Days after giving birth to her first child – an emergency caesarean after the cord had wrapped itself around the baby’s neck – Kareena Kapoor Khan stood undressed and alone in front of a mirror in her bedroom. “There I was: scarred, chubby, puffy, tired,” she recalls of that moment in 2016. “I saw the baby bulge, the dark circles, the dressing bandage of my C-incision. I cannot describe how I felt.”
The image is stark; after all, if there is such a thing as Bollywood royalty, Kapoor Khan is it. The daughter of Bollywood legends, often described as among the most glamorous women in Bollywood, she is married to one of the leading actors of Hindi cinema and over two decades has become one of India’s most bankable stars.
Nonetheless, 20 years in the limelight has not stopped Kapoor Khan being open about parts of her life that most celebrities keep hidden. This has always set her apart in Bollywood and it is this approach that she has brought to her most recent project.
On the surface, Kapoor Khan’s book – described as a bible of practical pregnancy advice shaped around her experience of giving birth to two sons – appears to be an uncontroversial piece of celebrity publishing. Yet, for the Indian market, it is a quietly revolutionary offering within the genre. The topic of sex and libido during pregnancy, for example, is covered extensively, including a helpful range of suggested sexual positions. Also, she deals with the stigmas and trauma that can follow C-sections, which she says are still widely misunderstood in India.
“Nobody wants to talk about belching and swollen feet and not feeling sexy enough, or hair loss, or getting such bad mood swings you don’t even feel like talking,” she says. “That’s why we talk about sex in the book. Most women in India get scared to address this issue. But these are things that we should be talking about.”
‘If I do anything, I give it my all’ … Kareena Kapoor Khan in 2016. Photograph: Divyakant Solanki/EPA/Shutterstock
For all the glitz that surrounds her life, Kapoor Khan doesn’t seem to have a superstar ego when we meet in her apartment in Mumbai, the monsoon rains thundering down outside. She is dressed casually in leggings and an oversized T-shirt, her face fresh and makeup-free; she has just been playing with her five-year-old, Taimur. She settles in comfortably, with her bare feet scrunched up on a green velvet sofa. She may be 41, but it is not long before she is describing herself as a gobby Punjabi girl who “likes to say it as it is”.
“I’ve never really done anything in my life that’s half-baked. If I do it, I give it my all,” she says with a wide smile. Until five years ago, that had meant mainly throwing herself into an endless stream of film roles, from her celebrated debut, at 20, in 2000’s Refugee, to starring in some of the biggest Hindi films this century, such as Jab We Met, 3 Idiots and Bodyguard. Frequently billed as the “most beautiful woman in India”, she has featured in advertisements for everything from gold and diamonds to disinfectant.
When Kapoor Khan became pregnant with her first child, she felt that the unspoken expectation was that she, as a woman in the public eye, would hide away for the next nine months or so. Instead, she went “guns blazing, full throttle” into a very public pregnancy.
“Most Bollywood actors, when they get pregnant, don’t leave the house because they are stressed about how they look, that they are no longer this glamorous diva, worried if they put on some weight that people will judge them. There’s still a lot of those taboos,” she says. “But I just wanted to own it.”
Most women in India get scared to address sex. But these are things that we should be talking about
She roars with laughter as she recounts how she put on 4st (26kg) during her first pregnancy, having “misused it as an excuse to eat all the pizzas and whatever I wanted”. But despite her fears of how it would affect the Bollywood career she was determined to continue after giving birth, Kapoor Khan posted photos on social media of her struggling to fit into jeans. She continued working on film projects, shot various advertising campaigns and was papped at numerous parties with her bump on full display – a rarity in the contrived world of Bollywood.
“It wasn’t about challenging society in India as much as I wanted to try to normalise things,” she says. “Pregnancy is pretty common, so why are we trying to hide it behind the curtain?”
This year, during a photoshoot for the sports brand Puma while eight months pregnant with her second child, Jehangir, she rebuffed any suggestions that the photos should be retouched. “I don’t want my photos airbrushed because I’m not looking as skinny as Kate Moss … I don’t want to look like that in my photos.”
The book, she says, was an attempt to answer the questions that a lot of Indian women were too afraid to bring up at home; often, they live with their husband’s parents. “A lot of the time, they can’t talk about their emotions, they don’t open up, because in our society a lot of things are not really addressed, especially for women.” Kapoor Khan’s reservations about having children, as an ambitious, career-minded woman, are touched on in her book, as is the fact she briefly considered surrogacy.
At first glance, Kapoor Khan has the classic Bollywood origin story. It is an industry built on dynasties and nepotism and the Kapoors are often described as the “founding family of Indian cinema”, dating back to Prithviraj Kapoor, who starred in India’s first talking picture, Alam Ara, in 1931. Five generations of the family have gone into acting, producing or directing. Kapoor Khan’s father, Randhir Kapoor, was one of the big Hindi actors of the 70s, while her mother, Babita, was the romantic lead in almost 20 Bollywood films in the late 60s and early 70s.
By the time she was an adolescent in the early 90s, though, Kapoor Khan’s parents’ careers had dried up. Her father had asked her mother to stop working in film after they married (they separated amicably when Kapoor Khan was eight) and her father had all but stopped working after a series of flops in the mid-80s. It was her older sister, Karisma, who inspired her to work in Bollywood.
At 17, Karisma had abandoned school to pursue acting; by 18, she was starring in some of the biggest box office hits of the early 90s. As a rebellious, boy-obsessed teenager, Kapoor Khan was dispatched by her mother to a girls’ boarding school in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand. When she returned to Mumbai, she enrolled in film school and by 2000 had landed her first major role, in Refugee; she played the Bangladeshi romantic lead in the film, set during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war.
‘There are a lot of us being very vocal about pay’ … with Anushka Sharma at an awards event in 2016. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Kapoor Khan is dismissive of accusations of nepotism, adamant that neither she nor her sister has ever been given a role on the basis of anything other than hard work. “When Karisma joined the film industry, she was the only one in the family working. So it was us, the women, who took the dynasty forward,” she says.
Her career was in full flight in 2012 when she decided to marry Saif Ali Khan, whom she had met on set. He was 10 years her senior and previously married, with two children. It was a move that met with raised eyebrows in Bollywood circles.
“When I married Saif, so many people told me that my career would be over because no producer wants to work with a married actress,” she says. “At that time, no other Bollywood actress got married and then continued to work. But I just thought: OK, well, if it does end my career, then that’s fine, that’s my destiny. I’m not going to not marry the person that I love.”
Kapoor Khan believes much has changed in Bollywood. Equal pay for male and female actors, for example, while far from the norm, has finally become part of the conversation. Actors such as Anushka Sharma are challenging the fact that women routinely get paid a quarter of what their male co-stars receive; Deepika Padukone has said she has turned down roles because she was not paid the same as her male co-stars.
“Just a few years ago, no one would talk about a man or woman actually getting equal pay in a movie. Now there are a lot of us being very vocal about it,” says Kapoor Khan. Recent unconfirmed news that she had asked for 120m rupees, about £1.2m, for her starring role in the Bollywood recreation of the Hindu epic Ramayana, provoked outrage in India, with reports accusing her of greed and suggesting that she be replaced with a younger actor. But that figure pales in comparison with the 500m to 1.3bn rupees demanded by some of Bollywood’s biggest male stars.
“I make it quite clear what I want and I think that respect should be given,” she says. “It’s not about being demanding, it’s about being respectful towards women. And I think things are kind of changing.”
Yet for all Kapoor Khan’s steely determination to speak her mind, there is one area in which she conforms uniformly to the Bollywood stereotype: any mention of the government and she recoils. Bollywood has always stayed close to the corridors of power in India, where every film requires approval from the government’s censorship board. Actors who are considered too political are often perceived as a liability.
When I married Saif, people told me my career would be over because no producer wants to work with a married actress
As India continues to lurch towards the authoritarian right under the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi, pressure for Bollywood to speak out – as their Hollywood counterparts have done in the face of leaders such as Donald Trump – has been mounting. The freedom of film-makers to make politically challenging work has been shrinking under the Modi government, while numerous wildly inaccurate “historical epics” that bolster Hindu nationalist ideology and sentiment have been produced. Many of Bollywood’s biggest names are Muslim at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment, violence and legislation has been increasing. Many people believe Hindu and Muslim actors should use their powerful positions to make a stand.
Kapoor Khan, who is Hindu, and her husband, who is Muslim, have been caught up in this maelstrom. They were subjected to brutal online abuse by rightwing Hindu trolls over their children’s names. The couple were accused of naming their sons after Muslim invaders responsible for killing Hindus and Sikhs: Taimur was the name of a Turkic conqueror who violently sacked Delhi in 1398, while Jehangir, which means “conqueror of the world”, was the imperial name of a 17th-century Mughal emperor. Trolls likened their choices to naming their children after Hitler or a “genocidal maniac”.
The abuse got so bad that they considered changing Taimur’s name. With Jehangir, they tried to conceal his name from the public by referring to him as Jeh, but it leaked out. The subject is still so sensitive that when I put it to Kapoor Khan, the publicist sitting beside her hurriedly tries to halt the question.
But Kapoor Khan holds up her hand. “It’s OK; I can answer this causally,” she says. “Honestly, these are names that we just liked; it’s nothing else. They are beautiful names and they’re beautiful boys. It’s unfathomable why somebody would troll children. I feel terrible about it, but I have to just focus and get through it. I can’t be looking at my life through the trolls.”
Modern family … Kapoor Khan with her husband, Saif Ali Khan, and their elder son, Taimur, in 2018. Photograph: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images
But does she worry about the religiously polarised India in which her children are growing up? After all, she is a Hindu married to a Muslim at a time when several Indian states have virtually outlawed interfaith marriage under a false and damaging notion that Muslim men are marrying Hindu women in order to force them to convert – what is described as “love jihad”.
The publicist erupts again as Kapoor Khan winces. “Please don’t ask me this question,” she says, looking apologetic. “You know how it is; it’s very complicated. I’m really sorry.”
It is certainly true that on the rare occasions some of the big names have made statements on this subject, they have been publicly obliterated. In 2015, Aamir Khan, a previously untouchable figure in Hindi film, spoke of his fears of India’s “growing intolerance”, only to be accused of being part of a conspiracy to defame India. Swara Bhasker, recently a co-star of Kapoor Khan, is one of the few Bollywood actors fiercely outspoken against Modi; she faces an online army of trolls, who harass her with daily death and rape threats. Such incidents are why the comparison with Hollywood is unjust, says Kapoor Khan.
“We always try to compare everything to the west, but we can’t do that, because it’s a different society,” she says. Besides, when it comes to anything else, from pregnancy to the patriarchy, Kapoor Khan has rarely kept her opinions to herself. “It’s unfair to say that we just stay silent,” she says.
Kareena Kapoor Khan’s pregnancy bible is out now