Twenty two-year-old Alaya F belongs to the so-called avocado-loving, snowflake generation notorious for getting amused by cancelling Kardashians and snapping selfies to commemorate any moment. But, the truth is most millennials just want to get their lives together. So they hustle. And, they have side hustles. They try to do more with less and they want to do it while they Marie-Kondo their lives to find their inner Ikigai. And, Alaya—the most promising star from this decade—isn’t any different.
The young actor (she’s also a fabulous artist, by the way) believes in working hard and being kind while she’s at it. With a headline debut alongside Saif Ali Khan in Jawaani Jaaneman (which was released last month), Alaya has had her own share of setbacks and learnings that have helped shape her get-up-and-go spirit.
As we speak over a Skype call scheduled towards the latter half of the day when one would expect her vivacity to be somewhat tempered down—her warm, infectious smile lights up my screen immediately. Alaya is refreshingly candid, values humility, believes in surrounding herself with positive affirmations at all times and is most certainly a girl with a plan.
But, wait. Let’s rewind a little bit. Before making her much-awaited debut, Alaya studied in New York for two years. She enrolled for a film-making course at the New York University followed by an intensive acting programme at New York Film Academy. No surprise that the Big Apple is one of her favourite cities in the world. “I saw how different worlds can come together there,” she muses. And perhaps this city let her inhabit a new universe altogether—one that she couldn’t find back home.
“In contrast to my life in NYC, a lot of people in Bombay from my social circle tend to live in a bubble. When you’re within a group, and you’re interacting with the same people every single day, sometimes you lose perspective on what’s going on in the world, what’s important, and what you need to focus on. And, in doing this, you sort of become a different version of the same people you’re hanging out with. And, it may sound clichéd but spending time in NYC made me discover myself. And, I came back as a nicer, compassionate and a self-aware person. I feel like your company influences you so much,” she says.
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Alaya moved back to Mumbai only to pursue her dream job—she wanted to be a movie star. For two years, she learned kathak, hip-hop, contemporary and Bollywood dance styles. “I was an incredibly weak dancer. I couldn’t even do a thumka properly,” she discloses. Her dance lessons were coupled with acting workshops, Pilates, kickboxing, gymnastics, and Hindi training classes because (well) she had an “awful accent. I know a lot of people would ask, ‘Oh, why do you have this fake accent.’ I would tell them, ‘Listen, if you can tell me how to get rid of it, I’m all yours’,” she giggles.
After rigorously auditioning and facing several rejections for two years, there was a flicker of hope when she received a call from Jawaani Jaaneman’s producer Jay Shewakramani. He asked her to fly down to Kashmir to discuss the film that also features critically-acclaimed actor Tabu and Kubbra Sait.
“The film was just one of those things that was brought to my attention by four different people in one day. I thought this is some sort of a sign,” she recalls excitedly. After a long-drawn dinner conversation with the director Nitin Kakkar, she eventually got a confirmation in the middle of the night. “My phone pinged out of nowhere and the screen displayed a message that read: It’s safe to say welcome to the film,” she smiles.
Both her parents, actor, television host and columnist Pooja Bedi and entrepreneur Farhan Furniturewala, have supported her journey wholeheartedly, but not in a way where they were micro-managing her every move. “I had to follow a lot of rules, strong curfews, proper bedtime for a long time. But, my parents have never stopped me from speaking my mind or feeling the way I feel. And thank God for that, because I learnt so much from my mistakes. And, as long as I’m not hurting myself or anyone around me, my parents do not restrict me,” she says.
“And yes, my parents were divorced when I was young,” she continues, “And a lot of people ask me if I was affected by it but that’s not the case at all. My parents are great friends and I’ve had wonderful equations with both of them. I have a half-brother. I hate to say half-brother because he’s my brother fully. And, I absolutely love him. My childhood was quite happy except for the fact that, it’s in the public eye, I suppose.”
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What most people wouldn’t know about Alaya is that she didn’t just immerse herself into work to meet just her professional aspirations—this was her way to overcome her struggles with her mental health as well. “I used to have social anxiety as a child until I was in the third grade. No one had heard me say a single word at school. Teachers would call up my mom and tell them they were concerned. I couldn’t walk through the school corridors alone, unless it was empty. But, slowly I recovered from it,” she remembers.
In fact, Alaya’s decision to study in New York was also motivated by her drive to overcome her social anxiety disorder. “New York was my escape. I was happier there. When I came back to Bombay, I returned to a very hectic place. Of course, I was coming back only for my career because I love doing what I do. My work distracted me so wonderfully from everything. Honestly, it has saved me and made me who I am today. That’s also the time when I got this tattoo that says ‘Positivity,’” she discloses while pointing towards her ink-inscribed arm.
But, this isn’t the only tattoo she has. She has one on her back that reads ‘Still I rise’—the title of a poem written by Maya Angelou. It reminds her to not get consumed by the many opinions that surround her—and to look for contentment inwards. “A lot of people don’t realise the impact they can have on others. It could be a small joke about what someone’s wearing and you might think nothing of it. But, tomorrow when that person is getting dressed and taking something out of their wardrobe, they are going to think five times before putting it on,” she says.
Alaya believes she has now become immune to trolls—the dark side of the web she says she doesn’t see very often despite having 420K followers on Instagram. Her Instagram feed is sprinkled with art pages and news from her contemporaries instead. “I love to keep tabs on what others are up to,” she laughs.
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ARE WE THERE YET?
Before stepping into a life that’s guided by fame and stardom, Alaya—like many others from her generation—decided to travel frugally yet independently for 45 days. “A friend from New York was visiting me so we travelled across the country. We stayed in hostels, had no planning in place and booked all the last-minute deals. But, I paid for this trip entirely by myself,” she says with pride.
One of the maddest instances from her trip was on the day she landed in Varanasi. “All the other tourists we met had backpacks while we were travelling with suitcases. We were wearing little heeled boots and were struggling to find our hostel because Google Maps was not working properly; and we were definitely being taken in the wrong direction so we were panicking. My friend was getting paranoid. I was trying to calm her down while also trying to calm myself down. We got into so many situations like that. But we made it out alive and have great stories to tell because of it,” she remembers fondly.
Like most millennials, Alaya’s brief encounter with Tinder—the dating app that has given modern love a whole new language (literally)—was surprisingly fun. “I was on Tinder briefly in New York because why not. It was a great way for me to meet people. In fact, I made a lot of friends through Tinder. I don’t know why people are so scared of saying that they are on dating apps,” she confesses.
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2020 is the beginning of a new era for Alaya. The Mumbai-based actor has a three-film deal lined with Shewakramani and wants to be a part of stories that are positive and inclusive. “I love Zoya Akhtar; she represents the type of cinema that is being accepted and appreciated now. And, I am so glad because the new Bollywood is the one I resonate with,” she says.
Certainly one doesn’t know how this decade will end for this young, effervescent actor. Is she going to be a breakout success? Will her future films help make her career a success? Even if they don’t, Alaya’s not the one to be put down by failure. And, as far as the crippling judgement from others is concerned—she knows haters gonna hate.
Editor-in-chief: Supriya Dravid; Photography by: Ashish Shah; Styling: Malini Banerji; Hair and make-up: Deepa Verma; Assisted by: Tejaswini Sinha, Rupangi Grover (Styling), Sejal Goyal (Intern), Abhishek Rao (Photography); Location Courtesy: The Kumaon, Uttarkhand.