It was winter 2015, and a cheesy Bollywood song had flooded the consciousness of Hindi film aficionados. Apparently, all of Instagram was alive with the sound of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, with groups of seemingly normal people suddenly breaking into hip-jerking fits for 15-second videos. All were vying to be the chosen ones who would be regrammed to leading lady Sonam Kapoor’s own feed.
It was the viral marketing strategy of the decade, even more successful than the Salman Khan-starrer itself. And like Sonam’s own trajectory on social media, it was aspirational, spontaneous and completely organic.
There’s something about the 32-year-old Bollywood diva that strikes a chord with her mammoth virtual fan base — 15.3 million followers on Facebook, 10.4 million on Twitter, and 10.3 million on Instagram. It could be her fashion sensibility, of course. Sonam has been Bollywood’s undisputed fashionista — a word she hates, incidentally — ever since her 2010 film Aisha established her reign over all things couture.
She has played showstopper for every designer worth his salt, and walked the red carpet in the unlikeliest of ensembles. Tall, beautiful and imminently photogenic, she is a sight for sore eyes even when dressed in quirky casuals just off a flight — definitely worth a ‘like’, or several million, on social media.
It could also be her Bollywood pedigree and the fact that Sonam’s feeds are full of insider tidbits about her still-in-action star dad Anil; her brother, the rising star, Harshvardhan; and her popular actor cousins Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. But then, Sonam is an award-winning actor in her own right, one of the highest paid in Indian cinema, having acted in over 15 films and two music videos so far. She was famous before Facebook.
Perhaps her immense appeal on the World Wide Web can be put down to her own natural charm, sincerity and joie de vivre. When, in early 2016, she asked people to share stories about facing their fears ahead of the launch of the biopic Neerja, she generated an avalanche of inspiring e-feedback.
Later that year, when she wrote a column, I Didn’t Wake Up Like This for a website, in which she laid bare her cellulite issues, unhealthy eating habits and the army of make-up artists who prepared her before a public appearance, she became the poster girl for feminine body image overnight.
Sonam’s own business acumen definitely has something to do with it. She was India’s first celebrity to launch her own app in May 2016, following in the path of global icon Kim Kardashian, from whom she also learnt to launch her own line of emoji stickers in February this year.
With several posts on social platforms every day, she used the power of the medium to the hilt during the launch of her clothing line Rheson, with sister Rhea as partner, in an onslaught best termed ‘tasteful spamming’. She takes to Twitter to promote films made by her family or friends, she posts about designers she loves on Instagram and, one survey found, uses 22 per cent of her Facebook updates for brand endorsements.
It could also be her increasing fearlessness in the face of trolls. Coming of age in the public eye, Sonam has of late developed a knack of expressing her political or social views and giving it back to those who write her off as a ‘bimbo’. She protested against a four-day meat ban in Mumbai in 2015 and darkly predicted India would remain a third-world nation because of an ‘intolerant, misogynistic few’.
She wrote a 2016 column against trolls in a national daily, which led to further trolling when her words were used out of context to accuse her of not knowing the national anthem. Last month, she tweeted with the hashtag #NotInMyName, joining the protest against the rising cases of mob lynching across India. Each time they came at her, she fought back, fiercely.
It could be her growing confidence in herself as a woman and in her choices. She brushes off lascivious media coverage of her cleavage or other body parts at events, and nonchalantly posts pictures of her fashion entrepreneur beau Anand Ahuja. She clicks selfies without make-up, and is generous with her gratitude for her team and supporters.
‘Social media icon’ is a title Sonam has earned and worn well. They don’t just love her for her Ralph & Russo gown. It’s also the pyjamas she sleeps in. And her dark circles. And the cheeky tongue she stuck out after receiving her National Film Award. And the toothy smile GIFs she showers them with once a day. In a world of clickbaits and fake news, Sonam Kapoor’s realness stands out.