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The Rediff Interview/Sonal Vimal Ambani
July 05, 2004
Sonal Vimal Ambani's mothers & daughters is a tribute to her ailing mother. The 156-page photographic journal features portraits of 101 women who are achievers in various fields, and, more importantly, mothers and daughters. There is the perky nonagenarian grandmother Zohra Segal, young mom Sushmita Sen, supercop Kiran Bedi, the gorgeous Hema Malini with daughter Esha Deol, and many more.
Ambani decided to explore the relationships of these celebrity mothers and daughters after her own mother, Suman Prabhakar Sheth, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two-and-a-half years ago. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Cancer Screening and Research Trust she set up in India to help generate cancer awareness. mothers & daughters also provides information on cancer screening in India.
New York-raised Sonal Ambani, whose husband Vimal is the late Dhirubhai Ambani's nephew, spoke to Principal Correspondent Monika Joshi at Gallery Arts India on the eve of the book's New York launch recently.
How did you go about collecting information for the book?
A lot of the initial contact was through e-mail, which is amazing today. We met with some of them, some of them we spoke to on the phone and then sent the photographer. I had a coordinator in Bombay, so they both went and either did a photo shoot and an interview, or just the photo shoot. Then we would get together again by e-mail for a write-up.
Were you in New York all this while?
I live in Ahmedabad. I grew up in suburban New York, and went to India after my marriage.
I noticed that a lot of web articles about the book have the Shobhaa De picture. Was it a personal favourite?
That's interesting. I guess hers came out really nice. Actually, that was probably one of the longest shoots. But no, they are all really good shots, to be honest. It just happened.
Which of the interviews do you consider the most memorable?
It's so unfair to pinpoint one person, but it was truly a pleasure to meet Sudha Murthy and Akshita Murthy, her daughter. But I really hate to give... whoever I met was very nice. But I guess Akshita and I completely relate at the same level in so many ways.
Which interview was hard to get?
I don't want to give names, but I guess Bollywood was probably the hardest in terms of that we got the pictures, but it was hard to get that final write-up. We really had to close the book, so in a few cases we had to give some choices.
What does the book mean to you?
What it means to me exactly is that this bond between mother and daughter is such a precious bond. You never want to lose this bond prematurely. So please go out and get your mammogram done, get that pap smear done.
My whole objective is to make cancer a less dangerous disease, a disease that women no longer need to die from. Cancer has a 95 percent survival rate if caught at a localised stage before it spreads.
Are you happy with the book? Would you have included more people?
I have another two dozen where either I got the photograph or the write-up and the consent forms. If I didn't have all three, we did not go with the shot. I think we have enough great women out there to do a whole another book. But at one point you have to close down and get the book out.
How long did it take to put the book together?
Two-and-a-half years from the point I started with the very first person to the last probably.
Who was the first person you spoke with?
Jaya Bachchan, whom I happened to meet at a family event. I asked her if she would be in the book, and she said yes. Of course, follow-up, getting that picture and write-up, took time. But she happened to be the first and we were off to a good start.
Are you related to the Ambanis?
I am married to Vimal Ambani, [son of] Dhirubhai's elder brother Ramnikbhai Ambani. We are based in Ahmedabad. The textile division started with Ramnikbhai Ambani. The brand 'Vimal' is named after my husband.
Did you interview the family?
Tinabhabhi did not have a daughter, and unfortunately at that time Neetabhabhi's father was quite sick. So we weren't able to do it.
Did the Ambani name help in the campaign?
To be honest, I guess it's hard for me to say. But I think because it was such a great cause -- early cancer awareness -- that the women said yes.When did you begin work on the book?
Two years ago, in April-May 2002. That's when my mom was detected with cancer. That was the whole idea.The cover was designed by...
By [M F] Husain. He did it just for us, exclusively for the book, which was very kind of him.How did that happen?
My dad has some of his paintings, and then through a common friend we spoke to him about the cause, and he agreed.What was the cost of the project? It's non-profit...
Yes, it's totally non-profit. When I get back I'll put the numbers together. I haven't done the final count yet.
Tell me about the Cancer Screening and Research Trust.
What I would like to do ideally is a whole awareness campaign in India. The saddest part is 75 percent to 80 percent of cancer in India is found out at the last stage. It's too late to do anything. But if the women are aware and they can do pap smears and mammograms early, that can really save their lives.
There are many more things to do, but the first thing is cancer awareness.When was the book launched? Was it Mother's Day?
No, because I wanted to be here for Mother's Day. [Her mother lives in Chestnut Ridge, New York, where Sonal grew up.]
The first launch was in Delhi at the Park Plaza Hotel. Bina Ramani was there; Mira Nair's mother was there, Jaya Jaitly was there. In April, Sunil Dutt released the book in Bombay, which was very appropriate because Nargis Dutt, you know, died of cancer. Then we launched in Calcutta at the Oxford Bookstore. It was a wonderful event too.
You have put together moments mothers and daughters cherished together. What such moments do you recall between yourself and your mom?
There are so many. Just last night we were sitting quietly holding hands and not even saying anything.
And then growing up, all those ballet lessons, all those pick-ups and drop-offs for years, in fact for decades. Driving, driving your kids around to all these classes. It's just her enthusiasm for life. She's a very dynamic, extremely intelligent person. She plays the stock market. 6.30 to 7 everything had to be quiet because the business news was on. She's a very astute stock picker, I think better than probably professionals.How did your daughter Anjali, feel about the book?
It took a lot of time away from her, especially at the end. But she's happy for mom.
Is there another book in the pipeline?
There is, actually [laughs]. Once we are ready we'll tell you.
Photograph: Paresh Gandhi | Image: Uday Kuckian