A chat with Tahira Kashyap Khurrana is like a conversation with an old friend who you are meeting after a long time. On a conference call from Mumbai, Tahira talks with an open heart without any inhibitions. Unlike a typical Bollywood celebrity, there are no measured and well-practised answers. Perhaps this is what makes her come across as a breath of fresh air in the glamorous industry of Hindi films in India. Though married to Ayushmann Khurrana, one of the most talented actors in Bollywood, Tahira has gradually emerged out of the shadow of her famous husband, making a mark for herself as a writer and a filmmaker. But more importantly, the mother of two, stands tall as a breast cancer survivor who attempted to destigmatise the discussion about the life-threatening condition. It’s perhaps this willingness to talk not just about her battle with cancer, but also the urge to discuss topics that matter to her as a woman that has led her to write five books. Earlier this week she released her fifth book, The 7 Sins of Being a Mother.
The book is a personal account in which Tahira shares her journey of becoming a mother to her first born, Viraajveer Khurrana, nine years ago. She writes about the postpartum period, and the early years of raising her son. It’s a candid account, without any filters.
“I think I am mad enough to put myself out there. You really need to be a weirdo to embarrass yourself, your family and to be brutally honest,” she says with a ludicrous laugh. She writes in the book, ‘I did my ‘cowly’ duties with utmost sincerity for six months, but I was determined not to go beyond that. My whole clan judged me. I was of course compared to my mother who had breastfed me for one whole year.’ It’s with this level of honesty that Tahira writes, and believes it comes to her only because she’s crazy. But immediately on a serious note, she says, “Writing is an extension of my personality and I find it liberating. I have learnt a lot in my journey. I really wish somebody had told me, when I became a mother, that it’s okay to be sinful. Though in the book I use a lot of humour and have made light of the situation, I was always on a guilt trip. I really wanted to share my journey with the world. This book is for all women. I think as a woman you will be able to resonate with my story.”
It takes immense courage to voice your thoughts and put these out in public view, particularly as a book. Though Tahira comes with privilege, she is aware of her position as a woman in society. Irrespective of their commitment and sincerity, women are often judged based on the choices they make and this is the stereotype that she wants to break.
“The world knows less about us, and the lesser they know the more of a stereotype we are. Especially mothers have this holier than thou image, and if you want to become a mother you need to be like ‘Mother India’ - a sacrificial person who will let go of her routine and will take care of her husband and children. Not every woman feels like this. I am not denouncing these duties or looking down upon the motherly feelings one has. But I want the world to be aware that I did not feel any of this and if you consider this a sin, I am taking ownership of the sin. I am sharing my views hoping these will stay with people who, henceforth, will not judge other women. Whether a woman wants to have a child or not, whether she wants to breastfeed her baby or wants to opt for top feeding, or whether a woman wants to keep a nanny for her child and wants to be a working woman, I want people to understand that women are also human beings, and there is more to us,” she says emphatically.
While she is talking passionately about the struggles of womenfolk in modern day societies, Tahira says she knows the perils that come with being brutally honest about it. “I kept asking everyone to hug me for writing this book. I am quite scared,” she admits with a laugh. “I don’t know how the world is going to react. I am an ordinary human being, but I also know that the only way I can live with myself is when I put myself out there.”
Behind the lens
This year, she debuts as a feature film director with Sharmajee Ki Beti. Tahira is exploring the subject of the urban Indian girl through this story that she has written. A multi-starrer it features an ensemble cast of Sakshi Tanwar, Divya Dutta, Saiyami Kher and Sharib Hashmi. A reel on her Instagram profile edited to the popular Dua Lipa track Levitating captures Tahira in her elements as a director. But this isn’t the first time that Tahira has stepped behind the camera to call the shots. Her first outing was when she directed her brother-in-law Aparshakti Khurana’s song Kudiye Ni in 2019. After that she made two short films Pinni and Toffee, which were also written by her. “I am a storyteller who has found different mediums to tell her stories. If nobody wants to publish my stories, then I take the social media route to write and tell stories to my followers, and I also want to make films. I am not going to let go of any medium where I can share stories,” she asserts. “When I was five years old, my teacher wrote in my report card that I am the grandmother of the class because I used to tell so many stories to everyone. I still have that card. So telling tales is part of my DNA,” she adds with a laugh.
However making a feature film comes with its own set of challenges and hurdles, and Tahira says it’s taken four years for her to make her dream come true. She’s glad that it’s finally happening, but the prior experience of making the shorts did help. “I feel a feature film is an extension to a short film. The cast, set and crew, all the elements are the same. As opposed to making a film for a few minutes, we make it for a few hours. So I take my short projects as seriously as feature films,” says the director.
Being a survivor
Before the success and happiness that Tahira has achieved today, she went through a period of uncertainty and pain. In September 2018, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35. Her daughter was just four, and son was six and her husband, Ayushmann was delivering hit films (Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho), one after the other during that period. Anyone would have lost hope in such a situation, but the strong-willed woman that she is, Tahira made her diagnosis public with a long, humorous yet poignant post on social media on September 22. Dressed in a blue-and-white checked scrub, she posed for the picture from the hospital. But it wasn’t as easy as she made it out to be. “When I was diagnosed I had absolutely no intention of sharing anything about my illness with anyone. I had clammed up. But when the doctor told me that many women succumb because they don’t come forward for checks, that their families are not progressive enough, and that most of them are ashamed of breast check ups, it was an eye-opener for me. It’s the second most common cancer in the world and the mortality rate is high because of these issues that women face. When I heard of other women’s struggles, I felt I was on a mission to talk about it and spread awareness. I felt if it can happen to me at 35, it could happen to anyone. The best way to tackle it is to get yourself examined. I am glad that I was able to talk about it. Women started sharing their bald pictures after I shared mine. This experience changed my perspective, that’s why I chronicled my journey,” she says.
She continues to chronicle her life not just for the sake of social media, but for people who follow her, are around her and for her family, particularly her children. Just two weeks prior to the book launch Tahira was holidaying in Maldives with Ayushmann and their daughter Varushka and son Viraajveer. It seemed like a much-needed break for the multi-tasker after she had finished writing the book and completing the shoot of Sharmajee Ki Beti.
“I took time off and did exactly what my seven- and nine-year-old daughter and son did. I went swimming with them and built sandcastles with shells. I had a fun time with both of them,” she reveals. Though she is a doting mother, the 38-year-old says she makes it a point to teach her children things that she missed learning when she was of their age. “I am glad that my children are growing up seeing a working mother, and they realise that I can be hard-pressed for time. I am teaching them to appreciate their father and mother, especially their mother. I wish my mother had done this. She had sacrificed so much for me and I didn’t know. I would keep questioning her about small things but I never questioned my dad. My mother never stopped me from doing it. So, now I tell my children to value their mother, I keep telling them, ‘thank you, bolo!’”
Her husband Ayushmann has been a dependable partner, and Tahira acknowledges it. There are challenges and she says life is all about moving ahead with a commitment to grow. “We have to keep stretching and evolving. Some days are easy, some days are not. My work gives me a lot of happiness. My kids get to see a happy mom. Being a mother has been challenging but I thoroughly enjoy it. My children are as crazy as I am, especially my daughter. I am enjoying this phase of my life. Ayushmann has seen me transform and blossom, just like I have seen him grow and achieve. We take pride in each other. We are together, yet we have our individual journeys and challenges. We own our identities,” she signs off.
First thing you do in the morning…
I take my medicine on an empty stomach. I walk briskly for 20 minutes, and then I read something from ‘Value Creation’. I follow Nichiren Buddhism. I read something inspiring before I start the day.
What are the three things that are always in your bag?
Lip balm, sanitiser and my mask. You can forget your mobile, but not your mask!
What’s your fitness mantra?
I practise weight training three times a week, and I like to go to the gym.
A fashion hack that you swear by?
If you aren’t carrying your makeup palette, you can use a lip balm on your cheeks as a blush and on the eyelids as an eye shadow.
What are your bedtime rituals?
I wash my face, cleanse, tone and moisturise it. I don’t check my smartphone and I don’t read. I don’t do any activity that will activate my brain before I sleep.
What do you do during your downtime?
I keep thinking what to do next!