From playing a beautician in Bhopal (Lipstick Under My Burkha) to playing an action-oriented ISA officer in Khuda Haafiz, Aahana Kumra has been wowing the audience with her strong performances in diverse roles. In a candid chat with Sakshi Prabhu, the talented actress talks about her beginnings as an actor, the lessons she’s learned along the way, and her latest win:
What attracted you to acting?
I was in the 10th or 11th grade, it was that time where you don’t know what to do as a teen. I had my holidays and I was simply sitting jobless when my friend suggested we sign up for Summer acting Workshops at Prithvi Theatre, in Juhu. When I entered the theatre, that was it. I entered and I never left. I knew I wanted to live in Prithvi Theatre. I would work backstage or in the lightroom, I never wanted to leave. I grew up in that theatre room. I would see Makarand Deshpande, Naseeruddin Shah or Rajat Sharma act on stage while I would be in the back handling props or something and I just knew that this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t think it through. It was somewhere in the back of my mind in college because I was dancing with Shiamak for a long time and trying a lot of different things. In fact, I think I’ve done everything in college except attend classes. I wanted to be on stage for the rest of my life. That theatre consumes you, you feel like being a part of it.
How do you feel about playing the quintessential Bollywood heroine?
Why not! Unless she has nothing to do but look thoroughly boringly pretty, that I wouldn’t want to do. But if that’s not the case and it’s making me a big actress and putting me into a league, I would do it so I can then demand roles that I want. I think everybody does. You can’t fight the system but you can be in the system but win little battles here and there. Our audiences won’t come to watch every movie with a female lead. It’s the fault of the idealogy that has built up over the years within the audiences. The filmmakers are trying to give the audience what they want, that’s why a certain cinema is made a certain way. Having said that, there are a lot of experiments happening right now. I would do the role so I can establish myself in the space.
Who is a director you’d love to work with?
There are quite a lot of them. I love Imtiaz Ali, and Vishal Bhardwaj I think they write very good parts for their actresses. I like Shakun Batra, all his characters are exceptionally written. I’d love to work with all of them! I want to work with as many directors as I can and reach as many audiences as I can, from Rohit Shetty to Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I would love to know the way Sanjay Leela Bhansali works and experience that as well. If you’re ready to learn, you want to work with everybody, you get those opportunities also.
The women you play on-screen are very well-written, multi-dimensional characters. Do you naturally gravitate towards roles like that?
I think roles like that naturally gravitate towards me. I have never selected a role but I’ve always auditioned for a part. I have never chosen a role, the roles have chosen me. From Yudh to Marzi. I only select what I want to refrain from doing next, like I want to refrain from playing a police officer because apparently everyone wants to cast me as a police officer because I look a certain type. I refrain from playing a certain part. I never imagined that I will be selected to play the role of Priyanka Gandhi in The Accidental Prime Minister but the makers saw me in that space and thought that I looked like. I didn’t think Alantrika Shrivastava saw me as a Bhopali beautician for Lipstick Under My Burkha but I got the part. I especially didn’t think they would cast me for the part of Sameera Chauhan in Marzi because they needed someone who could look and play weak and vulnerable and I don’t get cast for parts like that and I have bagged an award for it. It instills my faith that if you’re good at what you do and you keep experimenting, you’ll keep getting the parts. That’s my career path, to fearlessly try for every part.
What would you say you have learned from each of these strong women that you’ve portrayed?
I have learned everything from Lipstick Under My Burkha. I have seen the movie 22 times, I’ve traveled to four countries with the movie and seen the reactions it gets for absolutely different countries and absolutely different audiences. I was on women’s panels for the movie after and I’ve met so many women from so many different walks of life that resonated with the movie. I’ve learned so much about being a feminist and about being a woman in this world and society. When I played Betaal, I played a woman who is an acid attack survivor and an officer also, I remember the first time I walked from the vanity van after my make up, and everyone stares at me, and then I realized it was because there was a burn mark on my face, and it was there throughout the show. You understand how different people look at you then, and there was so much understanding of violation of your body when you go through something like that. We went through trauma workshops to better understand the violation a survivor goes through when an attack like that happens. Every character teaches me empathy towards another being. As an actor, you have to be empathetic to each character and delicately handle each emotion. Audiences connect with which emotion you have conveyed the best.
You’ve been on a winning streak lately with the latest being Asian Academy Creative Awards where you won the Best Actress for Marzi, how does it feel?
It feels very nice when you’re recognized for your work. Amitabh Bachchan congratulated me on Twitter so it feels nicer when recognition comes from actors of caliber. He is one of the bigger stars of our industry and I hold a very special relationship with him. I did my debut with him and he has been nothing less than an example and an inspiration for me. He taught me how to come to work every day and be passionate about the work that you do and fearless about who you are. He taught me how to be lovable towards your staff and cordial with your co-stars. He taught me everything I know because I got to watch him work very closely since I worked with him for almost a year and 3 months on Yudh. I’ve worked with senior actors a lot since the beginning of my career. I got to work with younger actors much later in my career. I’ve worked with Naseeruddin Sir who was my inspiration for learning and understanding characters. I worked with Ratna Pathak Shah from who I learned so much in Lipstick Under my Burkha and who has been my mentor and teacher because she’s been a part of the theatre group for such a long time.
Did you expect this win?
I didn’t. I didn’t know what this was! Aparna who headlined Marzi on Voot Select called me and told me how thrilled she was and I told her to explain it to me and she said the Emmys cannot come to Asia so this was equivalent to Emmys in Asia which is huge. That’s when it set in that this was huge! I’d won nationally and I’d won it without any expectations. Manoj Bajpayee won it for Family Man and I won it for Marzi which is so great. It’s not easy to get recognition because you have to work your butt off to be where you are, and it feels good to be rewarded for that.
Marzi has a very nuanced take on consent, what is the best way to explain consent to someone according to you?
Isn’t it simple, when someone is resisting, doesn’t seem interested, or says no, you should just back off? It should be simple but consent is such an uncomfortable conversation to have. I still remember, one of the times that I was watching Lipstick Under My Burkha, there were a bunch of women sitting in the front row, and when a scene involving sexual assault came they were giggling. I was surprised but Alankrita said, “Aahana, if someone is so uncomfortable in a public space like this theatre, how do they express that?” Even in a horror movie, you start laughing to cover up how uncomfortable you are. It’s scary. It’s going to take a long way to explain consent, it’s a crucial conversation, so I’m glad a show like Marzi was made that goes through the nuances of consent and asked important questions.
You had your debut with Amitabh Bachchan, who would you like to co-star with next?
I don’t have a list. I’ve been very fortunate to work with the actors I wanted to work with without having a list. I’m a greedy actor so I want to work with everybody. I say that out to the universe all the time. I want to work with the best of them so I can learn from them how to reach heights and stay humble at the same time. They’re so down to earth and grateful every day to work and that’s exactly who I want to be. I want to be grateful every day I have a job, a job that matters to me and makes a difference. Hopefully, I will be spoken about and my work will be watched by generations to come. Cinema can often make a difference in the world and I want to be in those books.
What’s next for you as an actor?
I have just wrapped a sitcom called Sandwich for Sony LIV and the one I’m shooting now is Call My Agent which is an Indian adaptation to the French show with the same name.