Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

I hate self-pity: Sonali Bendre-Behl

The actor opens up to Forbes India about dealing with cancer, the positives that have emerged and the role that her book club played during her illness

Kunal Purandare
Published: Jul 20, 2019 07:41:06 AM IST
Updated: Jul 20, 2019 09:51:13 AM IST

I hate self-pity: Sonali Bendre-BehlSonali Bendre-Behl
Image: Mexy Xavier

Sonali Bendre-Behl walks into Granth bookstore in Juhu, suburban Mumbai, on a rain-soaked afternoon in July and immediately inquires about new arrivals. The 44-year-old actor found comfort in books ever since she remembers. In 2015, she authored her first book, The Modern Gurukul: My Experiments with Parenting, and in 2017 she started the Sonali Book Club online to encourage reading.

Last year Bendre-Behl was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, with doctors giving her a 30 percent chance of survival. Not one to wallow in self-pity, she chose to be open about the disease, with posts on social media giving insights into her treatment in New York.

Now, sitting by a window at the store, and sipping hot coffee, Bendre-Behl is dressed in a pink top, an oversized jacket of the same colour and white trousers. She wistfully recalls the year gone by and talks about the positives that have emerged from it. “I am forgetting things so easily now… it’s called brain fog. It happens after chemotherapy. They say it gets better, but I am enjoying it. It’s nice to forget things,” she says with a smile. The pain though is not easy to conceal. “Chemotherapy is hard… the treatment is worse than the disease.”

Q. You shared a nicely worded post on Instagram last July to say you were suffering from cancer.
Every time I have put out a post on cancer, I’ve maintained the reality of the situation without being fake about it, and yet not lost the positivity. And shared it without it making me sound like a victim, because that is one thing I definitely don’t want to be, and won’t be.

While I didn’t want to lie about the pain, I didn’t want to whine and make it into a sad thing. Because you know what: Shit happens. Get on with it. It’s a little boring to be sad and whiny. I said, ‘Let’s look at the plus side of it… you’re in New York, treat it like a holiday and make the most of it’. And I did. There were times when I forgot I was in pain and I had cancer. I had friends and family around me, and we had a good time. I was happy.

And that was my takeway—it’s the relationships that matter. We all say these things, but don’t practice what we say. Having said that I am still attached to material things. It’s not like I am not. But what gave me joy was the fact that my friends and family were there; we could laugh. And you realise that if you can laugh at things, they probably become less scary.

I hate self-pity: Sonali Bendre-BehlSonali Bendre-Behl announced that she was suffering from cancer with an Instagram post that began with: “Sometimes, when you least expect it, life throws you a curveball.” Since then, she has bared her soul on social media, giving insights into her treatment

Q. But the doctors gave you a 30 percent chance of survival. That must have been devastating.
When the doctor said that I couldn’t believe it at all. I was walking 7-8 km every day over there [in New York]. We had just gone from here, we didn’t have an apartment, we hadn’t booked anything. Between appointments with doctors, we were hunting for apartments. And I was on my feet and out there. At the end of the second day, I said if I can be active that means I have it in me. My body is much more resilient; there is much more than I give it credit for. I need to use it the right way. 

I don’t believe in bottling up emotions. Every emotion has a graph. Yes, I cried when I got to know I had cancer, but it’s not that I haven’t cried after that. Of course, I have. Every day there is something. There are good weeks and bad weeks. Only last week, I was in tears. It was terrible. What it made me realise is that I am not that evolved [as a human being]. I might get there. But the point is to acknowledge it, and get out of it. It is going to happen, I am human. I need to feel it and move on.

Q. Where does this positivity come from?
Maybe I am positive as a person, but where is the choice? I definitely didn’t want to be a victim. I hate self-pity.

Q. There’s also the mental aspect of dealing with cancer.
For me, the dealing starts now. My body has been on survival mode. It’s challenging, to put it mildly. Probably that’s why the breakdown. I learnt my lessons. I also realised I am not as strong as I think I am, hence more work needs to be done. I need to give myself more time. Probably I need more tools. What last week’s breakdown also taught me is that it’s okay to ask for help.

Q. Did you ever feel like giving up?
Never. My son [Ranveer, who turns 14 in August] is too young. I have things that I still need to do. I am trying to learn that this is never going to be in my control. It’s just about how I prepare myself for it. I was definitely not prepared. Now that I have time, I need to use it to prepare for the ultimate truth, that at some point we are going to die. 

I hate self-pity: Sonali Bendre-Behl
Q. Did you feel lonely during all this?
[Long pause] Yes and no. Of course there were times when it was lonely. But in the six months that I was there, I had visitors every day. My fraternity has been amazing. As have been my family and friends. It was great bonding with, connecting with, and understanding human beings. When you go through something like this, the people who come to meet you just open up. I’ve known people for 10, 15 years, but never knew the trauma they have been through. Suddenly they open up to you. And that’s the lesson you learn; everybody has gone through something and is going through something. It is never perfect. It’s just the way you deal with it. 

Q. Did you miss home?
I missed my dog a lot. Only dog lovers will understand this. When you have a dog, it’s like a hole in your heart when the dog is not with you.

Coming back to loneliness, I had so much to think about as well. In that loneliness, I started thinking, I was talking, and I discovered that you can’t truly be lonely with yourself. I don’t know if it makes sense. I was never an extremely social person and I needed my ‘me time’. Which is why I can’t say yes or no conclusively to your question. There were lonely moments, but because those were there, I could enjoy my own company as well.

Q. It must have been tough telling this to Ranveer.
Yeah… Goldie [her husband] told him [gets emotional and tries to control her tears].

Q. What has the past year taught you? 
Lots of things. I don’t know how to put it in words as yet. It’s taught me certain things that are clichés: Like, literally, taking one day at a time. And a year has passed. Time is the best healer. 

Q. Do you look at life differently now?
I am more aware. There would be times when I would just sleepwalk through things. Now, I appreciate them a lot more. The picture is larger and you are looking at it with blinkers on. I am looking at it in a beam of light. I will now pause and think. If I want something, I will be aware of the want, and ask myself, ‘Why do I want it?’ It sounds boring, but it happens fast.

Q. You were in New York since July 2018. What did you feel when you returned to Mumbai in December?
I loved it. You can be in the finest city, in the best place in the world, but there is nothing like your home, with your dog at your feet. Bliss.

Q. Your posts started a conversation about cancer.
When I put out my first post about cancer, there was nothing so lofty in my mind. I was doing a TV show, and I didn’t want gossip around my illness. My son would get to know about it from the internet, and so would my parents, and there would be panic. I wanted to be in control of my narrative. I did not want it hijacked, and that’s why I put out the post.

Having said that, I got responses from all strata of society: From cities, villages, towns; the rich, poor, young, old, men and women. They were telling so many stories, of people having gone through it for years without sharing it with anybody. The reason my mind did not cave in was because I had this huge support. If I don’t share it with them, how will they know what I am going through? 

Q. You resumed work a few months ago. Were you nervous going back on set?
I was extremely excited. I was touched… I saw a beautiful side to humanity, and how giving human beings can be. At the shoot, I would slur during the longer sentences and it was a bit of a struggle to stand because my scar was here [pointing to the midriff], right in the middle. I had been hunched over for months, so it was a process to straighten up. Suddenly I felt the pain in front of the camera because I had held on to it. But I never realised how much I loved the camera. I always said that was my past, I am done with it, I have moved on. But that day, when I faced it, I realised I had not thought about it. 

Q. Did your opinion about your image change after the treatment? 
Yeah. My whole life has been about the looks. The reality of not having that was not pleasant. It was hard, but that’s the reality and you’ve got to accept it.

Q. What’s your advice for those suffering from cancer?
I would say don’t hide it and reach out. The more people you reach out to, it’s only going to help. It’s going to distract you, it’s going to keep you busy. And be energetic and positive. Anyone who came to me and said, ‘Oh, my god [sympathetically]’… I was like, ‘Get out of my house. Do not come here. I don’t want that’. The filters go off. I might have a couple of months and I don’t want to waste those on you. That clarity is amazing, it’s beautiful (laughs). I want that clarity all the time. When you are aware of your mortality—which we should be aware of all the time... why are we not aware of it because that is the reality... we are not immortal—you are making every moment count.

Q. You kept your book club running through your illness.
It saw me through the illness, without me even realising it. I started my book club because there were so many fake accounts in my name online. Since my son’s birth, I wasn’t catching up on my reading as much and that’s how the idea to start it came about. I thought if I have to discuss a book, I will have to read it.

It would give me the discipline to finish the book and get me into the habit of reading. And I wanted to use social media in a positive way. It was a whole new world that opened up. I didn’t expect it to grow the way it has grown. Just putting a book out for discussion kept my mind away from certain things... it kept me going. I cannot tell you what a huge role the club and the community have played when I was battling my illness. They saw me through this phase.

Q. What are the larger plans for the club?
I have a lot of ideas. There are certain things that I need to change as well. I need to view it in a different way. But they will take time. My strength levels aren’t there… but we will get there. 

Q. What’s the best thing that has happened in all this?
It might sound silly, but I have a little more faith in humanity now. I discovered love in strangers, from people I know, from people I know a lot, people I know less… If I see the news, I feel like the world is coming to an end, but this illness has taught me that it is a lovely place to be in. As the beautiful is beautiful; so is the ugly in certain ways. I look at humanity with a new-found love, hope and faith.

(This story appears in the 02 August, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
  • Suvarna Patil

    Hats off to your courage for fighting back and keeping your spirit high

    on Jul 27, 2019