Make way for Sonam Kapoor Ahuja: What’s in a (sur)name when you are a movie star?

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Sonam Kapoor is now Sonam Kapoor-Ahuja. Her actions are a little surprising, but not necessarily regressive. There has been a conversation around Sonam’s name change, and this is the best time to delve into the age-old conversation about patriarchy and surnames.First, the why: Why do women, particularly in Asia, change their surname after marriage? Women are conditioned to be wives and daughters in the eyes of the law, right from childhood. Beyond being obedient and demure, which are classic tropes of how a wife is expected to be, women are expected to hold the home front together efficiently and effectively (or at least more so than their husbands). Acknowledging that one is married and therefore someone’s wife also means that one has accepted this responsibility. Traditionally, this is how Indian society has worked, as have societies across the world with different rules and levels of flexibility.

Sonam Kapoor has gotten hitched in 2018 in India, where couples lead nuclear lives and wedding ceremonies are usually a nod to symbolism — of conscious commitment, of honoring a social contract, and of uniting two families. As couples become increasingly independent and self-sustained, symbolism takes precedence. It pleases everyone momentarily; especially when a (fairy tale) wedding has involved spending massive amounts of time, effort and money. Switching to a husband’s name, or adding his to one’s own, is a conscious nod to convention- by choice and/or by pressure.

From the blissful pictures of Sonam Kapoor during her wedding, one feels that she is genuinely happy and is deeply in love. She beamed in all photos and made dressing up in really heavy, gorgeous bridal outfits easy (it is not!). While it would be premature to hazard a guess as to why she added Ahuja to her name, it might be a safe to assume that it’s a happy impulse especially since she made this change of name within 24 hours of ceremonies wrapping up.

Sonam Kapoor’s bridal lehenga on her wedding day.

However, this does raise a point about convention, given Sonam Kapoor’s status as an open-minded, new-age Hindi film star and her background as a Bollywood kid. In a stratified, caste and religion-divided society like India, the Hindi film industry has always stood out as a neutral playing ground for divisive matters. When it comes to societal rules like changing of surname, Bollywood has always been flexible.

Infact, there was a time when names (first or last) were given so much importance in Bollywood that many actors preferred to go with just one (Tabu, Kajol, Govinda – to name a few) to retain the mysterious aura around themselves.

The Hindi film industry has had a legacy of changing names- but purely for reasons of career advancement. In the past, Dilip Kumar had to change his name to find social acceptance, which Mohammad Yussuf Khan might not have had. Most leading ladies- Nargis, Nutan, Sadhna, Mumtaz- didn’t use a surname at all, to sound cooler and to fit in the mode of a identity-neutral fantasy woman, supposedly. Tragedy queen and one of our best actors, Meena Kumari, had to alter her name from Mahjabeen Bano, for Meena sounded mellifluous. The late Sanjeev Kumar, like her, had to adapt his name from Harihar Jethalal Jariwala. As did Raj Kumar whose real name was Khulbhushan Pandit.

The practice of changing one’s name continued till the ’80s, with Akshay Kumar renaming himself from Rajeev Bhatia, and the comedy king Govinda dropping his surname (Ahuja) for numerological reasons.

But that was then. Today, leading stars stick to their birth names as a sign of identity- so we have Bhumi Pednekar, Kriti Sanon, Disha Patani, and Ayushmann Khurrana. We have a Fatima Sana Shaikh and Kalki Koechlin. We also have a Taapsee Pannu. None of these are user-friendly names so to speak — especially in a film industry where ‘Raj’, ‘Rahul’, and ‘Ria’, ‘Seema’, ‘Maya’ etc are considered synonymous to memorable characters and airy-fairy enough to work for a star.

Besides, diversity is being accepted by filmmakers and audiences alike, so a variety of surnames add to the curiosity factor around an actor today.

Sonam Kapoor and Anand Ahuja/Image from Twitter.

Sonam Kapoor and Anand Ahuja/Image from Twitter.

In a different track, Hindi film heroines have continued to add their spouse’s surnames over the years. So Kareena Kapoor is now Kareena Kapoor Khan, Madhuri Dixit is now Madhuri Dixit Nene and Rani Mukerji is now Rani Mukerji Chopra. Those that didn’t change or alter their surnames after marrying outnumber those that did- Vidya Balan, Juhi Chawla, Shabana Azmi, Twinkle Khanna, Pooja Bhatt, Kongkona Sen Sharma. It’s not yet clear whether Anushka Sharma will add Kohli to hers.

Also read: Sonam Kapoor’s endearing candour, winsome frankness has set her apart from her contemporaries

Sonam Kapoor hails from Bollywood royalty, so to speak. Many from her family have led and delivered unforgettable films and are part of film folklore. Her father, her brothers are actors, with Anil Kapoor’s stardom being amongst the most consistent success stories of Bollywood. As a movie star, Sonam has a special space to herself — of the most fashionable, stylish, sometimes outspoken and usually elegant leading lady of this generation. Choosing convention by adding to her surname will not alter much of this for people.

Given that Sonam Kapoor is a highly recognisable person, a name change could also represent tokenism. The Kapoor surname holds way too much heft in cinema. Therefore, beyond a personal choice or a conventional decision, what strikes one the most about her change in name is that the gesture won’t make much of a difference. That could be a good thing or a bad. Either way, choice is key. After all, what’s in a name when you are a star?

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