Actor Ekavali Khanna talks about her journey in the film industry
EKAVALI KHANNA is one of the few female actors in the country who have managed to carve a niche for themselves — playing a variety of interesting characters, while mostly staying away from the commercial space. Despite a late start to her acting career, Khanna has managed to build an impressive body of work in just a little over a decade. Some of her most memorable work has come in films such as Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, What Will People Say, Veere Di Wedding, Zed Plus, Bioscopewala, and Kaun Kitne Pani Mein.
In this interview, she talks about her acting journey which started from Kolkata, the importance of auditions, her association with the critically acclaimed Norwegian film ‘What Will People Say’, and the challenge of discharging her primary responsibility as a single mother of two teenage kids.
You started acting a little late in your career. How did it all begin?
Well, I did start pretty late in my life and so I am a late bloomer, clearly. However, I don’t really have any regrets that I didn’t start my career at 20. The fact that I started past my 30s, I actually see it as an advantage because it helped me gain certain experiences that allow me to be more honest and truthful with my performances.
My love for cinema and arts blossomed right from a very young age. I never really missed a single opportunity to go up on the stage, whether to act or otherwise. But often life happens in a certain way and so around the usual age of 20-22, I couldn’t follow a path that took me to NSD or the film industry. But life ultimately brought me to a point where I could do a film.
In 2009, I remember watching a play at Max Mueller Bhavan and a gentleman who was sitting behind me kept staring at me, which made me very uncomfortable. Then later at the end of that show he approached me and told me that he was one of the teachers at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI). He told me that he was looking for an actress to play an army officer’s wife in a diploma film and that I would be suitable for the part. At the time I wasn’t going through a very good phase in my personal life. So I got really excited by the opportunity. I told him that I have never faced the camera before but he invited me for the reading session nevertheless.
And one thing just led to the other and I ended up doing a bunch of other films with SRFTI students. Then I got a chance to do a tele film with Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Subsequently, I did a docu feature with Goutam Ghose. So suddenly a lot of work started coming my way in the Kolkata industry. Also, since I am from Kolkata, it was convenient for me to work there.
Tell us about your journey from Kolkata to the Mumbai film industry.
As I was looking for the next big leap, the casting industry in Mumbai became very structured. Auditions and casting directors came into play. Now, I was asked to audition for a film called Kaun Kitne Paani Mein and that’s how I got a part there. The interesting thing is that I was in Kolkata. The director Nila Madhab Panda was based in Delhi and the casting was happening in Mumbai.
After that I started to get more recommendations and started auditioning for more roles that came my way. I am really someone who owes whatever work I have done to auditions. There is a huge sense of satisfaction when you get through auditions because you know that you have got the part purely on the basis of merit. And even if you don’t get the part I feel that process in itself is a great form of training and self-learning.
How did you get the part in the Norwegian film ‘What Will People Say’?
It had one of the most grueling auditions that I have ever done. I was given very less time and was asked to play a regressive Pakistani woman named Najma who is trapped in her own belief system. That character came from a very dark space. So it was a huge challenge for me to play that character without much preparation.
They gave me two scenes which I recorded and sent it back to them. Then they gave me two more. And then they sent all the four to the director. By the evening I got a call asking me if I had a passport.
So it’s very interesting how the world has become smaller in a certain way. Today, a director sitting in Oslo and a casting director sitting in Mumbai can cast an actor sitting in Kolkata. The film went on to travel to some of the leading festivals of the world and got rave reviews all around. It was also selected as Norwegian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.
In a short career you seem to have tried your hands at a variety of roles. On one extreme end there is Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, while on the other there is Veere Di Wedding. As an untrained actor, how do you rise up to the challenge?
In Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, I play a middle-aged housewife from Benares. It’s a film that in a certain way defined my career in the Indian context because I play the main lead opposite an accomplished actor like Sanjay Mishra. Also, the film stars Pankaj Tripathi. But I was very clear in my head that I was not going to get pressurised by that. So I took it as a challenge to put my best possible efforts.
I feel collaborating with people who are masters of their work is the best kind of learning one can hope to have. Veere Di Wedding, on the other hand, offered me a different kind of a challenge. Director Shashanka Ghosh’s brief was that I would be required to play a very polished and refined South Bombay woman. But as refined as she is on the outside, her roots are very suburban. She has climbed up the ladder and gone places in life. The only time her true self gets exposed is when she laughs. Shashanka wanted the laugh to resemble a hyena’s. Now, it was a very different brief for someone who hasn’t gone to an acting school or done one hundred plays. Then there is the character of Najma which is again very different from these two. So, yes, I have consciously worked hard on my craft without doubt.
You have been into acting full time for about a decade now but you are not as prolific as some of your contemporaries. How do you overcome the temptation to take up more work?
To tell you the truth, I don’t function from a place of desperation. Yes, I need to earn. As a single mother, I need to take care of two teenage sons. I don’t have a job and I am not going to get any pension or gratuity and I know it. So I am doing this step by step, block by block, brick by brick. But I cannot sabotage my wellbeing and my existence by putting unnecessary pressure on myself. I cannot start doing television just for the sake of it.
Also, I am happy to be working from Kolkata. I like to spend time with my kids and go on holidays with them. I have a firm belief that if someone really thinks that I am the best choice for their film they will make the effort to take me in their film. That’s how I have got all these roles. So patience is really the key for me.
You recently did a web series titled Out of Love. How was the experience? Also, how do you look at the web as a medium?
So many people have praised me for my work in Out of Love even though I mostly come in towards the end. It’s only the last episode that really creates some major impact. That show for me is clearly about Rasika Dugal and she is just superb. But I am happy to be a part of a good project. Also, I got to work with two different directors, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Aijaz Khan. Both are very good directors in their own right. So it was again a very new experience for me. Now, I feel the web brings a new flavour to the mix. But, at the end of the day, it all depends on the content, the manner in which it is filmed, the production values, and how the project is held together.