It’s been a week since Betaal released on Netflix, and we got to speak with the talented, lovely Aahana Kumra. Kumra plays the role of DC Ahluwalia, bringing to life a female character we’ve never before seen on Indian TV: a stoic, hard-ass, hardworking Army Officer who’s one heck of a friend. We spoke to Kumra about the story behind the web series, how she approached her character, and the ways in which performing different roles, for different shows and films, changes the actor entirely.
Obviously, we just watched Betaal. I enjoyed it, I thought it was very cool, and very creepy, and in the best ways.
[Laughs] That’s exactly what we wanted to do; that was the intention–to make it creepy.
So, a zombie horror. How did that come your way, how did you say okay? I know that you have done thrillers in the past (Yudh, Rangbaaz), but that’s very different, right? What drew you to Betaal?
I’m glad it came to me. I got a call from the casting director, who’s also a friend, Parag, and he’s been an integral part of my career. He and Shruti cast me in Lipstick, and then Rangbaaz happened with him as well, and this is my third big production with him. So he called me and said “I’d like to test you for a part for a show that I’m casting for, for Red Chillies and Netflix.” And I said, oh that’s fantastic, I’d love to come and audition, but another day. Because I wa shooting for Marzi, a night shoot, and I was very groggy. But Parag was like ‘Aahana, it’s Red Chillies and Netflix. We cannot push it.’
So he sent his assistants to my house and they gave me a little scene. I was like ‘I’m not going to wear make up.’ They said ‘you’re playing an army officer, you don’t need make up!’ That was perfect. I think it was perfect for me, because I didn’t want to fuss around hair and makeup. Vanity is such a huge part of our lives, you know. So that was really cool that I just did the audition. They liked what I did. And the next day I got a call from Parag again, and he said Nikhil Mahajan is calling me to audition me personally. So I said okay, I went to the office. Nikhil didn’t give me a script, he gave me a scene. He said it’s a scene between Sirohi and I, there’s a relationship there and Sirohi’s going astray, you’ve been part of his journey and I’d like you to persuade him to stop this mission. We did about a 7-8 minute scene, I think they liked it, and I got a call in the evening that I’ve been locked for the part.
I didn’t know anything about the story, or anything about the show till I got locked. When I met them, that’s when I knew that I’d have a scar on my face, which means prosthetics, and we did a cast reading, and we had workshops of sorts. We kind of got into physical training, because my character is an army officer and all of us were required to go through the same arms and ammunition training. It all started so soon, that it didn’t really give me time to think or mull over things, it was just like, I got locked, one week of training & workshops, and then you’re into shoot. For me, it has probably been the most fantastic experience. I think it changed me. As a person, as an actor, a lot of perspective towards performance, something I’ve never done before. That’s what is so exciting about our careers, you know. We get to do so many different things.
How does that change happen–does a character change you, or a story, or the experience of shooting, the situations or props? What is it that changes you as an actor.
Naseer Sir told us all this when we started our careers: possibilities are endless. You can be very prepared as an actor, but when you get into location, there are so many things that come into play when you’re there at that moment. That’s why I never plan my scenes. You cannot plan them, you can be prepared so you’re not taken aback. But in a real location, a lot changes. The first day we went into shoot, it was that. If you see our costumes in the show, it’s a military vest, we had an M4, helmet, I had prosthetics on my face, we were shooting in 45 degrees weather, and it was crazy. We had to be prepared.
Aahana Kumra as DC Ahluwalia in Betaal
Tell me about your character, DC Ahluwalia. How did you approach her?
Well, I don’t think I approached her any differently than the stories that you hear about how people go through atrocities in their lives. Thankfully there’s so much stuff available taht we can read about how women go through violence, and I based it on that. It’s just while doing my interviews that I realised that if I use certain words for DC Ahluwalia, it’s not right, it’s not right to the women who are going through those atrocities at this point in time. Domestic violence is at an all time high at this phase of lockdown. And women, and men, who are going through a lot right now. With Alu, because there was no backstory, I had to make one with my director. So we made a story up about why and how she got a scar, so it would be believable for me. And the story that we came up with is that she went through something in her life because of a jilted lover in school whom she didn’t pay attention to, she was always a hard ass who spoke her mind, and that’s who she is to me. She’s not afraid, she speaks her mind. For her, it wasn’t about wallowing in self-pity, she and Sirohi have trained together and have a great understanding of each other, and they’re just great friends. She’s the only one who can see through him, and that’s her journey. She’s giving it all to her work and her friend, she stands up for what’s right, and you can see that throughout the show.
Apart from Alu, you’ve always played great female roles, women who push the envelope, who aren’t conventional women that we see on TV or cinema. Is that a conscious decision on your part?
I think these characters choose me, you know. In fact, Lipstick is something I actually refused. I met Alankrita, I read the script and I was blown, but the dates that she required were the same dates that I was shooting with Mr Bachchan for Yuddh. I got a call later from Parag and Shruti, about Lipstick, saying they want to test me for a part. They still hadn’t shooting! I thought I had lost it. But then I got this, so I went through the whole process of auditioning, screen tests, workshops adn then finally they said yes and I came on board. It’s just been, I don’t know. Sometimes you just get the part. I feel very lucky that these parts have selected me and these characters are probably screaming my name, they speak to me, they become friends with me. With each role there’s been so much learning, it only makes you a better actor, a better human being, and it only allows you to understand somebody else’s world better. I would have never understood the world of somebody who has a scarred face if it wasn’t for Alu, or a beautician in Lipstick, or Babita in Rangbaaz. I’m in gratitude to the makers to have given me these parts.
Why should people watch Betaal?
I’ve been saying this a lot, and I’m going to constantly say it: it takes a lot to make a horror-thriller. It takes a lot. It, first of all, takes a lot of courage to make it. I’m not saying this because I’m a part of it; I saw the process behind it. The amount of time that goes in making it, in prosthetics, in VFX…you know, we’ve shot in forests, in locations that I would have never imagined myself going into, in the middle of spaces between snakes, and there’s a lot of physical work that goes into making it.
It’s really one of it’s kind. [Betaal] is India’s first, and I always feel that anything which is the first is historical and special. It will give people the courage to make that genre (horror) of films in India. And why not? We need more stories. There’s every kind of cinema. This is something that we don’t get to watch very often in India. And I really hope that people start telling these stories more often.
Betaal is available to stream on Netflix. Starring Viineet Kumar Singh (Mukkabaaz and Bard of Blood), Jitendra Joshi (Sacred Games), Aahana Kumra (Lipstick Under My Burkha), and Suchitra Pillai (Dil Chahta Hai), and written and directed by Patrick Graham (Ghoul) and Nikhil Mahajan.