Indian actress Aahana Kumra, who plays a disfigured army officer in the action-zombie horror series ‘Betaal’ — premiering on Netflix on May 24 — is no stranger to rejection.
But those string of brutal put-downs didn’t break her spirit as she learnt the art of ‘sucking it up’.
“I was often told that I looked like a vamp and not that pretty, sweet bahurani [housewife]. The casting directors don’t mince their words and you end up feeling like an absolute [expletive]. They make you think that you should have gone into banking or something… I didn’t fit into that quintessential pretty heroine character,” said Kumra in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid! ahead of her web series premiere.
But being discovered by Anurag Kashyap for his television show ‘Yudh’, in which he was the show creator and which starred Amitabh Bachchan, and the festival-friendly thriller ‘The Blueberry Hunt’, featuring veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah, put her career struggle into perspective. All those swift rejections and those harsh words about her acting being ‘too real’ and not hammy enough didn’t break the Lucknow-born industry outsider.
“I got to work with legends early on in my career and seeing these two gentlemen work so hard at their age reminded me that I can definitely suck it up and work hard too.”
Another defining pop culture icon that made her survive the brutal Bollywood industry was Shah Rukh Khan, ‘Betaal’s’ co-producer.
“He came out of nowhere and he showed us that if he can do it and make it so big, then we can do it too… My 90s were filled with his films. When I went to London, I was hoping that I would run into my Raj [Khan’s hit character in the seminal romance ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’] too,” said Kumra alluding to Khan’s defining lover role of his career.
She remembers sprinting towards the studios where Khan was watching snippets of ‘Betaal’ on her day-off from shooting, just to get an introduction to the superstar.
Like any good actor worth their salt, Kumra auditioned for the role and beat hundreds of hopefuls to nab the role of Ahluwalia, a Deputy Commandant at CIPD (Counter Insurgency Police Department) Baaz Squad in the series.
Directed by Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan, the ambitious horror/zombie series ‘Betaal’, also starring Viineet Kumar and Suchitra Pillai Malik, is set in a remote village and chronicles the battle between India Company Colonel, infected with the Betaal’s curse, and his battalion of bloodthirsty zombie redcoats who are attacking humans indiscriminately.
Kumra is on call to protect the villagers and displaced tribals. Parag Mehta, who had cast her for ‘Lipstick Under My Burqa’ and ‘Rangbaz’, had alerted her about this role.
“There’s always one guardian angel who looks out for you in your life and for me that was him. I was shooting all night for a series when he called me to audition. I was all groggy and went, ‘Are you mad, I haven’t slept and I look like a zombie’. And he said, ‘That’s perfect’,” said Kumra.
Her audition for ‘Betaal’ didn’t require her to put mon ake-up or have salon-perfect hair.
Her character sports a prominent scar and crinkly skin on one side of her face and that was one of the most challenging parts about her role.
“As an actress, we are used to being fussed around to look pretty and beautiful. You are always worried about your hair. But in this case, I was petrified that ‘Boss, my prosthetic mask shouldn’t come off’. My call time was two hours earlier than other actors. If they were asked to come at 7am, I was asked to report at 5am. It was a role that was physically and mentally challenging.”
Learning to handle arms and ammunitions and wearing that heavy bulletproof vest for this role wasn’t easy either.
‘Betaal’ spelt a series of firsts for this actor.
“I have never fired with a big gun before and I have never crawled with it earlier. All the physical hardships reminded me of that stifling heat you feel just before the monsoon arrive. It’s a horrible feeling. It was suffocating and I couldn’t breathe… it was a role that was taxing mentally and physically.”
While the role consumed all her energies, the daughter of a police officer was aware that a high profile production like ‘Betaal’ with streaming giant Netflix and a co-production of Shah Rukh Khan’s company could be a game-changer in her career.
“‘Betaal’ is going to be shown across the globe… While I have acted for 50 people [on the stage] in my career, knowing that around 290 countries will see my work fills me with great happiness. This is going to a historical moment in my career. We are the first ones to attempt a series like this. There’s horror, there’s zombies and there’s thrills. As an actor, I have ticked so many boxes with this series.”
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‘Betaal’ premieres on Netflix on May 24.