To me, my parents’ relationship is like a Bollywood movie. Anil, an actor, and Sunita, a former model and fashion designer, met in high school, fell in love, and have been happily married for 35 years.
When we were young, my brother, sister and I would be embarrassed when they called each other “baby” and were affectionate in front of us. But they were best friends and partners, supporting one another’s goals and working together to raise their family, regardless of what society dictated.
When my dad was struggling at the start of his acting career, for instance, my mom supported the two of them financially through modelling work, even though she hated being in front of the camera. And when I was five or six, my dad – who has always identified as a feminist – would take me to set with to take the pressure off my mom, which was unheard of at the time and still uncommon. (This wasn’t always easy for him: Once, I threw a tantrum after my laces came undone, and my dad had to leave a scene mid take because I wouldn’t let anyone else retie them.)
With these kinds of actions, my parents, idealistic children of the ’70s, taught us their progressive principles. Watching them, I learned the value of hard work, honesty, tolerance and a strong moral compass, and that what I could accomplish didn’t have to be limited or decided by my gender.
While this may be common knowledge in other parts of the world (in theory if not always in practice), growing up in India, this was revolutionary. Here, many of us worship goddesses and elect women to the most powerful offices, yet women still aren’t seen as equal to men.
But at home, there was no difference between my brother and I, between my mom and my dad. Seeing my parents interact as equals, I knew I too could have a voice someday. I felt empowered to stand up for myself.
The actions and values I observed at home have guided me throughout my career, and in many ways shaped it. In the past, this has meant walking away from so-called prestigious films where I wasn’t receiving the treatment or pay I felt I deserved (the industry is still very patriarchal), and others that didn’t align with my worldview. But my upbringing has also led to exciting projects that have the power to spread my values further.
Cinema can be a reflection of what society is going through, but once in a while, you can be part of something that can actually change the way people think. My dad and I recently collaborated on our first film together, “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga” (“This is How I Felt When I Saw That Girl”), in which he plays my father, and I play his closeted lesbian daughter, trying to find a way to come out to him.
As the first Bollywood movie about a lesbian relationship, we knew it wasn’t going to be a commercial hit in conservative India, and since we filmed it before gay sex was decriminalized last September, we weren’t sure the film would be released at all. But my dad said, “We need to change the way people think about these things. You have to be OK with loving whoever you want to love, or being whoever you want to be.” I couldn’t agree more.
Last year, I followed in my parents’ footsteps and married my own best friend, a kind, sensitive man who is comfortable expressing his feelings and cares deeply about the world around him. When I look at him, I see so many of the values that were passed down to me. In fact, I don’t know if I would have chosen him had I not been raised to cherish those qualities – and I have my parents to thank for that.
The more I think about it, inheritance is not about money, or property or legacy. It’s the values you instill in your children. Teach them to do the right thing and to stand up for themselves and others, for the benefit of their future selves and the people around them. Everything else is secondary.
Sonam Kapoor is an award-winning actor.
This is part of a series of features around the theme of family commissioned by model Adut Akech, CNN Style’s 10th guest editor.
Next, read photographer Hannah Reyes Morales’ essay on family that transcends time and borders.
Photo: AP Images