As our car entered the spacious mansion, aptly named Sea Breeze, just off Chennai’s East Coast Road, Sofia Ashraf stepped out. She looked calm and tranquil and nothing like the rapper who created shock waves in the video Kodaikanal Won’t, which went viral. That side of her personality comes to the fore when she is asked to strike a quirky pose for the photo shoot. Instantly, her face undergoes a transformation, as she conjures up an expression that radiates sheer fun and vitality - despite her being “under the weather” at the time.
Excerpts from a quirky conversation about life, rapping, religion and change:
Growing up in a traditional family in Chennai, was there an alternate plan?
Well I didn’t actually have much of a plan, I was just thinking I’ll get married and settle down with kids as what traditional Indian women think. So that’s how my life started off.
Clearly that didn’t happen. You left home?
All my life I’ve wanted to be on stage. I’ve always been that restless child. Even in college, I was wondering whether to go out and do my own thing, or stay. At 22, I had decided to give it up, but even then I was willing to stay back at home and you know, try to comply as much as I could with the conventional idea of an Indian woman. But then I think I realised that as long as I was within these four walls, within these walls of familiarity, I would never find out who I was. So I thought the only way I could do that is if I put myself in a situation where I know nobody, nobody knows me, where I have no security blanket of parents paying for things and all that. So I came to Bombay, found myself a job and lived on my own.
And how has that worked out?
When I came here I realised that quitting was not an option and losing was not an option, and when I say losing, I mean not doing well and going back home and telling my parents ‘You know what, it didn’t work out.’ I’d walked out of a life that people had offered me, so I needed to make a better life.
How’d the folks back home take it?
Well, they’re very encouraging now. Yes, they weren’t happy with what I was doing. My mom and dad came with me when I came to Bombay to see if I’m settled in and all that. Though they would keep insisting that I come back, the thing that really helped is that they couldn’t stop it either. After years of their sulking, it’s been totally worth it.
They sulked for years?
Yeah! I think its been five-and-a-half years.
You went from conventional Muslim to atheist. Was it a difficult period?
I think I just don’t remember the difficult part anymore. Personally for me, it was a necessary thing, it was something I really wanted to do, and I’m still learning. It doesn’t mean I’ll remain an atheist all my life. I’m always about learning and evolving as a human being. Yes, I’m an atheist, I don’t subscribe to any organized religion right now. But I’m also someone who’s always evolving and trying to discover new things.
How different was Bombay culturally?
Bombay is different from any city because they have a live-and-let-live attitude, which is fantastic. And also Bombay is a very accepting city.
When did you start rapping? Was that also about social causes?
I was rapping in college, from when I was 18. Not at all. I always like to write my own lyrics, and obviously when you do that it needs to come from within. I wrote my own original compositions. The ones that got popular were the ones on social issues, but I rap about everything.
How’d the Kodaikanal video happen?
I contribute in a creative capacity to an NGO in Chennai, where every year I go back and perform with them, and they had been mentioning this mercury issue, and I hadn’t paid that much attention to it. Then this year, they came up to me and they said, ‘We want to do a creative online social media campaign on this.’ And that’s how it began. I’ve been painted wrongly as the sole crusader of the cause, as if I discovered the cause and I did something about it. The truth of the matter is that there are a bunch of NGOs who’ve been working on this for 14 years, and this year they decided to take to social media, because they realized that HUL has a very squeaky-clean image on social media.
It really worked, didn’t it?
It was crazy because we did not expect it, I mean, me being in the video was a fluke, I was not supposed to be in the video, we were going to get a theatre group to act in it. After I recorded the song they looked at it and said I’d be better in it. I felt the attention was undue because it ought to have gone to the cause and not to me.
Let’s talk about your band ‘Mallipoo & the Alwas’
Mallipoo is jasmine flower, and alwa is halwa…it’s a very South Indian name. It’s actually a funny take on South Indian cinema. They always show the husband coming home with mallipoo and halwa for the wife, as a romantic gesture. Our band is completely fun. We do write one or two songs about the environment and stuff, but we also have songs like the Vela song. It’s all in Tamil, very grassroots, very Tamil pop. We formed in a couple of days and within one month, we wrote 5-6 songs.
You had an older set up called Peter Kaapi
Yeah! Peter Kaapi was my first band. It’s a play on the term filter coffee. The term Peter is something they use in Chennai for people who don’t speak too much of Tamil. I was a complete Peter back in the day.
You’ve quit your corporate job. Was that tough?
It was, but I may just go back some time. Right now I’m having such a wonderful time doing volunteer work and writing music and all of that.
So now you’re an artist and a social activist, right?
Ummm Social activist…(laughs). I don’t know about that. Honestly speaking, I don’t like any labels, I’m a little shy of them right now, because like I said everyone’s evolving. I am too!
Crazy Fan Stories
There are so many! So there are these people who come up to you because you have this persona of this
woman who’s out there doing something, who come and give you like the weirdest compliments. So I had this one guy who came up to me and said,
Oh my God
Sofie you know what, you’re really lucky! You never have to face this, like I can never see you as anything but a friend, I was like dude what the hell! (laughs)
The worst is when you are on stage and when you’ve put in all your passion, like I just did a show in Bombay, I
a lot, I spoke about a lot of my experiences. And then I came off stage and people come up to you and they’re like ‘Oh my God you’re so cute!’ They give you really weird compliments after a show
And of course once you get popular on Youtube, your other messages on Facebook have like a 1,000 messages, and they are hilarious, like the wedding proposals you get. I think every girl can relate to this, just multiply that by 1,000 once you go viral
The Mom Factor
I mentioned to my mom that I’m shooting a video like this. I never showed her the video. Then suddenly one day my mom calls. “Hey! I saw your video.” And I’m like “And?” “Why’re you wearing sleeveless (laughs). It’s such a mom reaction. “You’re doing a good job honey but why’re you wearing a sleeveless top
The Half Sari Spot
What I’m wearing is a half-sari. It’s a very traditional Tamil dress that I’m very fond of. What’s funny is I’m actually a Malayali