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Published Verve Magazine, December 2014
Photograph by Rohan Shrestha

These stylish, poised women have created a name for themselves in the designing world, each with a distinctive sense of aesthetics and style. Sussanne Khan for her interior design and curated home store, Farah Khan Ali for her jewellery brand and Simone Arora for her fabric design and recently-opened concept home boutique. Sanjay and Zarine Khan’s daughters are creative, dedicated and spirited women of substance, discovers Verve

Verve Magazine December 2014 cover: Sussanne Khan, Farah Khan Ali, Simone Arora

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to expect that the younger lot of a famous film family are likely to be starry, diva-esque butterfly society women. It is an easy stereotype that gets associated with those who come from a family of means and natural access to the limelight. But Zarine and Sanjay Khan’s daughters appear to be quite the opposite. They are self-assured, strong-willed and independent, with a single-minded determination to excel and are deeply passionate about their work.

Producer, director and actor, Sanjay Khan and his interior designer wife, Zarine Khan (née Katrak) have four children. The first, 45-year-old Farah Khan Ali is married to DJ Aqeel and is the founder of the Farah Khan Fine Jewellery brand. Younger by a year, Simone, married to Ajay Arora, the owner of D’Decor home furnishings, has been instrumental in the creative aspect of the brand and has recently launched her own concept store, Simone. Thirty-six-year-old Sussanne, formerly married to Indian cinema actor and childhood sweetheart Hrithik Roshan, has followed her mother in interior design and has been working on her own store, The Charcoal Project, for the last few years. Zayed is the youngest, whom Sussanne considers to be “a boy version of me, my twin!” even though he is two years younger.

Through various interactions with the women in the family, you begin to draw a distinct sense of who they are. Fiercely protective about each other and extremely supportive, there is an easy camaraderie that can only be built up through a lifetime of nurturing. As Farah interjects, twice, “I love them to death and would do anything for them. I would even kill for them…not that I would ever kill anyone.”

Firm grounding
“It’s the values,” insists Zarine Khan, called the “firecracker of the family” by Sussanne. When you speak to her, you understand what her daughters are made of. Notwithstanding the strong creative and emotional influence their father has had on them, you come away knowing that they are reflections – albeit in their own unique ways – of their mother. She is crisp in her language, sharp in her observations and firm in her opinions. “They grew up with a lot of humanity in them, with gentleness and kindness and not an ounce of jealousy. Even though we had cars at our disposal, we had rules. Once by car, the next time by bus.” Simone speaks up. “We were not raised to be competitive, to be compared or be critical. We complemented each other.” And the importance given to the legacy of education, impressed upon them by their father who himself couldn’t complete his education due to lack of funds. Farah: “We were taught to value people and relationships over things. People can never be replaced; things can be. If Simone buys something bigger, I won’t envy her, I’ll be happy that I can also use it. We share bags, clothes, shoes, jewellery, memories and laughter.”

Well-travelled and well-exposed to the world, fond of the European lifestyle and far from a slacker, Zarine continues to work for her select clientele even today. It is a family of early risers and active swimmers, with full workdays. “Despite having all the luxuries of being a star wife, I continued to work. I’ve impressed upon them the need to avoid idle gossip.”

Sussanne recalls, “Our mother left us with the thought that we must try and be the best we could be and choose to do something that would give us creative satisfaction. Watching her was the biggest example.”

Meeting the Khans
I had first seen Sussanne at a tony suburban café with her then-fiancé Hrithik Roshan, sharing conversation and coffee just before the launch of his first film, Kaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000). They looked at ease with each other, made a lovely couple and suggested a genteel persona. No one knew that he would soon take the industry by storm. Sussanne is not too different today, nearly 15 years later. While her youthful face may be etched with the trials of a woman, she has an easy charm that you warm up to instantly. The girl who has a tattoo on her arm that reads, ‘Follow your sunshine’, is polite, courteous as a host, punctilious and an amiable conversationalist.

Farah appears to be more difficult to pin down, as she misses the first interview opportunity and leaves hurriedly through the second, with a promise to send an e-mail message. She surprises you by actually doing so, and then calling and texting after. You are left amused, because this grown woman of a well-established brand is droll and sincere and as she puts it, somehow manages to find “method to the madness”. Simone wants to be heard. With the launch of her store, this is her chance to come into her own, in the eye of the media, and she is eager to make her voice and name felt.

Simone: The one in the background
Simone, the first to tie the knot at the age of 21, joined her husband as the creative director of his business. At the time, Ajay Arora used to manufacture garments. Zarine Khan felt the greater potential of a furnishings line, and seeing the business sense in it, Simone and Ajay took up the challenge. They bought designs from Italy, machines from Belgium and started the process of creating samples for the international fairs. Simone, with her unerring eye for colour, was in charge of creating the designs and combinations. Now, after 15 years, the D’Decor brand is the world’s largest exporter of home furnishing fabrics. Four years ago, they turned their attention to the local market with Gauri and Shah Rukh Khan as brand ambassadors.

“After being an anonymous contributor to D’Decor (while it was the company that made me who I am), I felt it was time to express myself and create an identity of my own.” Inspired by the process of designing her own home, Amore, and the feedback she received, Simone took forward the idea of her own store. She wanted a modern space hosted in a classic heritage building and Amarchand Mansion in South Mumbai provided exactly that. The store, Simone, launched just over two months ago, is nature-inspired, with curated pieces from international brands. “It was a hard journey, a labour of love. It had to embody me and my design sensibility. Simone is like a canvas, and everything that I display is the hero. I like to accessorise on simple cuts and monochromatic palettes. We have everything for the home, including the signature scent of Simone.” (Read more about Simone Arora.)

Farah: The party girl grown up
Farah was the one who floundered the most in choosing a career. Having assisted her father in the television production of his serials and dabbled in interior designing, she came into her own accidentally. Taking off for a course in gemmology at the GIA (USA), she thought it would be a good cover for a fun social life. “On the first day of my class, I learned that gemmology was the study of the chemical, optical and physical properties of 99 minerals and their gemstone varieties. I was in total shock as it involved all the sciences I had despised in school! Having made a promise to my dad to excel, I ended up becoming the ‘Indian nerd’ instead of the ‘party animal’.” She topped her class and there was no looking back. “The Bollywood connection only helped open doors initially; but it was my work eventually that made people keep coming back. I struggled hard – I had no investment of my own to begin with, so I began creating designs on paper that were breathtakingly beautiful. I spent hours sketching, rendering and painting life into each piece.”

Over the years, from retailing with other jewellers to starting her own store and then facing legal trouble with a disgruntled financial partner, Farah emerged surer, wiser and stronger as a businesswoman, able to take her brand to the next level. Having to start financially all over again, she then secured a loan and began her own top-of-the-line manufacturing unit. In 2013 she re-opened her showroom in Bandra in a bigger way; and just last month, Farah achieved another milestone by signing up as a designer for Tanishq and becoming the first designer approved by them to take care of the manufacturing, having met the strict  standards of the Tata Group. “I see the world in a magical perspective where everything I see, I see as design. Design for me begins with a strong emotion. My thoughts are conceived in my overactive imagination that allows me the freedom to make the impossible possible.” (Read more about Farah Khan Ali.)

Sussanne: The spirited dreamer
Sussanne, being the youngest, used to accompany her mother on the latter’s interior projects. Her mother recalls fondly, “She could make out the difference between fawn and beige!” She has always been attracted to a strong masculine sensibility, despite her petite feminine appearance. “I love metal, Gothic, industrial, shabby chic. Metal mixed with leather and dark wood, elements of nature.” A strong believer in the energy radiated by metal, Sussanne’s style is about the bolder, stoic structures balanced with the frivolous and fun using European influences, like that of French Rococo and Renaissance.

After Sophia College in Mumbai, she went to Brooks College in Long Beach California to study interior design. Like her father, she got interested in the history of art and architecture. “As a designer you have to ensure that what you are giving your clients is unique. You also have to get to know them well so that you can have them feel the best in their space. In the setting you have to think of stories, and the story is more important than the product.”

Talking about the inspiration behind The Charcoal Project, her face is more alive than ever. “Space can be grey and lifeless; charcoal is ugly. But when you light it, it sparks up. When a designer or person ignites a site or project it almost glows, as life is breathed into it. Design is a feeling. It elevates you. It makes you feel good. It is also designing your thoughts, and about how to deal with certain situations in your life.” (Read more about Sussanne Khan.)

Entertaining as a lifestyle
All three sisters strongly believe that the exposure while growing up has led to their creativity. Sussanne: “The influence of the world of design and the aesthetic value of knowing how important your home or your way of living is has been brought in by both parents equally. My father and mother (who is a Parsi) are both passionate about entertainment, with visitors from all over the world, not just the film fraternity. They have the most fabulous spread of exotic foods. The home was also like their temple.” Sussanne remembers watching her mother put together the most beautiful table settings. Lemon and white, or a combination of sea green, in handcrafted, cross-stitched French linen, flower arrangements, silver and cut glass all formed a harmonious composition. “In other homes, dining is part of the living room. In our home it was kept separate, giving it that importance. If the family was in the house, we always ate every meal together. We were never encouraged to eat alone in our room.” Sussanne, who has two sons, Hrehaan (8) and Hridhaan (6); Farah, who has a son, Azaan (11) and daughter, Fizaa (9); and Simone, who has three children – boys Armaan (18), Yuraaz (17) and a daughter Adah (11) – have continued this tradition with the next generation. (Read more: What do Sussanne, Farah and Simone have in their homes?)

And to date, the smaller, intimate gatherings are what they value the most. Farah, the acknowledged party girl admits, “Twenty years ago entertaining meant going out all night and breaking all the curfews, getting caught, getting fired. Now entertaining means being with my family and people I care about, my close friends. It’s not about being everywhere or at Page 3 parties. It’s about being with people who matter.”

Making relationships work
Farah, who renewed wedding vows with husband DJ Aqeel on their 10th wedding anniversary in Goa, shares that they are both very different people – one “living by the day” and the other “by the night”, and all marriages have their own challenges. “There is no marriage that is perfect and it requires a lot of hard work like any relationship. Some succeed, some don’t, and some keep trying, some leave and some stay. Being successfully married in any actor’s life is a miracle because your marriage is never a private affair and things that any other couple could have worked out easily become a mammoth issue because of a lack of total privacy. Sometimes less ‘concern’ by others is much nicer.” Talking about her sister, Farah says, “Sussanne is my precious baby and Hrithik is my younger brother who I love and adore with all my heart. I will always be there for both of them and wish things work out eventually, but if they don’t, I will have no choice but to accept that too. Equations change all the time but certain bonds transcend all.”

Sussanne, in a different conversation, when asked whom she relies upon during trying moments, shares that while family is always at hand, she is a bit of a loner and a private person and remains inspired by great thinkers like Einstein and Steve Jobs. “There are times when you have to make a choice and people may not think it’s the right choice, but you have to be true to yourself in life. You have to live in your own head, and you don’t have to live in anyone else’s head. It’s important for human beings to value their instinct and their own gut more than any suggestion or any kind of influence from the outside.”

The sibling equation
As evidenced at the shoot, Simone wields easy authority over Farah. Farah reminisces from their childhood: “She was the head girl; I was the naughty girl. She was neat and organised; I was untidy and disorganised. Simone had timetables on one side of the wall; I had rock stars and pop stars. She would want to wake up in the morning to study. I would want to stay up all night and not study. We had a line dividing our parts of the room and if either one crossed that line they would get a slap! She married the first man she cared about. I dated many frogs before I met my prince.”

Sussanne, who is an amalgamation of the two of them in terms of personality, finds a balance. “At work I maintain a certain order, but there is also a strong element of a flower child in me, which likes to enjoy life and music.” She talks about their childhood, “There would be crazy fighting growing up – actual physical fights. My sisters were fighting over a dress, and my mom, who knew how to shut us up, took the dress and cut it in the middle and gave each of them half! My parents never took sides or indulged us to the level of spoiling us. They taught us to appreciate what we have and to not ever think that something that is expensive will make us feel or look better.”

Coming of age
The turning point in their lives came soon after their father’s fire accident while shooting on the sets of the television series, The Sword of Tipu Sultan. As teenagers they had to come to terms with the fact that their father may not make it. “We saw our mother stand up, so tough against all the odds stacked up against her. We thought, come what may, we are going to be like her, going to be strong.”

Eighty-two operations and 103 bottles of blood later, he survived. Simone feels it taught them perseverance and determination, “the never-say-die spirit, how to appreciate life and all its offerings.” In the hospital room, he saw the staff come in to clean, and all he wanted was to switch places with them – he was in such extreme pain. “The doctors wanted us to amputate his hands, saying that it was the only way he would survive.” Their mother refused. Eventually, post his recovery, he went back to completing Tipu Sultan, even riding horseback in the heat of Rajasthan.

Farah needed to release the stress and turned to dance with Shiamak Davar’s troupe. “The discipline that I learned is what I put into my work today. From a youngster who didn’t care about things I became this perfectionist. It changed me overnight. I became more like Simone!”

She continues to sum up the go-getter anthem of the family that has seen many ups and downs, together and individually. “It’s not where you are born; it’s what you make of your life. I have seen the rich squander away their legacy and have seen the poor man make history. Carve your own destiny…only you can.”