‘5 years ago, I was on the verge of committing suicide. I was losing my sanity in a bid to become a movie heroine’
In the wake of the #MeToo movement taking the nation and the entertainment world by storm, film, television and theatre actress, Aahana Kumra opens up on what it takes for a girl with no filmi background to find her voice in Bollywood and about the storms she must brave to become an actor. In a heartfelt chat, the Lipstick Under My Burkha actress talks about the tumultuous early years of her acting career, what drove her to the point of almost ending her life, owing to the murky power-play by certain people in the film industry and how she overcame it all. Excerpts…
You are one of the most outspoken actors around. Did your life experiences and struggles shape your thinking and make you the brave woman that you are today?
I am a different person today. About five years ago, I was disillusioned by this culture of Bollywood, and there was no one to pull me out of it. I was on the verge of committing suicide, because this culture is so normalised by certain people. I couldn’t live with who I was anymore. I started questioning myself about who I had become. I was not what my parents expected me to be. It has taken me a lot to come out of it.
What really went wrong?
When you start working as a professional, you tend to get sucked into a group of people who do the kind of things that you are not conditioned to do. Then, you become a different human being. I will not deny the fact that I was in bad company. I had to consciously steer away from it, as I realised that it will take me down badly. There were some people from a known production house, who were part of my circle, but today, they are not my friends anymore. In college, guys were scared to talk to me, also because my mom is a cop. A guy touching me inappropriately was something I could never handle. When I came in to the industry, my principles were shaken. One day, I sat myself down in my bedroom and deleted all the blocked numbers. Till date, these people cannot contact me. These are big names! Directors, ADs, producers. I never aspired to be TV actor, but I choose to do a TV show called Agent Raghav just to retain my sanity. I told myself that I will work and make a living without letting anyone feel that ‘she is so desperate that she will do anything for work’. In this industry, people can smell desperation. They do talk like that and I have heard people say these things about me. I told myself I won’t do it anymore. I hosted Kabaddi on TV. I did everything that I never imagined myself doing.
‘THERE WAS A BIG DIRECTOR WHO KEPT ASKING ME IF I HAD A BOYFRIEND. HE TOLD ME TO COME DRESSED AS A TOTA (HOT CHICK)’
At what point did you think that the relationships that you had forged with some people in the industry were getting toxic? What was the turning point?
You party with them, you drink with them and you indulge in things that they do. Since, everyone around you is doing it… you are made to feel like it is normal. You get drunk, talk inappropriate things, behave inappropriately and touch each other weirdly. After a point, you don’t want to be a part of that space, and I have been there. I had a discussion with my parents where I confided in them. I think they were supremely supportive. It was my mother who told me, ‘Why don’t you do a TV serial?’ She saw that I was losing my sanity in order to become a ‘movie heroine’. I am sorry to say this, but this is what most women go through to become a ‘heroine’. You tend to start believing that this process is normal. It isn’t.
When you reached that point when you realised that you don’t ‘want to be part of that space’, what helped you get out of it?
It was like a switch for me. An actor is an actor. This was the conversation I had with Naseer sir (Naseeruddin Shah, whom she considers her mentor). He once told me, ‘have dignity of labour’. He asked me to respect the work I was offered and reminded me that, ‘If you are a good actor, you will be pulled out and given anactors are getting big films, too, and I was narrowing down my options in a bid to make it big as a movie star. I have promised myself that, I will work for every single day of my life and I won’t depend on one person to give me a job. There’s not just one production house who is making different kind of cinema. The moment you realise there are more options out there, you take their power away. Make yourself so good at your craft that people cannot ignore you.
Unfortunately, there are some people in the industry who are not looking for talent alone…
I was replaced at the last minute from a recent (commercial Bollywood action film) by another new actress, because apparently, the lead hero preferred her. It was extremely unprofessional. When I passed out of film school, I had no contacts but I was principled and believed that people will offer me roles on the basis of my talent. But that’s not how it always works here. There was no one waiting to launch me. You have to network, be in people’s good books, flash a smile and look pretty at all times. Also, how many roles are written for women in the Hindi film industry, anyway? Here, no one messes with star kids because it’s the privilege they get. They choose their directors, scripts and producers. If I turn down a script, I may not get any work after that. In this industry, it’s not easy for girls who don’t have any financial backing to be fearless. Eight girls stay in one house, stand in queue for hours with make-up, for one audition, where casting directors talk to you the way they want to, because they are in a position of power. Every day you are told you are fat, ugly and terrible. You start questioning yourself as an actor and it’s a massive blow to your self-esteem.
No aspiring actress escapes inappropriate advances, does she?
People tell you things like, ‘acting ke upar dhyaan mat do. Just take care of your looks.’ These are big directors who have already been outed. Sajid Khan once messaged me, ‘Oh, you can look hot in a bikini also!’ I think it shocked him that I could look good in a bikini. This was after our meeting. Talent managers like Anirban Blah speak horribly to aspiring actresses. What is wrong with these men? A handful of directors feel that inhi logon ke paas kaam hai (only they have the power to give people work). Phantom dissolved the company citing various issues, weren’t they aware of what was happening in it? We should not pass the buck. We are all responsible. Anirban Blah met me at the lobby of a five star hotel and said, ‘There’s a room here. Let’s negotiate there.’ I walked out of that meeting because I wasn’t comfortable. It didn’t go down well with me. That’s ‘normal’ conversation he has with women. The day I chatted with him, I was shaken.
For a newcomer, what are the warning signs?
Always take someone with you, especially if you are meeting someone you don’t know. People cracking a lewd sexist joke, sending you an inappropriate emoji or message, touching you inappropriately — those are the signs that a person is not interested in your work. There was a big director who kept asking me if I had a boyfriend. I was new at that time. He told me come dressed as a tota(slang for hot chick). I thought maybe the role is glamorous. I left when I realised his intentions. I am glad he is nowhere today. But yes, female actors are subjected to massive scrutiny in terms of looks, age and image. After I did Lipstick… I heard, ‘Yeh toh sirf bold films karti hai’, so I only got such offers.
There has been a debate over what amounts to sexual harassment, especially if an actor knows what he or she is walking into…
I had a meeting with Sajid Khan about a year ago, knowing the fact that he is a shady guy. I met him and he did the same thing that Saloni (Chopra)has written about him. Same drill — you go to his house, you are escorted to his room which is pretty dark. He makes you watch what he’s watching. He did not make a pass at me, but he said that he wanted to get to know me. When I asked him why we can’t sit outside, he said his mother was sitting there so why trouble her. I asked him to switch on the lights of the room, which he did. You have to be assertive here. He wanted to chat with me. I told him my mom’s a police officer which I think made him behave. But he still asked me bizarre questions like, ‘Would you have sex with a dog if I gave you `100 crores’? He didn’t touch me. I guess he was trying to give me gyaan on how I need to be a dumbf*** or laugh at his sexist jokes, if I wanted to be a mainstream heroine in his films. He implied that I think too much and that I am too vocal about what I think. Hence, I am not mainstream actress material. Point being, you can meet anyone, but be wise about who you work with.
Consent is also a grey area, isn’t it?
#MeToo is a campaign that speaks about harassment, but there is also a thing called consent. If a man or woman chooses to sleep with someone, and if he/she is attracted to that person and is willing to go all the way to further their career, then, for them to say that I was harassed, is wrong. It defeats the purpose of this campaign. Social media has given you a certain power and you need to use that with responsibility. It also boils down to aspiration. To what extent will you go? Do you have the talent in you? Will your talent speak for itself ? It’s not that you can’t refuse an inappropriate offer. A young girl from Jharkhand once told me, ‘Casting agents bikini pehen ke aane ko bolte hai.’ It happens! I am aware of it. I told her, make yourself so sound, be so good at your work that no one will say that take your clothes off and then I will hire you. Thanks to other mediums (apart from the big screen), actors like us can work without being in anyone’s good books. One job is leading to another job. This is taking the power away from those who exploit it. Big production houses are taking a stand and that helps. If you know that your job can be taken away, you will be more responsible.
Do you think that for a lot of women, the #MeToo movement is about making peace with themselves and getting closure?
It is. I wanted to talk about my experience with Anirban and Sajid earlier, but their stories came out, and though they tried, they couldn’t misbehave with me. Some of us are looking for a simple, ‘Sorry’. It’s not about wanting to punish someone by putting him behind bars. It is about letting people know what he/she did. Those who are guilty should accept it. I read Anirban’s letter and I am glad that at least he accepted it. Also, not all are sleazy. I have worked with a lot of good casting directors, actors and filmmakers, and a lot depends on how you conduct yourself. Your vibe attracts your tribe.
Do you think this movement will have a deeper impact on the entertainment industry?
I have gone through a terrible time and it has taken me a while to open up. When women face sexual abuse, they start feeling guilty, but today, the onus is on the man. It has taken us so long to have this conversation with our parents and most importantly, with ourselves. The #MeToo movement is great, but for it to sustain, women need to go on. You can’t be dropping charges because court ke chakkar kaun kaatega? There has to be a legal clause that safeguards women against these people. Naming and shaming is fine, but you think those who are called out won’t bounce back and return to films again? I am giving it a year to see if these people come back to where they were. Some brave women have come forward and I hope their efforts are not in vain. When some actors say, ‘We didn’t even know this happens in the film industry’, I want to ask them…what are you smoking? Just because you haven’t been through it, it does not mean that it doesn’t exist!