By Bollywood standards, Soha Ali Khan entered the film industry very late—at the age of 25. Before becoming an actor, she worked as a banker and as a consultant at the Ford Foundation. Khan didn’t know she would eventually become an actor but even if she had, it may not have made a difference to her educational pursuits. In an interview, she talks about her educational background and why she chose to become an actress. Edited excerpts:
You graduated in modern history from Oxford University and subsequently did your master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics (LSE). What made you choose these subjects? Did you have a career path in mind?
I always wanted to study abroad. I did my schooling from The British School in Delhi, where I lived with my parents, and so I was always in a protected and familiar environment. I wanted to step out of the comfort zone. Going abroad was a family tradition of sorts; my father and grandfather went to Balliol College and I wanted to go there too.
I have always liked history and after having studied modern history for three years, I thought international relations would be a natural extension. I chose these subjects more for academic fulfilment than professional application. Before I pursued my master’s at the LSE, I worked for the Ford Foundation for a year as a programme associate. After finishing my master’s, I again went to the Ford Foundation for a year and moved to Mumbai to work for Citigroup as a private banker.... I worked (there) for a year and a half. I used to handle the investment portfolio of HNI (high net-worth individual) clients. This was in 2003, when our country didn’t have too many investment avenues, so I found myself doing the same thing over and over again.
I quit my job and decided to try films. It’s actually very difficult to not get seduced by the film industry. I met Amol Palekar, who offered me the film Paheli, but it didn’t work out. I then did a Bengali film and debuted in Bollywood with Dil Maange More. I was 25 then.
When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?
I was always interested in theatre, but I never really thought about film as a career choice. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and that was not a great time for cinema. The films didn’t appeal to my sensibilities and I found most of them regressive and frivolous, especially for women. But a lot has changed since then; we are now in the golden era. There wasn’t a big moment of realization. I don’t have a five-year plan and I am a bit impulsive. I enjoy doing films and the perks that come with the job.
My parents were not happy about my decision to join the film industry. They thought I was doing injustice to my education and my mother also felt that I wasn’t cut out to be a typical heroine.
If you knew you wanted to be an actor, would you have done anything differently? Do you think your educational background influences your film choices?
Absolutely not. I am who I am because of what I studied, the experience I gained and the places I lived in. I may have joined the film industry, but that does not mean my education was a waste. I have acquired a skill set to be able to read huge amounts of material, simplify jargon and pick out the salient points.
And films are my third career, so who is to say what I do next? In terms of choices of films, cinema is not cerebral; it’s emotional. If a script appeals to your heart, you just want to be a part of it even if you get to be a small part of it.
Let’s talk a bit about money. Most modern women aspire to be financially independent, but one needs to be in control as well. You should know where you are investing your money or how much you are spending.
I am a control freak and my finances are no exception. I do seek professional advice; I have my relationship managers and wealth managers, but I am fully involved. I do periodic reviews of my portfolio. Yes, one needs professional help but I feel you can’t delegate financial management completely because if something goes wrong, then you have only yourself to blame, because you never cared in the first place. I have a diversified portfolio. I invest in equity and debt mutual funds. The other big investment that I have is real estate. I have very little exposure to gold. I know real estate is not liquid and can be tricky since I have burnt my fingers in the past. So I make sure I don’t overexpose myself to real estate. I am also very wary of projects that sound too good to be true and/or are still under construction.
I have health insurance but not too much life insurance plans because I don’t think I need life insurance. I don’t have any dependents. I have some life insurance policies but they are more of investment products.
What about important facets of money like cash flows and budgeting? Coming from an aristocratic family, one assumes these would be alien concepts.
I think it’s a misconception to think that aristocracy equals cash. Aristocracy may equal stature or inheritances, which by the way are not liquid. They are things like a palace, which is more of a financial liability because you spend enormous amounts to maintain it, but it most certainly doesn’t equal cash. My mother is from a middle-class family and the whole concept of hisaab-kitaab is ingrained in her. Even to this day, we write down our expenditures and then work backwards. So even as a child I was well aware of budgeting.
I have always relied on my career for financial independence and I work in an industry where the payments are irregular and marked by delays and middlemen. So I am very particular about cash flows. I use my credit card like my debit card. I don’t spend money that I don’t have. Even if there are future payments due, I don’t spend in anticipation of that money unless I see the money in my account.
You feel that actors have a short lifespan, which means that professionally one needs to diversify. What are your future plans?
Kunal (Khemu, her husband) and I have opened a production house called Renegade Films Pvt. Ltd. We are producing a film. As someone who always complains about a dearth of good scripts, I felt I should start producing films. I definitely see myself retiring from the film industry and I would like to get into writing.
Sometime back you tweeted about Raghuram Rajan’s exit as the Reserve Bank of India governor. It got you some unsavoury comments. The incident highlighted the stereotype that people in the entertainment industry don’t have an informed opinion on current events. Does this frustrate you?
Yes, it does, but I tend to take the comments on Twitter with a pinch of salt. I don’t think Twitter truly reflects the perception of society. Yes, there are problems of misogyny, of stereotypes, of biases, but what you see on Twitter is a little more orchestrated, a little more sinister. The conversation gets hijacked by a group of loyalists who attack you. I ignore Twitter comments, but there are times when it becomes important to take a stand.
But how do you escape peer pressure given that you are part of the glamour world?
In Mumbai, you will always find people who are way richer than you and way poorer than you. So it’s important to identify your own lifestyle regardless of the people around you and maintain that lifestyle. That’s what I do. I don’t aspire to someone’s lifestyle.
Also, I feel that in our industry actors have an expiry date so they need to make the most of their sunshine years. I am in my sunshine years so I don’t want to splurge on shoes and bags. I want to be sensible about money and live within my means.
Name: Soha Ali Khan
Invests in: Equity and debt mutual funds, real estate.
Money habit: ‘My mother is from a middle-class family and the whole concept of ‘hisaab-kitaab’ is ingrained in her. Even to this day, we write down our expenditures and then work backwards. So even as a child I was well aware of budgeting.’