While doing my research (Instagram stalking) I recognised the multiple facets of Alaya F’s personality—the most fascinating one being that she doesn’t conform to the notion of looking and being perfect because she’s a celebrity. Whether it’s posting her dance video bloopers or de-puffing her face with cold bottles of Bisleri as a hack—she’s cracked the code between reel and reality. She’s right on time and slips into the zoom life with ease, quickly making adjustments to the placement of the device, so that the sun is gently kissing her face. The conversation with Alaya was easy, like a retrospective living-room catch-up session with your BFF. This is probably because of her insightful observation of things that go beyond Bollywood. Only a movie old, the Jawaani Jaaneman star dived deep on subjects like privilege accountability, breaking heteronormative taboos and unlearning the attributes of being a ‘star’; in the age of being an actor.
Her foray into the film industry has an interesting back story—after signing up for a 1-year film-making course at NYU, she dropped out and studied acting at the New York Film Academy (NYFA) instead. “All my life, I wanted to be anything, but an actor, even though I loved films. The closest thing I could find was film-making, and I was very good at it. Even as a student, I volunteered to make short films whenever there was an opportunity—so naturally when you are good at something, you decide to make a career out of it. NYU was the best available programme at the time, so I went for it—but something didn’t feel right. I tried to push away that feeling—until, during my course, there was a class where we had to direct and act. I enjoyed the acting bit so much that when I came back home for my summer break, I confidently announced the change of plan to my family—of course, they thought I was being indecisive and would change my mind back. I took the matter into my hands and applied to NYFA. For which—I self-recorded videos and wrote essays—finally, I got in! Then I went back to my parents with the acceptance letter and a 5-year plan which sealed the deal.”
Speaking of parents, while her family is associated with Bollywood, it isn’t a traditional film family. Her take on being neither an insider nor an outsider is rather refreshing. “The funny part is; even though I am considered a product of nepotism—it didn’t exactly turn out the way it did for other people. After I came back, I consciously took time off to work on myself. Presuming that once prepared it will all be easy. Not quite the case. My very first meeting with a filmmaker (not taking any names) lasted for a whole of one and a half minutes. That’s when it dawned on me that while the training bit is over, I am still to learn the ropes of this business. Then began the auditions, which is a different ball game. It made me realise that while I had it harder than some people, I also had it easier than many others. Nepotism helped me get my foot in the door, which is a huge privilege in itself. But it didn’t give me a film. That’s the part I had to earn.”
That’s the thing about Alaya, she’s honest and aware. In the field she is in, this transparency is disarming. “My mom told me to be kind and respectful to everyone, regardless of the situation – this is something she has instilled in me. You can always stand your ground without belittling someone else. There are moments you will be frustrated, especially in this industry—I make it a point to be aware of my actions and reactions. Case in point: I am in character—angry is the mood; and I subconsciously get ticked off by something as little as a rough moment during touch up; I will make sure I go back to the person and apologise even if they felt a slight annoyance in voice while doing their job. That’s also something I learnt from Saif Ali Khan (sir); as a thorough gentleman, if ever he upset someone, he made sure he checked on them later – to see if everything was okay. My grandfather, on the other hand—told me; to never take things for granted. Always show up, be disciplined and be on time.” she explains.
Alaya might have her foot in the door, but it’s definitely not been smooth sailing. Her first project Jawaani Jaaneman released just before the pandemic, cutting short its time on the big screen. For many, this may have seemed like glass half empty, but Alaya looks at it differently. “At that moment, it sucked. Like just a few weeks after the film was released, we went into a complete lockdown. But in hindsight, I realised how big of a blessing that was—at least I got a theatrical release – many are still waiting for that. I managed to get what I needed from that project—what I did miss was the exposure, visibility, in-person events, interviews and awards. The plan and formula that I had; went out of the window – and now, there is no formula—no one knows what works.”
Besides moving all releases to OTT platforms, the quarantine days had all of us binge-watching the most random shows under the sun; remember the very questionable Tiger King? We were spending time whipping up underwhelming Dalgona coffees, Alaya used this time productively and unlocked a new skill as an artist and became insta-popular for it. “I was always good at art and enjoyed it – during the lockdown, I found my art style—intricate doodling. And when I realise I am good at something—my god! I will milk it for all it’s worth. Plus, the kind of art I am into; consumes a lot of time—which is why I only do it when there’s breathing space in my schedule.”
Alaya can make you comfortable, so you want to cross your legs and lean into what she’s saying. Even if she’s carefully thinking about her words, she never lets that on. She manages the existential curveball I threw her way in true Gen-Z style. I ask her what she’s discovered about herself after entering the movie business that has nothing to do with the craft. She pauses for a moment, taking it in. “Good question.” she says. “Quite ironically, I think I got stronger while simultaneously becoming more sensitive. Silly example – before my film release, I was constantly conscious of how I looked when being papped. Always wanting to look presentable and perceived in a certain way. But after my movie came out and I received the validation I needed for my work, it instilled a sense of confidence that allowed me to be myself—even if that meant getting photographed in baggy clothes and a messy bun. On the flip side—my sensitivity was heightened. I can no longer watch dark or scary content and remain unfazed. It’s a catch 22 situation—I wear my emotions on my sleeves and feel everything but have also developed the strength to deal with it.”
Alaya is accessible and in these times, that means social media is a place for bouquets and brickbats. Social media today goes beyond an actor’s on-screen persona—it offers a peek inside their personal life. Something that wasn’t the case with actors from the older generation. Alaya shared her 2 cents on what has changed over the years. “Social media has made celebrities accessible; they are not as elusive as they were. Earlier, you only got a sneak peek into their lives through a magazine – now, they are on the palm of your hands as you scroll away. Today on social media, if you try and be this mystical figure that is always larger-than-life, one paparazzi picture will bring down that illusion. Celebrities are also regular people who worry about a pimple or have a bad day—why not take away the pressure and let humanise the whole aura around being a star.”
Alaya often lets her guard down on social media, a daring move because it is a polarising space. The actor’s theory on combating trolls and unsolicited negativity has become my new mantra to deal with people on the internet. “I have grown up on social media—through all the different apps. With time, you learn how to tune out – of course, that one-off comment will still momentarily bother you; but I learned to live with it. If you think about the positive, it outweighs the negative. The number of people who follow you and like your photos, sometimes equivalent to a whole crowd in a concert. How can a few and insignificant trolls ever match that?”
The trolls don’t matter, but thoughts? With inclusivity being a pivotal subject across industries, we discuss the changing narrative in Bollywood. From beauty standards and gender equality to letting go of the heteronormative prejudices, do you always have to say the right thing? According to Alaya, there has been a shift in the paradigm. “I think we are moving in the right direction (finally). Whether it’s about women getting to play versatile characters beyond the gendered stereotype; or the LGBTQ community getting represented in the mainstream media. It is about time we normalise these occurrences as art imitates life. And the society we live in has been reflecting these changes for quite some time now. There’s a long way to go, but then again, every industry has a long way to go when it comes to correcting prejudiced behaviour.”
After almost 40 minutes of what felt like an intense discussion on every subject under the sun, I quickly glance at the clock. We are running out of time and I must ask the pivotal question—Alaya’s skincare routine. “I have realised that face tools like the jade rollers and Gua Sha are helpful. I learnt many things about beauty after coming to the industry – like I can shave off my baby hair on the forehead instead of letting it hang around. I also discovered that caffeine and green tea serums work well on my skin. Another recent learning? No makeup over Vitamin C creams—hence I now only use it at night.”
Before leaving, I have one last question; what’s next? “ For someone who loves planning meticulously, we’re back to being in a situation that is out of our control. Hopefully, you will soon see me in multiple movies, as I have already shot for them. I have worked on 3 movies in 3 months—luckily, they are all done – now, it’s just the waiting game. I don’t want to hurry into anything next; because I would like to see how these choices pan out. Unless something exciting comes my way and throws me off my plan (yet again) hahaha.”
Content director & Editor: Kamna Malik; Photographer: Rohan Shrestha; Jr. Fashion Editor: Shaeroy Chinoy; Hair: Sourav Roy; Make-up: Mehak Oberoi; Words: Ruman Baig; Graffiti Artist: NME Graffiti; Production: CutLoose Productions; Editorial Assistant: Aliza Fatma; Assisted by (styling): Komal Shetty, Priyuta Sodiwala; Artist’s management agency: Spice.