Meenakshi Kumar sits down for a chat with rising star Aahana Kumra, of Lipstick Under My Burkha fame.
Q: One conversation around your film Lipstick Under My Burkha is about the heavy censorship by the certification board. Could you talk about the cuts they made and how that impacted the movie?
AK: There weren’t any cuts as such made in the film. Basically the length of the scenes was reduced because of uncomfortable viewing of long sex scenes; whereas I’ve said this time and time again, in Hindi films at some point of time it used to be so important for rape scenes to be included, it used to be like the item song at some point of time, I’m serious. You know, that had been going on for years and that viewing was absolutely comfortable for audiences. But a film like this, we were asked to reduce the length of the scenes because they were like, ‘oh its getting too uncomfortable.’ I don’t understand what was uncomfortable about it. Anyway that’s it, we were asked to reduce the length of the scenes but there were no cuts made.
Q: Do you think the kind of opportunities that women get in Indian cinema has changed?
AK: I don’t think it’s changed a lot but I think there will be (some change), there’s an awareness now and I think that’s very important. When I started acting, the only roles that I was being offered were the scared girlfriend and she had to be rescued by the guy and I used to find it extremely uncomfortable to even digest the fact that I could not do something about myself. There are women who are living alone, there are women who are independently working, there are women who are managing their houses, their families, who facilitate their husbands going out there and working, for their kids to go out there- so women are actually superwomen. And not only in India, it’s a world phenomenon but there are very limited roles written for women. Our films are primarily driven by the male, the content (is) written for the men and there are very few films that are made for women. For example there are thousand films made for men, and then there’ll be ten films made for women but (in) those ten films, there’ll be one or two interesting characters. There’ll be a completely unrelatable character- there’ll be something like a Mom who says, ‘he raped my daughter, I will go kill him.’ Why? Why can’t it just be a normal film about normal lives? Women lead normal lives and so do men. Why does everything have to be a celebrated revenge affair? Those are the kind of films on women that actually get made. There are very few, and I think some people are scared to write roles for women. But 2017 was a great year. There were lots of films about women, there were lots of characters that were being written, women centric characters. And I think 2018 onwards we’ll see a lot more women working in cinema.
Q: Do you think Indian audiences have evolved for the better based on the reception of Lipstick under my Burkha?
AK: I think the Indian audiences are always looking for something new. We feed them the rubbish that we feed them on a daily basis and we’re scared, ‘Arre nahi ye film nahi chalegi (this film won’t work)’. If you’re going to be so scared, that film won’t work anyway. If you’re not going to be scared, that film will work. So you know, even when the film was banned, there were lots of people who wanted to watch the film, who were like ‘Why are we not being allowed to watch this film, aisa kya hai iss film mein ki ban hi kar diya iss film ko (what is it that is in the movie that they have banned it)?’ So I think Indian audiences are ready; they’re very bored of whatever they’ve been seeing. The box office hits you can’t compare, those are the big films and there will be a Salman Khan starrer, there will be a Shah Rukh Khan starrer, there will be an Aamir Khan starrer and people will wait for these films, we all wait for these films. But there are small films and they are making a difference and I think our audiences are ready to accept those films.
Q: Whom do you find inspiring in your field?
AK: In my field, there are lots. I’m very inspired by Mr. Bachchan, (he is) extremely inspiring. I feel inspired by my mentor Naseeruddin Shah; Ratna Pathak Shah has inspired me a lot, to work like the way she is and to be able to take the kind of risks that you can at that age, as a female actor. Alankrita has inspired me a lot, she has inspired me with a never give up spirit when she was completely in that space where everybody was telling her that your film will never come out- imagine that the whole world is conspiring against you but you’re still standing and saying, ‘No it’s going to release, it’s going to do well.’ I don’t know how she had that faith, she just did. And she had that faith, we all had that faith. She’s very inspiring. Ekta’s very inspiring, very inspiring entrepreneur, she knows how to take risks and I think if you’re not a risk taker in today’s time, you’ll get nowhere. There are other inspirations, but I’ve never worked with any of them. And I do hope sincerely that I get to work with a lot of the people from the industry.
Q: What was your experience of working on web-series’ like?
AK: It was very different and it was very interesting because thankfully in web we get to work with the actors we want to, so you know… television and stuff, I don’t really get to work with the people with whom I’ve been wanting to. On the Web there are lots of collaborations happening with theatre artists, and people you admire because you’ve watched them on stage, because you’ve literally grown up watching their work or they’re your colleagues on stage whom you haven’t worked with, so it’s a very great platform. I love the fact that there are so many millennials online right now, we are all glued to our phones, stalking people, knowing each others’ lives unnecessarily. But I think what comes out of it is that web content has become superb, and now television and films are pulling their socks up. It’s like a little ant- you shouldn’t underestimate an ant, it’s that situation for web right now. Everybody thought it’s an ant situation, but then the ant started biting, and everybody’s like ‘Oh let’s run,’ you know- it’s an ant and elephant situation.
Q: How did you get into the movies?
AK: I have always been acting, I’ve loved acting on stage since I was 14 and my mum always knew that I wanted to be an actor. She kind of pushed me to get formal training as an actor because she’s a police officer, my father’s in pharmaceuticals, and neither of them could help with acting. So she said, ‘Why don’t you get formal training so you know how to go about this? We can’t help you or we can’t recommend you to anybody or we can’t support you but we can give you unconditional support in terms of whatever you want to do,’ so I think that way I’ve been very lucky. My parents have been very understanding.
Q: How hard was it to break into Bollywood?
AK: I don’t think I’m still in Bollywood. I’ve done a Hindi film, but until I’ve done a big Bollywood film I won’t know how it is to get into Bollywood. But what I know is that there is space for good actors. And right now, more than anything else, I think the Hindi film industry needs good actors. There is work for all of us.
Q: What was your biggest takeaway from Lipstick?
AK: I think my awareness of being a woman in today’s times. I think that’s been my biggest takeaway and misogyny to a large extent, I’ve been harsh towards men for a very long time, thinking that you know… trying to put them down. But imagine the amount of pressure a man has to go through to be a man. You can’t cry, you can’t go and say ‘I can’t do it,’ how can you say that as a man? You can’t, you have to do it, that’s it. So it’s this kind of patriarchal mindset that we all are conditioned into and have grown up with and I really hope that through my work, through my films, through anything I do, I can change the mindset of people watching my work and have them be inspired by whatever I’m doing. Even a 10% takeaway will be a great start. I think somewhere I’ve made a beginning and because of my film, a lot of awareness of myself has come about, a lot of self-acceptance has come about.
Q: What’s been your favourite fan encounter?
AK: I went to Japan with my film to Tokyo for our first premiere ever, so that was with Alankrita and Plabita, and before that this fan of mine had written to me, emailed saying that whenever you come to Japan please we must meet; because he’d watched Yudh and he’s a big Bachchan sahab fan. So I just emailed him randomly saying that I’m coming to Japan, I’d love to meet and we’d landed in Osaka and we took a trip together. And we stayed in separate hostels but it was amazing that we actually did a trip together and I found a friend in this absolute random stranger who had just written an email to me. I like to reach out to people if I find them safe. But it’s amazing because I’ve found a friend and he’s an All India Radio Jockey in Japan.
Q: What is your advice for women aspiring to make a place for themselves in the field of filmmaking?
AK: I think my only advice for them would be not to give up, because I know it’s very difficult for them. There’s a director friend of mine who wanted to work with a Director of Photography (DoP) who’s a woman and the producers were very skeptical. She’s one of the very few female DoPs in India, there are hardly any women cinematographers in India and said, “No no we’re shooting in Doha, how will she shoot?” To which the director just turned around and said “She’s going to wear heels and come on set. What are you expecting? She’s stronger than most cinematographers, than most male cinematographers, I have full faith in her, what’s your problem? I’m not going to do my film if she’s not going to be onboard.” And that was a great stand he took for his DoP. So I know what happens to most DoPs, most cinematographers, most editors, most directors- they don’t get funding. They don’t get the confidence that their work is going to be backed by the producers’ confidence, so I think we need more female producers. We need more women like Ekta (Kapoor) to become those fierce producers, we need more directors like Alankrita, Sona, we need more women to direct because there’s a completely different perspective and a completely different world that you see from a woman’s point of view.