Having lived in New York for 14 years, Mahira Kakkar is a popular name in the non commercial theatre circuit. She is excited about her Hollywood movie, Hank and Asha, which is releasing in New York today and talks about wanting to make it big on Broadway.
A large part of being an actor, I think, is getting comfortable with your insecurities and discomfort. Nobody is forcing me to lead this life — I could walk away any time. I choose not to
I didn’t have access to ballet classes when I was a child, so I got into other forms of performance — elocution, public speaking and acting
HAILING from Punjab, this spunky lass is the first Indian admitted into the prestigious Julliard School for acting in New York, and promises to impress on screen in the Hollywood flick Hank and Asha, that releases today. As her character Asha, actress and theatre artiste Mahira Kakkar plays a young Indian woman studying filmmaking in Prague. This aspiring ballet dancer has come a long way since her childhood in Kolkata’s theatrical community, with parents who took her for “everything” and friends who were part of the eclectic theatre circuit.
“It was always exciting and fun to be around them; I wanted to be part of that world. Mostly though, I wanted to be a ballet dancer,” says Kakkar, recalling how The Bolshoi would come down every year and tour Kolkata. “They had the most magnificent performers. I didn’t have access to ballet classes when I was a child, so I got into other forms of performance — elocution, public speaking and acting,” says the actress, who is currently playing a sassy bartender in the play Ragged Claws by Lina Patel at the Cherry Lane Theatre (New York).
On and off stage
Though she never made it to Broadway, this Punjabi-kudi has been busy performing in the well-attended though not as popular theatres in New York. “You have to work really hard, be ready when the opportunities present themselves and stay open,” says Kakkar, admitting that it only sounds simple. Besides struggling to make it big in theatre, coping with racial remarks (though a big shock) did not faze this young lady. “When you have grown up, as I did, without race being a critical factor, you have to translate it in your head. Then you realise you can’t let that stuff get to you, because then the terrorists win,” says the artiste, who has been in New York for 14 years now. “Theatre means joy and heartbreak, and a way to prioritise. I know what’s most important in my life, because of my work,” she says, wisely conceding, “Being associated to an agency is very important — remember Joey Tribbiani and his manager from (the sitcom) Friends?” Kakkar, has signed up with DGRW, while her manager is Wayne Scherzer at Roth and Associates, East.
In the news
Having done over 40 plays, Kakkar has received mixed reviews by popular newspapers. “The Times is sort of the gauge by which people decide if they want to see a show. So if the review sucks, you don’t want to read it. If the review is great, you don’t want to change your performance to “better” it. So I try not to read reviews. I don’t always succeed,” she says, adding that one would find more female playwrights’ works being produced off Broadway. In fact there was a statistical study done by a PhD student recently, about the lack of female playwrights on Broadway. That said, Kakkar has selected strong women characters in all her plays, “I feel like every character has strength in him/her.
As an actor, I have to try and find that place of strength and that strength translates differently in each person,” says the girl who once locked herself up in a room to get into the character. “I mean, short of demeaning myself or hurting other people, I would go as far as I possibly could to get in the door and do a good job. After that, it’s out of my hands and I have to be at peace with that,” she laughs, quickly adding that insecurities are common in her profession. “It scares me all the time. A large part of being an actor, I think, is getting comfortable with your insecurities and discomfort. Nobody is forcing me to lead this life — I could walk away any time. I choose not to. I remind myself of that when things get hard.”
Though Kakkar was always part of the non-mainstream, less-commercial fringe of America’s theatre world, she got the opportunity to work with Hollywood heavyweight Ethan Hawke for the play, Clive. “There’s a reason he’s as successful as he is and has as varied a career as he does, spanning commercial and independent films, Broadway and off Broadway. The play was filled with successful actors — they were some of the most hard working, intelligent, creative people I’d met. If a problem came up, they tried consistently to solve it in a positive way,” says Kakkar, who is also in awe of Denis O’Hare in Take Me Out and An Iliad. “He is a marvellous performer. Completely free and incredibly charismatic. He developed An Iliad over several years. And it was pure theatre — there was no way it could have been film,” she shares.
Behind the camera
Having done one film and three sitcoms, one would think Kakkar wants to make it big in Hollywood, but she has different plans. “I think till about six years ago I would have said yes. I want it all —to be rich and famous and a big star. So I have to remind myself that I wanted all that and that’s part of youth and ambition and has possibly been jet fuel for propelling me thus far,” she admits. But what does she want now? “To tell stories well — make a decent living doing that. To make something that with all its warts and flaws and ephemeral nature, I can look at and be proud of,” is her answer. As for her rules of selection, they are simple — script, role and her availability.
Talking about today’s release, Kakkar says she has got positive response for her role as Asha. “I read the script and chatted with the director a lot. I talked to some friends who came from more conservative families than myself. I tried to get enough rest so that I could be fully present during the long days of shooting,” says Kakkar, who looks for diversity in scripts. “When I read the script, if it hits me in the gut, I read it again. If it moves me in some way, I read it again. If it makes me laugh or cry, I read it again. Smart writing, heart, nuance, the things said and unsaid — there are so many factors that hook me as a reader. If it’s all one colour palette, I usually lose interest pretty quick, because that’s not really the world we live in anymore,” she says, adding that unlike her character in the role, she is terrible with gadgets. “I frequently feel like a hopeless damsel in distress and have one friend or another helping me with my devices.”
Indian and more
Talking about her roots, Kakkar feels very Punjabi on some days, which is to say that she wants to celebrate life and live fast and loud and joyously. “I’m sure this comes from the hideous stories I heard about partition — they make me want to live bigger and brighter and love more and better,” laughs the actress who keeps herself abreast with Bollywood too. “Vidya Balan is lovely. Tillotama Shome is glorious. I can’t wait to watch Qissa. I’m impressed by Bollywood across the board. Mostly I love the independent filmmaking happening in India. My friend Devashish Makhija made this beautiful film called Oonga about the aadivasis whose lives were being affected adversely by a big corporation that was taking over their land,” says the vivacious actress who feels that entering Bollywood might take a while. For now, she gives us a forecast of the next show she will be doing. “When January Feels Like Summer will involve me playing an older Indian lady,” says Kakkar, who also has a short film, Heckhi, awaiting release, and is working on her own script and has been asked to direct a short film for the first time.
—Mrinalini Sundar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
■ I’m sort of a scavenger when it comes to books. I read fiction, non-fiction, investigative journalism, trashy romance, poetry, science fiction…whatever sparks my fancy
■ I go out with friends. We talk about life and the things we want to do. How we want to make the world a better place. We drink lots of wine and get alternatively morose and happy
■ I take boxing classes and dance lessons. I go to poetry shows. I watch movies and dark TV shows
■ My dog, Missy (a rat terrier) is my inspiration. She’s always present in the moment. Her moods are very simple, and she’s got a ‘ginormous’ heart.
■ I like shopping for vintage clothes. I don’t buy clothes because of the label, but for the way they look and fit on me. I check out style.com fairly obsessively
■ Because of my work you’ll often find me in ratty jeans and a hoodie