The Mumbai entertainment industry doesn’t have too many options for young women. You can be the coy girl or the gone girl, but usually the vast spectrum in between is carefully edited out. Streaming platforms have changed some of that, and not a moment too soon. Reel life is catching up with reality and women, in all their glorious flaws and forcefulness, in their beauty and terror, in their power and poignancy, are being represented on screen. The pretty ingénue who is bodacious enough to be bedded by the hero and yet docile enough to be shown off to mummy is not the only entry point for a young woman in search of a career. So just as a famous last name is not a guarantee of success, it is possible for all accents, ethnicities and qualities to be on-screen.
A girl growing up in Guwahati can find herself sharing space with a diva from Mumbai, the dazzling Tabu. Another young woman from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh can hope to have an uninterrupted career in movies, something her mother couldn’t do. Yet another young woman can travel a circuitous path from a career in fashion to a stint as a casting agent, to a seemingly endless struggle in theatre, to finally land a part in an internationally-acclaimed police drama, while a web series actor can land a BBC One part over a Skype call. ELLE profiles four rising stars who are changing the rules of the game and bringing a whiff of true life into the studios of Mumbai.
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She grew up in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, with her maternal grandparents, far away from the temptation of Mumbai, and was sent to Barnes School in Deolali, Nashik after Class 5. But clearly, Aisha Ahmed was destined to follow her mother Rukhsar Kabir’s footsteps. After her Class 10 board exams, she came to Mumbai to live with her mother and started auditioning while attending acting workshops. She bagged her first feature film when she was just 19, 3 Storeys, directed by Arjun Mukerjee, but that took three years to release. In the meantime, she started doing sketches with Filter Copy, which did so well that she was cast in Adulting, a digital series by Dice Media that chronicles the lives of two twenty-something women in Mumbai.
From clinking Beer mugs to living life on a budget, sexual harassment to corporate drudgery, Adulting tackled topics that struck a chord with other twenty-somethings to become something of a cult. Along the way, she’s done music videos, fashion shoots, and become the go-to girl for those looking for an actor to play the “young urban girl”.
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WHAT’S NEXT: She wants to keep experimenting with roles to avoid being typecast.
WHY SHE’S UNIQUE: “It was a huge challenge for Aisha to portray a role that is set in the Partition era for my short film Amritsar Junction, but she was like an empty cassette, ready to be filled with the right thoughts and emotions. And yet she didn’t hold herself back from sharing conflicting views, which helped in building the right chemistry on set,” says writer and director Aditya Jhambale.
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Not everyone can impress the redoubtable Mira Nair with a Skype interview but Tanya Maniktala, last seen in The Timeliners’ web series, Flames, managed to do so. In a way, she was preparing her whole life for the role of Lata in Nair’s highly anticipated adaption of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy for BBC One. Growing up in a joint family, she spent all her life immersed in books and movies. At Shivaji College, Delhi University, she joined Vayam, the college theatre society, and landed the lead for their street production, Kaal Kothri.
The role of Ishita soon followed in the teenage romance, Flames. But, by the time auditions for the iconic character of Lata begun, Maniktala had distanced herself from the entertainment industry. A friend showed her pictures to theatre guru Dilip Shankar who was handling auditions for A Suitable Boy in Delhi. After a few rounds of auditions, there was a Skype call, and before she knew it, she was enveloped in Nair’s world of kindness and warmth.
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THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT TANYA: “She has a delicacy and grace which results in an ease before the camera. She reminds me at times of a young Bette Davis. She has the same vivid eyes and quiet elegance of manner matched by an eagle-like command over the camera frame. She and Mahira (Kakkar, who plays her mother Rupa Mehra) have such an uncanny resemblance that it transcends the merely physical. It’s almost spiritual, like the meeting of two kindred souls,” says actor Vivaan Shah, who plays her brother Varun in the show.
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Growing up in New Delhi in an extremely protected environment, Saloni Batra was always encouraged by her family to pursue the arts— painting, music, Kuchipudi and street jazz lessons. After studying in Carmel Convent, she developed an interest in fashion that took her to study design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai. She started work as a fashion designer in 2010, working on shows as a stylist, assisting photographers, but the possibility of acting opened up when she landed a two-year stint as a casting agent with Mukesh Chhabra Casting Company. This was followed by acting in ads and a noticeable part in a web show called Life Sahi Hai.
After six years of empowering and life-changing theatre, she struck gold on bagging the role of a police officer in Netflix’s highly regarded show, Soni. “My father would get anxious about my future, it would get pretty bad at times but I had to keep at it. I’ve had my days of anxiety, I still do, and I guess I’m still learning on the go,” she says. Along the way she’s battled body image issues, shedding 40 kgs over the years, trying everything from extreme diets, running, aerobics training to cross fit, before settling on a healthy lifestyle.
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WHAT’S NEXT: Two films, Uljhan, directed by Ashish Pant, and Taish, directed by Bejoy Nambiar. Batra is also the creative director of an athleisure brand, Jukebox.
WHY SHE WILL GO PLACES: “I absolutely enjoyed collaborating with her and just feel grateful for the depth and sincerity she has brought to the character in Taish. She really made it her own and elevated the material,’’ says Nambiar.
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Born in Guwahati, in the beautiful Brahmaputra valley and educated at The Assam Valley School, a residential institute located amidst the immaculately manicured tea gardens of Assam, Joyeeta Dutta went on to make her first mark as a head girl and national topper. The twist in her story came in after she graduated from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi, did a year-long stint at McKinsey, and then got bit by the acting bug. Dutta took acting lessons in a workshop conducted by the great Adil Hussain and then NK Sharma from the Delhi-based theatre group Act One and soon got a role in Mira Nair’s stage version of the iconic film Monsoon Wedding, in its Delhi presentation “It was a dream come true for me,” says Dutta now, “to be directed by one of my icons for my first professional acting gig. Moreover, the fact that it was a musical made it a once in a lifetime experience as I sang, danced and acted alongside an extremely talented cast and crew, including professionals from Broadway and the West End.’’ A Suitable Boy is her first time on screen. She plays Tasneem, sister of the courtesan Saeeda Bai, played by Tabu. “Portraying an 18-year-old Muslim girl has been a privilege as it is a character from the margins, whose voice we rarely hear in popular narratives,’’ she adds.
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WHAT’S NEXT: She wants to work with great directors and be part of great cinema alongside great actors.
WHY SHE’S GOOD: “She was extremely dedicated and was curious to know the details and nuances of the work I was doing. Her vulnerability, her emotional reservoir and sense of innocence are extremely rare,” says Adil Hussain, actor.
Photographs: Colston Julian Styling: Samar Rajput; Hair: Jean-Claude Biguine Salons & Spa India; Make-Up: Nikita Thadani/ Fat Mu; Saba Khan/ Eficiente Artist Management; Assisted by: Rupangi Grover (Styling), Srishti Kumar, Michelle Lobo (Intern); Decor: Carpets, Cocoon Fine Rugs