bloom.
The door to Sonali and Goldie’s apartment opens to reveal a giant shiny silver Ganesha ensconced in an ornate domed mini temple, also in silver, at the end of the marble reception area. And although my pre-interview expectations had been conflicting—she’s of the era where you were ‘good friends’ until you were married; my interest had however been piqued by reviews that called her book honest and contemporary—whether or not I know it, I’ve subconsciously made up my mind in a split second. Traditional style, same-old same-old.
It’s the only explanation for why, seconds later, I was so incredibly surprised when I followed the help into the living room where I was to wait. It is dramatic, high-design, Goth-European. With lush wooden floors, deep blues and blacks, and bursting with books. Indian elements, so subtle you’d almost miss them, link the décor. I can’t get over it, and sneakily look around for a CCTV before taking a picture. (There wasn’t one, unlike most stars’ and modern parents’ homes. And I didn’t, just FYI.)
Over a long ambling conversation, interrupted only by the attention-seeking Isis-the-dog, Sonali Bendre Behl continues to surprise. She arrives, in a grey skater dress with nary a hint of make-up and accessories, and apologises for keeping me waiting. It’s been a hectic day organising her 10-year-old son Ranveer’s schedule (“He wants to do everything!”); and she’s been in constant touch with her publishers over her recent book, The Modern Gurukul: My Experiments with Parenting.
Becoming a mother, and then writing this book about her journey through motherhood have been the epochal moments of her life. Until Ranveer was born, she barely felt married—so footloose and fancy-free was life with her best friend and easy in-laws—and neither did Goldie. When she was pregnant, she was quite confident, blasé even: “I am a completely self-made person. It’s been a tough journey—I learnt on the job, worked 48 hours without sleeping… I’ve achieved all this, I can do anything.” So, having read everything there was to read, Superwoman had shrugged her shoulders and said, “So big deal! It’s a child! I will deal with it!”
And, she got put in her place. “It’s nothing like what the books tell you.” The first six months were hell. “First, it was a fight to say why is my square peg not fitting into this round hole, but it didn’t. It’s an individual with a mind of his or her own already.” And then she accepted it was not going to happen. “You just figure that, whatever anyone says, you have to start figuring things out vis-à-vis your child.”
As she explains in her book, when she started looking for answers, they were everywhere. In storybooks and TED Talks, newspaper articles and celeb interviews, and in discussions with girlfriends who were also mothers. Her quest eventually led her to the gurukul system, where the emphasis was on raising a ‘compassionate human being using a holistic approach.’
As her tattered bible of notes became rather famous, her girlfriends sparked the idea of getting it published. “It was a big laugh at first,” she says, though a chance party conversation had Random House interested.
It was only two years later, in 2014, that she got around to writing. She’d spent six months doing a TV show; by the time she finished, she had organised her life in such a way that it was working on her phone. Suddenly there was a new vacuum “and a vacuum is a dangerous place”—so for six months, while her husband was on shoot and Ranveer was at school, she wrote.
“Even history tells you that travelling is the best teacher. It makes you less judgemental and more open to accepting different kinds of people and situations.”
What started out being a compilation of her observations turned out to be a lot more personal and revealing about her, Goldie and Ranveer than she “ever wanted, expected or dreamt of” it being. When the book was ready, she panicked—“I was such a private person; I wasn’t even on Twitter!”—and was willing to put it away as a not-so-wasted effort, because at least it had given her a chance to introspect.
Goldie was most pleased about the chapter on fathers. “He felt parenting becomes all about mother… what about him and men like him who want to be hands-on? Even in educated households, mothers-in-law will say, ‘Arrey woh toh maa ka kaam hai, why are you doing it?’ It’s frustrating because a lot of fathers want to be involved.”
More importantly, he, and the book in general, have pushed her boundaries. “When people come to interview you as a Bollywood actress, they are not interested in your answers or what you think, beyond a point.” There is a construct of an actress of a certain generation, I agree, and Sonali says she never fit in. “There’s a hidden Goth in me; I have a dark sense of humour; I have a dark sense of fashion. I’m a straight lines, no-fuss person. I’m actually the opposite of what my profession wants me to be, in a sense.”
But it was a private non-conformism, not one she broadcast to the world. “Goldie told me that, if my grouse was that I was never asked interesting questions and wasn’t on social media, how, exactly, was anyone to know me, to know any different?”
This was around the time she was doing talent shows, opening up, saying what she had to say, unscripted. And, for someone who had once said she was terrified of social media, she’s finally on it, enjoying it and admitting that staying away had been a mistake.
"At film interviews, they only ever want trivia—they are not interested in anything but the trivia. My favourite colour, food, book, movie, song, eye colour, perfume… all those sorts of things.
I’ve always given different answers at different points of time because it actually changes for me. And sometimes I’ve given different answers for cheap thrills. Then there are days when I tell the truth: ‘I’m actually allergic to perfume, I don’t use it.’
No one has ever contradicted saying, ‘But last time you said black. How are you saying white is your favourite colour?’ Because nobody’s bothered to read it; no one’s really interested. It is trivia and it is trivial."
A large part of her new interest in (and knowledge about) technology and social media has come for and from Ranveer. He’s 10 and on Instagram, and it’s terrifying. “As Goldie says, we can’t ban him, so now I join him.” In any case, as she says in the book, her principal ideas of new-age parenting are learning and growing with your children (they ask “Google God”), and relying on their ability to self-censor. So far it’s working. “I’ve had times where he has said, ‘Mama, that’s PG 13, I know I’m not supposed to see it.’”
There was this time when Sonali was cutting his nails and he said, “This is the finger that I’m not supposed to show right?”
“He was six or seven! Kids are exposed to so much more; there is so much more happening. They are going to see it; they are going to hear that F word… So you bring up your child to understand the right and wrong much earlier than we did: what I would have had to know at 15 or 16, he has to know at five or six.”
HER MOTHER’S DAUGHTER
Much like her parents, giving her child the tools to handle the world is key to Sonali and Goldie’s parenting strategy. Despite having more flops than hits, she was working with every top star and banner in the country—and attributes this to her professionalism and independence.
“My mother never came to the sets.
I have a younger sister and she said, ‘I have a daughter at home who needs me. If you were working in an office, you think I would be sitting next to you at a desk?’ was her question.
I said, ‘No, but everybody’s mother seems to go with them.’
She said, ‘I can’t. You have to grow up at some point and handle a few things on your own. I will have to trust my upbringing and believe that you will take the right decisions. I would only tell you one thing—just remember, it’s never too late to turn back and come home. The doors are always going to be open.’
That has been my life lesson, and I just hope I can do that for my child. Because I think there’s nothing more you can do than that.”
Sonali is unabashed about being from a regular middle-class Maharashtrian family; a product of a series of Kendriya Vidyalaya schools as a result of her father’s transferable government job. The rootlessness has left her with the ability to project a false sense of being comfortable and be friendly while never totally opening up, and the confidence to give up trying to fit in.
And then she met and married Goldie—a boy with deep roots in Juhu, Mumbai, where he’s grown up and they now live, and in the film industry, where he’s third-generation. “There are a lot of people who are family; a lot of people who are such close friends that they are like family.”
She muses over her mug of coffee for a moment. “Maybe I became a loner because we travelled so much,” adding that writing letters to friends didn’t really work. She reaps the benefits of Goldie’s tapestry of connections: “Juhu’s like a village! It’s a great support system, especially for a child… and we are, eventually, social animals.”
Life is coming full circle, though Facebook, that has been the amalgamation of connections past for most of us, hasn’t worked as well for her. With a touch of the endearing naïve befuddlement à la those aunties who still send the ‘FWD: FWD: FWD’ jokes, this social media newbie says, “There are lot of strange people who tell me we were classmates... in schools I’ve never been to…” She attributes her not recognising the ‘former classmates’ who add her to a poor memory for names and faces; I propose the obvious instead. It’s the stardom—people remember meeting or having been in school with someone who became famous, and are happy to invent and exaggerate friendships. Then there’s the platoon of creeps, of course.
Her husband and her have a special connection, despite there apparent dissimilarities. Like her, he started working, grew up really early in life, owing to the early death of his father. He’s more romantic than she is, the “dramas” of flowers and jewellery were never part of her life. That she forgets birthdays and anniversaries (and doesn’t mind if people forget hers) is something Goldie is just about coming to terms with—it’s the small gestures that matter. “That’s the person I am, and I think that, again, comes from the rootlessness. It’s not such a big deal, those dates… you take whatever comes.”
It is his decision not to have a second child, and she’s happy to go with his conviction. “He says we’ve had enough responsibilities, so there should be a time where we have none. We’ve never done what our teenage friends were doing, so are really looking forward to having that time out to ourselves.” Doing what, exactly? “You know, travel, learn something… Maybe there are certain things that teenagers do that we’ll never feel like doing; other things we would want to do…”
Obviously not someone who dwells on regrets, Sonali does regret how late she started working out. As a skinny person, she didn’t need to workout to lose weight—now, she realises muscles are her best friends, and she doesn’t have enough of those. She started when Ranveer was around three, not to lose the postpartum weight but to keep up with him. The working injuries started catching up; her core and joints were like jelly.
Physiotherapy got her started; now, she does cardio and strength training at the local gym, but not more than four days a week, not more than half an hour. “Any more becomes boring and mindless.” She does functional training at home on days she can’t make it to the gym in the morning.
“My routine is very simple, because I realised that the more complicated the exercise sessions are, the less likely I am to make it for them. They have to be simple and doable in my daily routine.” Everyone has to figure out his or her own way to do it—much like her parenting mantra.
Letting people see the real you, not giving a damn and being yourself in public is a crucial, liberating step in the evolution of a person, an artist, charting his or her own path, I believe. Though she’s not a hundred per cent there yet, she’s followed a classic trajectory. “I was very young when I started, so I’ve tried to conform and do things as they are meant to be.” But, beyond that, “I never tried to fit in, and I’m not even today. I don’t see any reason why I should want to fit in.”
The real Sonali Bendre Behl stands up.
An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Good Housekeeping in January 2016.