Bollywood should move past giving female actors ‘flimsy work’: Aahana Kumra

Actor Aahana Kumra on working on film sets that are far from female-friendly, and why the influx of stars on OTT spells bad news for young actors

Traversing beaten paths is not really up the alley for Aahana Kumra. Just this year, the Lipstick Under My Burkha star considers herself fortunate to be credited in films that fit a broad spectrum of genres — Marzi, Betaal, Khuda Haafiz (all for different OTT platforms).

“I’m glad I got the opportunity because I’m also getting to work with some mad actors,” she exclaims over phone from Mumbai.

Aahana’s latest is the Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury film, Rules of the Game, which is streaming on ZEE5.

The film follows the story of a couple Priya (Aahana) and Gaurav (played by Chandan Roy Sanyal), who are looking to spice it up in the bed. “They are thoroughly bored in their sex life, and the wife tries to incorporate games as a catalyst. And then it gets complicated,” says Aahana.

She shot for the film almost 18 months ago but remembers clearly how the first meeting went with the director, a person she evidently seems to hold a lot of admiration for. “He (Aniruddha) manages to enroll you into a story.He makes you very comfortable,” she says of the National Award-winning filmmaker.

Aahana Kumra with Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury while filming ‘Rules of the Game’
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

“When we met for the first time, he invited me home and fed me so well,” she laughs, and pauses to add: “He gives you a lot of love but then there is also a lot of respect. He writes great stories for women, and there are a lot of women on his set. So you feel safe. When it’s a female-driven set, automatically you will notice the changes to the colour palette, the mood and the voices on set.”

Laws of equality

It is an issue that has Aahana bothered. For the many progressive tropes Bollywood or the rest of Indian cinema tries to push onto an audience, shooting sets are still largely operated as male fiefdoms.

“It is not easy to be on set for long because the job is strenuous. You are shooting in locations that are not friendly for women. I have worked on sets where there was no loo for women. So the issue is not only about addressing gender disparity but also to make the set female-friendly,” she remarks.

She, however, finds rays of hope with more number of women now taking on active roles in a film set.

Aahana Kumra in a still from ‘Rules of the Game’

“It will take a while for the conditioning to break, but the process will hasten with more people taking a chance. I feel happy with all the younger females I notice on set. It is fun and exciting. There are very few female cinematographers and directors in our industry, but if you look at their work, they tell stories in a different way; their narratives are so different from men,” she says.

Changes to the landscape began with the influence of OTT content, she believes. With more female actors getting opportunities to play stronger, meatier roles on digital streaming platforms, there has been a noticeable impact in the way mainstream filmmakers write content for women.

“We have started to realise that people want to watch a story with a female lead,” she says, and adds: “The reason why women are so hungry for roles or are constantly fighting for it is because they don’t get the kind of opportunities to perform in their roles as the men. Don’t give us flimsy work. I don’t know what is holding people back in making these kind of narratives. Why is there only one Alankrita [Shrivastava] or Ashwiny [Tiwari] trying to make films about another woman?”

Star-sized shadow

With the OTT space achieving significant growth over the last few months, courtesy in part to lockdown, opportunities are on the rise for young artistes.

Aahana Kumra with Aninditaa Bose (R) in a still from ‘Rules of the Game’

Aahana Kumra with Aninditaa Bose (R) in a still from ‘Rules of the Game’
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

However, with uncertainty over theatres still continuing, OTT is likely to attract the bigger stars of the mainstream sooner than later. It is a scenario that Aahana is aware of; the economic impact of COVID-19 forcing even the big spenders among OTT platforms to slash budgets has not escaped her notice.

“I think the pandemic has brought us to a stage where instead of moving one step forward, we have all had to take 10 steps back. At this point, it is either you take the job in the lesser budget and actually have a job, or sit at home without one,” she says.

“OTT space will be widely divided because we don’t know when it will be normal to go into theatres. Once the film actors enter, our jobs and our payscale will be affected. Opportunities are going to become less open because we have to make way for the biggest stars… unless we become one, but which you know is not an easy process,” she adds.