“In A Democracy, It Is A Citizen’s Right To Protest”: Milind Soman

At 30, Milind Soman appeared shirtless in Alisha Chinai’s hit song Made In India, and became the emperor of sexual awakening for millions of Indian women.

At 50, he swam 3.8 km, biked another 180 km and ran 42.2 kilometres non-stop, to complete the world’s most gruelling triathlon in 15 hours to become the ‘Ironman.

Supermodel, actor, film producer, fitness entrepreneur, and most recently an author (he just released his memoir Made in India, co-written by author Roopa Rai), the world identifies Soman by many names, but according to Soman, the only thing he has ever been chasing is his own curiosity.

Soman loves to talk about everything from faith to philosophy – something that makes him an interviewer’s delight. Perhaps, the thing that fascinates him most is ‘struggle’.

I think all of us need something to struggle in something that gives us joy. For me, running is that activity”, he said.

He is, however, not one to fall for fitness fads, health trends or for that matter, even going to the gym. He hates athletic shoes, runs barefoot and believes it’s more important to listen to your body than blindly trusting someone else’s advice for it.

I have never gone to a gym, so I know that you don’t need to go to a gym to be fit. I think the issue is that these days that people want quick results. When you don’t respect your own body, and what it says, and trust others, then you pay to rely on someone else’s experience,” he says.

Over an hour-long conversation, Milind Soman spoke to us about the changing face of fashion, the commercialisation of fitness, why women hold the key to India’s future and why he believes protesting is a citizen’s right in a democracy.

Q: It has been 25 years since the song Made in India was released. What’s the difference between that Milind Soman and the one today?

A: I can definitely run better! (laughs). On a serious note, I don’t know if there is much difference. Even twenty-five years ago, I chose to do the things I was really interested in, and I do the same today – whether it relates to my fitness or my commitments. So, no, not much much has changed. My friends used to complain about how laidback I was 25 years ago, and they still do the same today. (laughs again)

Image credit: Milind Soman/Instagram

Q: The fashion world in India has drastically changed in the last 25 years. What do you make of it? How has this heightened attention to self-image influenced you?

A: The world of fashion and modelling was very different 30 years ago. It was very small, very nascent. There were hardly 20 models who did most shows, there were no fashion weeks, couture weeks, winter and fall collections. Today, there are thirty thousand models. The competition is much more, because there are plenty of models. But today, everyone looks the same. I think what people don’t realise today is that it’s not just about looking good. You have to be different to stand out.

A lot of people tell me I am genetically gifted, and I don’t disagree, but I believe what really takes you ahead is your personality and interests. It is what attracts people.

If you look at most celebrities in Hollywood – they are not conventionally good looking. A good place to start from is self-belief, the desire to prove something. Through the course of my career, I have seen many talented people, but nothing drove them. Talent is just 5%, 95% is hard work, and most importantly drive.

Q: Are you spiritual?

A: I am logical, rational.

Q: Are you religious?

A: I am not religious, but I find religion fascinating. I love the fact that people have faith. Faith is really a beautiful and powerful thing. It is also a great driving force.

Q: You are an avid runner. What draws you to running as an activity?

A: When you run, it helps you struggle in something that gives you joy. And I think it’s important to have this struggle, and for each one of us to have an activity that enables us to do it. To struggle in something worthwhile is rewarding. Now, I know that I am privileged, I have enough, I can’t complain. But I still need to struggle, to contribute, to be better. I can’t live a good life without it. Running is my activity of choice.

Q: You run barefoot. Any particular reason for it?

A: When you run barefoot, it affects the way you run. And there is a reason for it – our hands and feet are very sensitive. I mean think about it – your fingertips move away at the touch of something hot. Similarly, your feet tell the body how to respond to the environment around it. There is a term for it – proprioception, and it’s almost like having second sight. When you wear shoes, this sight gets blocked out. When your body is aware of its surroundings, it understands how to run better.

I started running barefoot gradually, starting with half-a-kilometre and then increasing it further. As I increased distances, my running became more and more effortless. I have been running barefoot for 9 years now.

Image credit: Milind Soman/Instagram

Q: The last decade has seen commercialisation of fitness. What do you make of this trend?

A: Yes, fitness has definitely been commercialised. I have never gone to a gym, so I know that you don’t need to go to a gym to be fit. I think the issue is that these days that people want results, and they want them quickly. Whereas when it comes to matters of health, it is very important to learn from your own experiences.

When you don’t respect your own body, and what it says, and trust others instead to make those decisions, then you pay to rely on someone else’s experience. So, I think it boils down to two things. One, respect for your own body and its needs. And second, patience. When you don’t have two, businesses take advantage, and you end up paying, for what should ideally be free.

When it comes to fitness, people chase levels. The thing to chase is experience— of understanding your own body. I don’t see the value of chasing fitness levels.

Q: You spoke about faith earlier, and I want to bring you back to it. When it comes to running long distances, or doing something like The Ironman, how much of what you do is physical, and how much of it goes beyond it?

A: Well, running is not just mental, it’s beyond thought, in the sense that running is elemental to us. Running is something that’s very natural to humans. It is, in fact, linked to our survival. It is something that we are meant to do, and that is why runners talk about being happiest while running. Human beings are also the best runners on the planet. Sure, speed-wise, we are not that great, but when it comes to persistence hunting, we have no comparison. That’s why I said running is something that’s even beyond thought. It is limitless.

Q: You started Pinkathon to get more women to start running. What drew you to the idea and what do you think stops Indian women from running?

Image credit: Milind Soman/Instagram

A: I had been participating in these running events and marathons for 7-8 years, and realised that in most of these events, most of the participants were men. Women barely made up 4 to 5% of the participants. And there are two reasons for it, I think. First, it is assumed that sports and exercise are only for men. We generally don’t take women’s health too seriously, as a society. And second, at these largely predominantly male-centred events, families have a reservation – is my mother, wife, daughter going to be safe? Women also wonder whether they will be ridiculed or laughed at.

And so, we started with Pinkathon in 2012, because there was no other space in the country where women could just get together. It started out with running, but over the course of time, it has become a place where women come together to celebrate themselves.

And it’s important, because I think, in our society women are encouraged to neglect themselves. And this obviously goes down to thousands and thousands of years of conditioning. The women’s role is that of the carer, and it is what the society has internalised. It’s what encourages this behaviour. But, of course, it has to change.

Q: The script of your entire life is about playing by your own rules. This is true for everything else, but especially for love. Many Indians, however, are still afraid to love, or forced to follow the dictates society sets for them. What would you say to them?

A: I think it has been easier for me, because I am obviously more privileged. And it may be more difficult for others. But, I believe in fighting for what is right. Without violence, of course. Don’t give up on the fight, the struggle. If it’s worth pursuing, fight the good fight.

Q: Over the course of the last few months, India has seen violence erupt on its campuses. What do you make of that?

A: I think that if the government wants to do something, and it’s in the interest of people, it’s fine, but it should hear those who are protesting. In a democracy, it is a citizen’s right to protest. The only thing that is not acceptable is violence. But, if people want to protest, they should be allowed to. People must come out and talk about what they feel. Democracy allows that.

Q: From Shaheen Bagh to other areas, women have become the torch-bearers of protest culture in India. What do you make of that?.

A: I believe women understand the value of things more. Men are mostly about power, competition and violence. Mostly. Women consolidate and understand. They understand the value of building, of making something that builds a better society.

Note: The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Similar Posts

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below