Why actress Aahana Kumra was relentless in Bollywood
In a conversation with City Times, the 'Marzi' star said one didn't need to be a star kid to survive in the industry.
Lucknow-born actress Aahana Kumra, who kickstarted her screen career with the television series Yudh alongside Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachchan, is currently basking in praise for her Best Actress in a Leading Role Award at the Asian Academy Creative Awards, announced on October 17.
Aahana’s latest accolade, earned for a thought-provoking role in VootSelect’s original series Marzi, did not go unnoticed by her former co-star Bachchan, who promptly took to Twitter to write a congratulatory message.
“He’s such a fantastic human being,” said Aahana, when we caught up with her over the phone. She added, “It’s so wonderful that he tweeted about my performance, it just feels really nice that someone of his stature is praising you for your work. I kickstarted my career with him in Yudh so that makes it so much more special.”
Based on the 2017 ITV series Liar, Marzi is a crime thriller that explores serious themes of lies, consent and rape. Aahana opened up on what drew her to the role of school teacher Sameera, a woman who goes on a blind date with a surgeon, Anurag (Rajeev Khandelwal). The outing turns ugly when she accuses him of assault the next day.
She said the series opens a “very relevant conversation today for anyone who’s ever been in a situation where you have been violated.”
“I think most women have been violated at some point of time in their life; whether it’s small or big, it’s a violation of your body, your self, your being. I think that sometimes as an actor you just have to multiply that magnitude into a hundred times because when you’re raped, and you’ve been drugged and raped, what do you feel at that point of time?
“It’s also a very major conversation at a time when we are talking about mental harassment; my character suffers from anxiety and depression. So, for me, the show became very alive, and relatable, because of the conversations I was having through this character.”
Cinema is ‘different for different people’
Web series have expanded the horizons of entertainment in India by tackling bolder and more diverse themes than conventional Bollywood films or television shows do. Is Aahana happy with the career choices she’s made so far?
She revealed, “I’m glad that stories like that are being told, because otherwise we would only be watching regressive content, or films that don’t make us think and/or question the status quo. We cannot turn a blind eye to what’s happening around us. OTT talks about political issues, equality, relationships, it talks about subjects that are never spoken about - sometimes it gives us a glimpse into a world we have no idea about - telling stories that otherwise wouldn’t work as far as box office success goes, or because they don’t have a ‘star’.
Aahana called cinema “a huge reflection of our society.”
“For the longest time we watched films where the guy stalks the girl, and we thought that was love! But it was just sheer stalking! It made me realise, oh my God what did I watch in the nineties? Is this what I grew up on? But at that point of time it was fine because that is what was being made.”
She said that kind of content wouldn’t work with the younger generation now because they have “a question for everything.”
“This is a very smart audience. They know what they want. The reason why OTT has worked primarily is because our younger audience is comfortable asking very difficult questions. They are fearless. They are not afraid to trash a show even if it has a big star. They’re not afraid to speak their minds and can make a hero out of an absolute nobody.”
With all its flaws, there’s no doubt that Bollywood takes millions of viewers out of an often mundane existence and just gives them a good time. And despite Aahana’s strong opinions on ‘regressive’ content, she admitted to indulging in the escapism that Hindi films offer, once in a while.
“Sometimes I’m the one to watch (this kind of cinema) and I’m like, let’s just dress well and look pretty and have a song and dance; and there are times when I love it, I’m so giddy in the head when I watch a romantic film. That’s exactly what cinema is, when the lights go off you know that it’s only you and the characters on screen and you are romancing those characters - you imagine being the hero or heroine! This is what we have grown up watching and obviously you cannot take this love of cinema away from anyone.”
She joked about “not sitting and putting any logic” into some films. “I watch Salman Khan’s films and I enjoy them! There’s no logic when his shirt comes off (laughs).”
She said cinema must entertain but also must educate.
“There is cinema of all kinds - it’s up to you whether you want to watch it or not. For some it’s escapism, for some it’s realism, for some it’s educative. It’s different for different people.”
‘You don’t need to be a star kid’
With debates on nepotism and favoritism in Bollywood raging post the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, Aahana (who has a background in theatre and then moved to television, films and OTT) comes across as a go-getter. She believes a ‘relentless’ attitude is what opened doors for her in the world of showbiz.
On her career path, she said, “I think it’s been fabulous. I’ve managed to do so much in such little time because I’ve just been relentless. I feel so happy and so proud. And I feel like I’m really the living example of the fact that you do not need to rub shoulders with the ‘right’ people, you don’t need to be in everybody’s good books, you don’t need to be a star kid, you don’t need anything if you’re good at your job.
“You need to have a lot of fearlessness, you need to be very, very confident about yourself and the world that you’re living in, and you need to be equipped and capable. When the camera rolls nothing else matters. You have to deliver the goods.”
Reacting to the hate many top actors are facing today, she said, “Nobody sees the process, everybody sees the end result. People criticise actors a lot and call them ‘privileged’, but they don’t realise the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Let’s talk about the biggest stars; they would not be where they are had they not been disciplined. They sleep early, they wake up early, they train, eat right. Why would a star be a star if they had not worked and slogged their a** off to be where they are?”
New comedy amidst Covid
Aahana has just wrapped a show called Sandwich for SonyLIV, whose shooting followed Covid protocols. “It’s a comedy we shot during August and September with an ensemble cast including Atul Kulkarni and Kunal Roy Kapoor. I was dying to go back to work and I said, anything will do! I haven’t laughed like this in an entire year. I worked with the cutest co-stars. We had forgotten that there was Covid, apart from the fact that we were following protocols.
“The Sony team took a lot of precautions and because it was a multi-cam set up we shot it exactly like a sitcom. So the camera team would never come close to us. We had permanent sets in the studio and we were all given designated rooms - we were given make-up and hair teams which were not allowed to touch anybody else. Everyone had their own spot boys. Distancing was being maintained with the crew.”
‘Family is everything’
She said one of the main life lessons she learned from the Covid lockdown was that family is all-important. “I’ve not spent so much time with my family in a very long time. Of course I was itching to go back to work because that’s who I am. But (during this time) I paid a lot more attention to my health. I was staying with my sister who is a major fitness freak. I started doing runs on a regular basis. There was a lot I did during this time which I wouldn’t otherwise - I cooked, I played a lot with my nephew, I spent a lot of time praying and expressing gratitude for whatever I have. I didn’t feel the need to go anywhere, you don’t need too much to be happy in life. Family is everything.”