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Love's labour not lost

PRASHANTH G.N.

Sonya Jehan, who plays Mumtaz Mahal in Akbar Khan's opulent film `Taj Mahal,' is not quite sure why he chose her. This granddaughter of Pakistani singer Noor Jehan, gives a realistic estimate of herself.


It meant a lot of hard work, I even broke down crying — I can't do it anymore



THE RIGHT DIRECTION Akbar Khan thinks Sonya looked like Mumtaz "in some ways."

Mumtaz Mahal must be the most beautiful, revered and loved woman in Indian history. And she must have lived the love story of all times. What else is the Taj Mahal but a resplendent testimony of that beauty, reverence and eternal love? To be Mumtaz, you need to carry something of her aura, her passion, her charm. You need to look like her. Does Sonya Jehan, the new face of Hindi cinema, carry all this? The young "married girl", who is playing Mumtaz in Akbar Khan's Taj Mahal - An eternal love story, understands the load.

"I was completely surprised when I was chosen for the role. My first reaction was I don't think I can do it. I don't think I am capable of bringing out the kind of character Mumtaz is. There are so many beautiful women, how come me?"

Sonya is as unknown as anyone is and has yet landed a coveted role in Hindi cinema. She acknowledges that luck came her way. Sonya was studying in London when the offer came. She was doing Textile Design at St. Martin's College of Art and Design when Akbar Khan first approached her. A friend of Akbar had suggested that he meet Sonya to request her for audition.

The friend, from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, happened to be Sonya's uncle, Tahir Khan. "I wondered how I could play Mumtaz. Did I even look like her? There were no photos, but only paintings of Mumtaz. Akbar thought I looked like her in some ways. I was fair and had a small, sharp nose like Mumtaz did. But of course the mole had to be put on me. A lot of research was done and posters of me like Mumtaz were brought out. After make-up I seemed like her. But it must have all happened because I was a fresh face," says Sonya.

Sonya initially refused to take up the offer because she had six months to go for her graduation. Akbar left in a huff. "I thought I had lost the role. If it was not in my kismat, what to do? He came back six months later and I had graduated. He asked me if I was still interested. I said why not?"

Sonya knows something of theatre and acting from her younger days and something of classical dance and singing. Her interest in the performing arts perhaps comes from her rich lineage.

Her dada (grandfather) is Shaukat Hussein Rizvi, the well-known Editor in early Hindi cinema, and her dadi (grandmother), the legendary Pakistani singer-actress, Noor Jehan.

"My dadi was a close friend of Lata and my dada always had a connection with Hindi films from the times of Jugnu. There's been film history in my family but I never thought I'd be in a film."

Sonya says her start in film has been nerve-wracking. "Here was a powerful woman, a historical woman to project. It was challenging. It meant a lot of hard work, I even broke down crying — I can't do it anymore. But I've come away learning a lot in the three years of this film."

Though Sonya has landed a historic role in her first foray, she is realistic about where she stands and how the film may perform. "I hope people give me a chance. I hope they will appreciate a new comer. People are used to popular actors and movies and may be harsh on newcomers. I think that is acceptable."

"But I am not driving to get famous. I am not working to be in the newspapers. I am not there for the money. I only want to do well. If there is no appreciation, it won't kill me. I think I have other talents... I am content with my life."

On her own performance, she makes no bones of what it means to her. "I've done my best. I am not a great actress and I am not comparing myself to anyone. When I look back some years later, I might say I could have done that better, done this better. When you mature, its natural to look at it that way. I am a self-critic by nature." Sonya says she has all her options open and knows she could get offers if the film does well and may not if it doesn't.

When you ask her whether she looks like Mumtaz, Sonya turns to the props. "Yeah, with the get-up. It is really with everything else. When you see me with the jewellery, costumes, and on the sets, I look the character."

Is she beautiful? Sonya gets real. "Yeah, but I am not a beauty. Certain aspects of my face may be attractive, but I would not use the word beautiful. Put-together may be."

Sonya's is a colourful family, as colourful as Hindi cinema itself. Sonya's mother, Florence, is French, while her father, Akbar Rizvi, is from Lucknow, who later settled down in Karachi. "My mother was a rebellious woman. She hitchhiked all the way from France to Pakistan with a boyfriend. She dumped him after two years and met up with Akbar Rizvi in Lahore. They moved to Bombay for a while, had me, and then moved on to Karachi. My mother runs a French restaurant in Karachi and works at the Alliance Francaise." Sonya's father passed away one-and-a-half years ago. Sonya herself is married to Vivek Narain, a banker. She is now settled in New Delhi. "My mother is Catholic, I am a Muslim, married to a Hindu. I am half-Pakistani and half-French." Will this very colourful Sonya live-up to the other colour, Mumtaz?

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