In Conversation with Aahana Kumra: Lipstick Under my Burkha Actor
Why did you decide to become an actress?
Well I always wanted to be an actress, but I honestly didn’t know how to go about it. When I was fourteen, I ended up doing a workshop at Prithvi, I was in Lucknow, so I moved to Mumbai. When I moved there I started hanging around Prithvi Theatre and started doing everything from costumes, to props, to helping with workshops, to assisting at festivals, so basically everything. Then I kind of realized that I really liked the stage, and that I wanted to do anything that required me to be on stage. In college I kept on taking part in extracurricular activities and intercollegiate events, anything that kept me out of class. I just didn’t want to sit in one place because I just had too much energy so I had to find a way to channelize it. When I finally graduated my mother asked me if I wanted to be an actor, and I said yes. Since my parents are both from different backgrounds there was nothing that they could do to help me except for getting me admission in a school that would require me to learn how to act. They are both proponents of education, so they told me to learn and be educated about the field that I am going into first. After that, I applied and got into this school called Whistling Woods where I was a part of the first batch of students. My teacher was Naseeruddin Shah, and I eventually became very close to him and Ratna Pathak Shah. After graduating I did a lot of theatre work with their group, and I think this experience has helped shape the work that I am doing now a lot.
Do you prefer theatre, or would you want to venture into Bollywood and main stream entertainment as well?
I am actually very happy with the way that Hindi films are turning out today, because they are moving away from the run of the mill boy-girl love story, you know. There are a lot of interesting projects happening in Bollywood now, so if there is something that comes about that gives me something worthwhile to do and the maker thinks that I have the capability to perform then I am definitely up for it.
What aspect of the script drew you to the film Lipstick Under my Burkha?
Well I hadn’t read a script like this in my life. I thought it was very interesting that how four women deal with their desires and how they go about life. And I am from a small town, I come from Lucknow, and Bhopal is a very similar city in terms of culture, so I understand that most small towns in India don’t give you the freedom that metropolitan cities give you, so that was the excitement of playing a small town character. It gave me the opportunity to explore what small town women have to go through. I hadn’t seen anything like this before, so I just thought, why not give it a shot.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you need to prepare more emotionally or physically?
Well you are never truly ready for what happens on set unless you are actually there shooting the film. So physically, yes, it was a very taxing film because there were a lot of physical scenes in the film and I didn’t think that it would impact me as much when I read it on paper. You really have to give yourself and drop any inhibitions to the scenes and the way that they are written, or the way that the director wants them to be shot. Lots of things changed for us when we went to shoot because we were shooting at real locations, so we had to film the scenes in those little chota chota (small small) places. It was pretty insane where we were shooting. We were in these poor, underdeveloped cities that were so dirty and filled with cows, insects, rickshaw drivers, cab drivers, and so many people. We literally had to shoot amongst chaos. As for preparing for my character, I play a beautician, so I spent a lot of time with my real life beautician. She has been coming to my house for almost fifteen years now, so when she comes over we chat a lot, and she shares a lot about her life with me. So since I have such a great relationship with her, I thought that I should learn threading, waxing and stuff from her. So I’m a trained beautician now!
What method of acting do you use?
I am a very serious actor. My father is always asking me why can’t you smile, you’re so serious all the time. Everybody that knows me well is always shocked that I can manage doing serious roles. I’m usually really goofy that is always laughing. Nobody really takes me seriously, especially at home. So when I act I get into the role fully, and take out my personality.
What was the hardest part about playing your character in the film?
Well I was really nervous when I had to do those physical scenes. I mean, it’s all right to talk about them but when you actually have to shoot it takes a toll on you. I was like, my god, how do these actresses do it. It honestly takes guts, and somewhere I think these actresses like Ratna Pathak, me, Plabita and Konkona really dropped our inhibitions completely. Honestly, it was very liberating for us as well.
In the film, the burkha symbolizes hidden desires, so how do you think this film will help women be more open instead of hiding behind society?
The thing is that there was a dialogue that started with the announcement of the film, and its pissed of a lot of people in India because how can you tell women that they can’t talk about their desires. When it comes to men, they are allowed to talk about such things, but women are told to just be quite. Now the awareness is slowly building, but it will still take a while. They tell us to not “wear the pants” in the house, and to be more submissive.
How do you think this film will impact society?
There will be an awareness. That is very important because if you are aware of something then you can work towards making it better. For example, in India mental awareness is still not recognized. You can’t talk about things like depression without being called crazy. I mean, you know how it is. Like in many other countries people actually combat depression, but not here, and mental health is so important. Now slowly people are starting campaigns and such to bring that much needed awareness. Similarly, if there is an awareness that women can talk about how we feel, then eventually men will also acknowledge it.
Do you relate to the character you play? If so, how?
Yes, I do relate with her. I have seen a lot of girls who are in love with one person, but then are forced to get married to someone else. They are stifled in their own lives. They are told that this is life, and that they cannot have any aspirations for themselves. My character in the film is basically trying to escape the social pressures and strive for a better life. She doesn’t want to be in a small town, you know, because she feels suffocated there. I also come from a small city, so I know that if I had stayed there I would have probably been married and have had three or four kids by now. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s the life I would have lived instead of my life now where I make my own choices, I pack my bag and travel, and live on my own terms.
What did you learn from your character?
I did! I have engrained her in my mind. Often times I say, if Leela can do it, why can’t I. If a small town girl can dream so big and want to change her life for the better, then why can you.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist? If so, how do you define feminism?
Well I think that we all are feminists somewhere inside our little holes. If you are not a feminist, then you don’t have an identity. We are taught to dislike our feminine qualities since day one. It’s like, “why are you crying, don’t be such a girl.” We can run our lives and our houses, and still be girls. A woman is equally capable of doing everything that a man can do. This is actually a huge shift in my own thinking, because before I would take pride in saying that I grew up like a boy and that my parents raised me as if I were their son. Now I say that I am a girl, I dress up like a girl, I behave like a girl, and I love being a girl.
How do you think this film will add to the actresses’ role in the Indian Film Industry?
I think there are a couple of films being made that are finally letting women perform. Bollywood is such a male driven industry. If there is a Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan, the women is not given an equal opportunity to perform in the film. But now we have actresses like Alia that are doing such amazing work, and getting more female dominated work.
What are your future plans?
Well I never plan my life, and that is honestly the best part about being an actor. I’ve honestly never planned it. Things just happen, and I like to just go with the flow. I let things happen organically instead of pushing.
*This interview was conducted on the phone, and a recording was used to transcribe her responses verbaitum*
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