From Bollywood Starlet To Florida Women’s Rights Champion

Today she runs a non-profit organization in Florida that rescues women from domestic violence, but in another life, Somy Ali was just a girl with a Bollywood crush — and a girl on a mission.

And so, in 1992, at the startlingly young age of 15, she moved from Miami to Mumbai with one goal: to marry Bollywood megastar Salman Khan. “At 15, you have a license to be stupid,” recalls Ms. Ali. “I had a crush, and I thought in order to meet him, I’d have to join films. So I did.”

She makes it look just that simple. Despite having moved to Florida from Pakistan at a young age, Ms. Ali somehow persuaded her father to send her to India under the pretext of wanting to experience the culture. She had celebrated photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha shoot her portfolio, and was approached by Dharmendra’s agent in a hotel lobby, asking to screen-test her for a project designed to launch his son Bobby Deol. To call what happened next serendipity would be an understatement — Ms. Ali says Salman Khan himself randomly chanced upon her photographs at a modeling agency, and he called her, offering her a role in his next film.

“I was a silly teenager, it was very surreal to go after something thousands of miles away and have it actually happen,” she says.

Ms. Ali acted in nine films during the 1990s, most of them big-scale but forgettable duds like “Andolan,” “Yaar Gaddar,” and “Aao Pyar Karen,” and opposite A-listers such as Sanjay Dutt, Om Puri, and Saif Ali Khan. But her focus was always Salman Khan. “I had zero interest in being an actress; you can see that by seeing my films,” she says. “I was madly in love with him.”

Mr. Khan broke up with then-girlfriend Sangeeta Bijlani to date Ms. Ali, and the two were together for eight years … until Mr. Khan then allegedly moved on to Aishwarya Rai. “It was probably karma for me — I was so engrossed and selfish about my dream that I’d ignored the fact that he was with someone else. It was so wrong, ethically and morally, but I realized this at 35, not at 16,” Ms. Ali says. “And if I had not broken up with him and come to America, I would have married him and been unhappy.”

When Ms. Ali moved back to Florida in 2000, she was severely depressed for a year and unsure about her future. She graduated with a degree in psychology from Nova Southeastern University and went on to study film-making in New York, then immersed herself in activism and producing documentaries, including one on Pakistani gang rape victim Mukhtaran Mai. She aspired to found a non-profit organization, but had too many causes to choose from. “I wanted to help animals and children and plants and everything, I wanted to help every being,” she says. “It was scattered.”

Then a Bangladeshi woman living five houses down from her showed up at her door, bleeding badly. She told Ms. Ali she’d been beaten for 10 years, and her father-in-law had just raped her. Ms. Ali called the police and helped her get an apartment and paid for her divorce attorney. The woman has since graduated from nursing school, and Ms. Ali carries her graduation picture in her wallet.

“My brother told me, this is a sign. Why don’t you help women who are brought to the U.S. from different countries and are abused by their husbands?” And so No More Tears was born. The organization partners with area police departments, top-notch attorneys, therapists, optometrists, dentists, physicians, and even spas. They offer English classes and driving lessons, a range of services to help get victims back on their feet.

Knowing that many of the women she wanted to save were only let out of the house to go grocery shopping, Ms. Ali posted fliers at various ethnic markets, which led to her first case, a Jordanian woman, in 2008. “She wanted to study, and her husband said no, your job is to cook, clean, and produce children,” Ms. Ali recalls. When she went to rescue her with a police officer, the woman had been locked in a room and fainted because she hadn’t seen sunlight in three months. Last year, thanks to the assistance provided by No More Tears, she graduated with a doctorate in pharmacy. “It was the proudest day of my life,” Ms. Ali says. Today, No More Tears has rescued 175 victims of domestic violence.

But now Ms. Ali finds herself at a crossroads, with funds dangerously low. “I’ve put $286,000 of my own money into No More Tears, and it’s depleted,” she says. “There’s no paid staff, no one on salary, just interns and volunteers; 100 percent of the money goes to the victims. We’re struggling very badly financially. I’d hate to see No More Tears shut down.” Ms. Ali encourages people to donate via the Web site and pledge even as little as $10 a month.

Have any of her former Bollywood contacts helped her cause? “Salman’s friends donated $150,000 last year,” she says. “He and I are friends now, we’ve moved past what happened, and he’s very supportive of No More Tears.”

One can’t help but wonder if there’s any personal history that’s led to domestic violence being dear to Ms. Ali’s heart. One Bollywood tale, of Mr. Khan allegedly smashing a Coke bottle over Ms. Ali’s head, is now part of Bollywood gossip folklore. But Ms. Ali is quick to jump to his defense. “I was out with some friends and had a rum and Coke; he felt I was in wrong company and didn’t want me drinking, so he poured it on the table,” she clarifies. “Now I think he did the right thing. But a media guy blew it out of proportion. It went from one thing to another, that he broke the bottle on my head, that he dumped it on my head, but he just poured it on the table and said, ‘You shouldn’t be drinking.’ He’s just overprotective, that’s how Salman is in relationships.”

“He has the most generous heart I’ve ever seen. He will give the shirt off his back to someone,” she continues. “In my teenage years if I learned a lot about being good and doing good, I learned it from him and his family. He was beyond wonderful to me … aside from the cheating,” she adds as an afterthought.

Ms. Ali has not returned to India since the breakup that ended her tryst with Bollywood. “I don’t really have a reason to go back,” she says. “I don’t think I’m ready. I need to make No More Tears a little more established first. My women and children need me here.”

As far as whether she’d ever consider a comeback: “Never. It was fun, an amazing experience, but I just can’t compare it to what I’m doing now,” she said. “Every day is like a movie here at No More Tears.”



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