Her resplendence lies in her forthright, charming nature.
Every story that she shared was laden with generosity and pure adulation for theatre. The fine line between theatre and life and everything in between was discussed with an exuberance that can only be found in a true artist who is rejuvenated by the process.
Break a Leg! got the opportunity to speak with Aahana Kumra about her journey as a lover of stage, a connoisseur of experiences and she indulged us with extremely astute observations. She shared quips that made us smile and believe in the timelessness of the beautiful art form that theatre is.
What’s the most exhilarating part about being on stage?
Theatre is very interesting as a medium because with stage you can never say “you have arrived.” There is a lot to discover every single day- new nuances of characters are discovered with each rehearsal and performance. The process is always evolving and never final. And this continuous discovery is what brings the joy of acting. Even after performing Sir Sir Sarla for ten years, I am still learning new things about my character. It’s beautiful because every show and performance then becomes unique, every audience in every city is different, and there is no way I get to render the exact same show twice.
Doing a play several times brings a certain flair to an actor’s abilities. But do you find yourself getting less involved emotionally with each performance? Does it tend to get mechanical?
First of all, you get enormously possessive about your character. I would be extremely critical if I were to watch somebody else play a character that I have portrayed in a play. And that’s with every actor. That’s why you love theatre because you feel only you can do justice to the part.
Repeated shows and re-runs have never been mechanical for me. I mean working with Makarand Deshpande is crazy- the good kind of crazy- each rehearsal is absolutely unpredictable. For instance, there is this one scene that we never rehearse, we are always playing to the gallery, basing it on the audience reaction- there are times when we are laughing with the audience. The best part about working with him is that he lets me be me, and gives me a lot of room for exploration. This space that allows discovery and innovation makes me less reliant on my emotional memories and I can actually explore my character and myself in real time.
What has your experience with theatre added to your life?
Theatre has definitely influenced the way I perceive people and has made me a better judge of emotions. For instance, now when I see someone behave erratically, I am able to analyse and reason than react immediately. It makes me feel like I am better equipped to face life.
Makrand Sir always says- “Naatak ko Ghatne do” and that has really stayed with me. He starts working on a play that is 2-3 hours long and with every rehearsal or show, he cuts out dialogues, snippets and constantly edits. How an audience reacts or how the play pans out in real time is not something that we can decide beforehand. And hence this organic process of refining becomes very important. Letting it happen and then adjusting yourself to the situation is much more fulfilling. Naatak ko Ghatne dena chahiye, the event must happen for you to develop an understanding and I really abide by this.
You have always been vocal about your loyalty to the stage. How do you think your knowledge of stagecraft has helped you as a film actor?
I feel people started hiring me in films and web series because I was a theatre actor. They would say I work at Prithvi (laughs) and I would correct them saying “I don’t work at Prithvi! I am an actor who sometimes does shows at Prithvi and also NCPA.”
Personally, I find the distinctions quite absurd. You are not a film or television actor, you are
simply an actor and those are your mediums. But that said, suddenly a lot of actors who I had worked with on stage are being cast in a lot of web series. It clearly shows that directors are looking for actors they don’t have to coddle, actors who are quick, understand show requirements and add to a seamless shooting process. Stagecraft gives you this sense of fearlessness and develops a habit to improvise and discover a new process which is a very useful tool for an actor. And maybe that’s why theatre and training is being recognized and appreciated a lot more today!
When I work with other theatre actors in a different medium, there is a sense of familiarity because of the similar backgrounds and work ethics. There is a different joy in the process of creation, a lot more give and take. I find that immensely enjoyable.
Your film Lipstick Under My Burkha was one of the most talked about film of that year. Since then we have seen a tsunami of content that is ‘feminist’ only in theory. Do you feel that instead of addressing the issue we are simply making way for tokenism?
When Lipstick released, we travelled to several countries to screen the movie and I came to understand stories of women from across the world. In Japan, we had women coming to us and asking “How did you know our story?” I have seen men walk out of theatres in Australia claiming that “Humaari auratein aisa nahi karti.” Witnessing such extreme reactions made me realize that misogyny is universal and helped me understand feminism better. It transformed my understanding of women in life and cinema.
When I see content that does not resonate with me anymore, I am able to recognize aspects that are superficial. As artists we must cater to the audience’s entertainment and we can’t be preachy all the time. Having said that, I would love to see more stories of women that are relatable and powerful, especially in the fields of sports and women officers. And not just restricted to the world of partying, holidays and weddings that has been done to death. I would love to seem more progressive, real and authentic stories that depict the women of today.
When addressing feminism, be it Ismat Chugtai’s stories or Manto’s outtakes, the themes that theatre has touched have always been exploratory and progressive. As an artist, would you say that its more gratifying to work in theatre?
Of course! No doubt about it. Just look at the powerful things Ismat Aapa wrote way back in the 60’s and 70’s. I saw some of her work like Lihaaf, Chui Mui being performed on stage and Oh-My-God! I was blown away. Undoubtedly, theatre is immensely gratifying. How else would I get to explore and learn about such powerful and timeless narratives. Theatre is not a two-minute noodle recipe. It has a lot of depth and resonance. More like slow cooked dum biryani (laughs).
You once mentioned that working with Naseruddin Shah has changed and inspired you as an actor. What role does community play in developing an artist’s outlook and craft?
If I wasn’t an artist, I wouldn’t have formed opinions, thoughts and world views about a lot of things. My training and stage performances have helped in educating me. But getting to learn
from stalwarts like Naseer Sir, Ratna Ma’am and Mak Sir has taught me so much from all points of the spectrum that its insurmountable. They have added so much to my understanding as an actor that my journey wouldn’t have been the same without my mentors. While my internal process is about how I think and perceive things, the learnings I have received from my mentors is absolutely invaluable and unmatched.
The lockdown has shown us how we can access theatre from our screens. Given its accessibility and scope for increased viewership-Do you think this is something that will continue to be?
If this is the way forward then it is the way forward. Honestly, if I had my way I would just run to Prithvi theatre right now. Every morning when I go to Juhu beach for a jog, I can feel the stage calling out to me!
But the lockdown gave me a fantastic opportunity to discover virtual theatre. I am very excited about One on One Unlocked, a show I am performing with Rage Productions. The whole process of figuring out the shots, zoom rehearsals, and just the overall concept is extremely fun and interesting.
And finally, a skill you would like to showcase but haven’t had the opportunity yet
I would love to sing on stage. I haven’t had the chance to train myself as a singer but I think I would do a good job. It has always been a dream. Maybe one day!