As she beams her winning smile in an elegant orchid silk saree, it’s easy to see why Aahana Kumra is a festival favorite both on and off the red carpet. As congenial as she is beautiful and talented, the gazelle-eyed actress who plays the rebellious young beautician in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ and who made her on-screen debut playing Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter in the TV series ‘Yudh’, sat down to chat with us at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
Aahana tells us how her love for theater blossomed into an acting career and why she had to shed a lot of inhibitions to get into the skin of her character in ‘Lipstick’, where she plays a small town girl who is desperately hoping to escape her impending arranged marriage. Breaking her social boundaries, she demands a life with her boyfriend with whom she shares both chemistry and dreams of the future.
Tell us a little bit about your journey into acting.
Growing up in Lucknow, I always wanted to be an actress but didn’t have any idea how to go about it. I moved to Bombay when I was 13 years old and I didn’t have any friends in the city. Then I did a workshop at Prithvi theater when I was 14. There was something about Prithvi that I fell in love with – the theater, the space, the sound, everything. I then started assisting in the workshops. I was only 14 and I was doing anything and everything like helping with costumes. I was staying at Prithvi the whole time -sleeping there, waking up and eating there. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be an actress. God has been really kind because he has just paved the way for me. I’ve never had to push too hard to get what I have today. I got my first show because Anurag Kashyap saw me on stage and gave me ‘Yudh’, which was the TV show that I did with Mr. Bachchan. I’d never imagined that I would work with Big B. So I’m really grateful. With Lipstick too, I didn’t know that it’ll become such a big film. Like I said, I’ve never planned anything. You don’t think about what is going to be. Life just happens.
“I’d never imagined that I would work with Big B. So I’m really grateful… I’ve never planned anything. You don’t think about what is going to be. Life just happens.”
“I felt so bad about turning down such a great script. I regretted it for over a month.”
Why did you initially turn down Lipstick? And how did you get back on board?
It was because of scheduling conflicts with ‘Yudh’ and Mr. Bachchan’s dates. We were on standby all the time because he would suddenly turn up and the production house would then call us up and ask if we could give them the same dates. And this went on for nearly a year and 3 months. During that time, Alankrita was introduced to me by a common friend who told me that she has a fantastic script and I should go meet her. I read the script and I absolutely loved it. I really wanted to do this film but Alankrita was starting in March and I couldn’t do it then. I felt so bad about turning down such a great script. I regretted it for over a month. Then I got a call from her in August and she asked “Are you still up for the film?” And I said “What? You haven’t shot it yet? I thought your film must be in post-production by now!” So I think it was serendipity in a way. I couldn’t believe that I eventually got the film.
“I’m the most awkward person you’ll ever meet. I cannot even have a normal conversation about things that I do on screen.”
You embody a very bold character in Lipstick. When you read the script and knew what you had to portray on screen, did it make you nervous?
Yes, I think I’m the most awkward person you’ll ever meet. I cannot even have a normal conversation about things that I do on screen. So when I read the script, I worried that “how am I going to do these scenes?” I couldn’t even fathom how to go about them. But then we did workshops and I met Vikrant, who was fantastic. If it wasn’t for my comfort level with him, I don’t think I would’ve been able to pull it off. We had some very intense sex scenes and sometimes we had to do a number of takes. For the bathroom scene, we did around 18 takes. And it was physically so traumatizing. By the end of it, I would turn blue. Every morning I used to wake up and find some blue mark on my body. So the role was very physically demanding. For me, who is personally such an awkward person, to be able to portray a character like that, I really had to shed a lot of inhibitions and get out of my comfort zone.
“Every morning I used to wake up and find some blue mark on my body. So the role was very physically demanding. For me, who is personally such an awkward person, to be able to portray a character like that, I really had to shed a lot of inhibitions.”
What’s it like seeing yourself on the big screen in different parts of the world?
I think I came all the way to IFFLA to do just that. In Tokyo I was just going “Huh, what happened to that scene?” “What happened to the end?”. You shoot so much and you know what you shot, so you’re always wondering where did stuff go. So in Tokyo I had a lot of questions for Alankrita. The film was still building up in my head. When you watch it for the first time, you feel very dazed. You watch a scene and you think “I wish I’d done this better”. You need to watch it 2-3 times to start enjoying it. This time I saw the film from the point of view of an audience and I completely forgot that the character on screen was me. As I was watching Ratna, Konkona, Plabita, I was so blown away by their performances – especially Ratna’s. I thought if I was her age and I was to get that role, how would I do it? She has done it so nicely.
“When you watch it for the first time, you feel very dazed. You watch a scene and you think “I wish I’d done this better”. You need to watch it 2-3 times to start enjoying it.”
What are you as a person off screen?
Oh, I’m happy nobody knows me off screen! I think I’m a mad cap. I’m kind of happy that people think I’m a really serious actor. I have that sort of perception going on about me (laughs). My dad asks me why do I want to do all these serious roles. He says “You should do roles where you’re smiling!” I tell him nobody offers those to me. I laugh a lot. I’m constantly cracking up. I think I’m very self-entertained as a person. I love traveling. The last 2-3 years I’ve been traveling alone and have been to a lot of different countries. I just did a solo Japan trip – right before meeting Alankrita in Tokyo. I like to eat a lot of new food. I’m really excited I’m going from here to New York for 10 days. I want to go see some new places, some off-Broadway. There’s just so much happening in that city. I think as actors, we need to have experiences and I love to experience things in life. You just live once. Aur kya le kar jaoge? Experience hi le kar jaoge na? (What else can you take with you when you die, other than experiences?)
“I laugh a lot. I’m constantly cracking up. I think I’m very self-entertained as a person.”
What are your upcoming projects?
I’m waiting for this show called “Power Play” . It’s a series I’ve done with Amazon. It’s going to launch in India in another month or so. And I’m going to do a web series called “Chukyagiri”. It’s only 5 episodes but it’s fantastic. And I’m doing a new play. We’re trying a Broadway style play in India. That’s going to be directed by Naseeruddin Shah. I work with him and Ratna Pathak – they’re my mentors. The play will open in September. It’ll run every day in September and then all of December.
‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ played as the opening night film at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles 2017. The film was initially banned in India by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) calling it “too lady oriented”, which sparked an uproar. Last week, the film was cleared for release by an appeals tribunal (FCAT) which ordered the CBFC to release it with a few cuts and an ‘A’ certification.