Somewhere during our conversation, Aahana Kumra, 35, has an epiphany. “Actually now that you mention it, I see the similarity,” she says, after a pause. We are talking about her character, Deputy Commander Ahluwalia, and her desire to break free from the shackles of morality and her past. It’s a sentiment shared by Leela as well, her breakout character in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), which propelled her to the limelight. “In Leela’s case, she wanted to free herself from poverty and misery, but Ahluwalia has already broken free from her past and has been left with a scar, quite literally,” she distinguishes.
The scar is the first thing you’d notice in Kumra’s getup in Netflix’s upcoming horror series, Betaal. It’s a giant prosthetic patch on her cheek, made to look like a deep wound that hasn’t yet fully scabbed. The actor is audibly elated to talk about the look, over a phone call, since this is her first time working with prosthetic make-up. This is also her debut into horror, a genre she adores. When she opted for the role, Kumra was unaware that she would be wearing a scar. It’s only after getting selected, that she was informed about the prosthetics, which would require her to enter the make-up room almost two hours before the rest of the cast, and be meticulously worked upon with a patch that looked like peeling skin and popping veins. “It took time to adjust to it and felt odd to look at yourself in the mirror,” she recounts. “But it made me think about all those who go through this on a daily basis, and how tough it must be to live with a scar.”
The appearance of Kumra’s character gives us an insight into her mind. It’s evident that Ahluwalia, an officer third-in-command, is battling the demons in her head, as fiercely as she is combatting the battalion of blood-thirsty zombie redcoats, who are released from their tomb. Kumra describes her character as “fierce, guarded and righteous.” The actor reiterates that her character does the right thing and has a moral compass. “Once you are in the uniform, you have to follow orders against your will,” she says, as a matter of fact.
Kumra has witnessed the struggle first-hand while growing up. “My mum was in the police force and my grandfather was an officer, so I have seen the dilemma in the family,” she reveals. “As humans, they don’t agree with something but because they are in the services, they can’t say no.” This personal insight, and childhood desire to join the armed forces, allowed her to empathise with her character, which she describes as “a well-written female character”, crediting writers Patrick Graham and Suhani Kanwar. “In fact, the show has great women characters,” she exclaims.
It didn’t take a lot for Kumra to be convinced of the show’s quality, going by the excitement in her voice. “I am a huge fan of horror,” she declares, and rattles off a series of titles as her favourites, ranging from Child Play (1988) and The Exorcist (1973) to more contemporary ones like The Conjuring (2013) and Train to Busan (2016). Never to miss a horror show in a cinema, Kumra says Indian entertainment in that genre has never been up to the mark. “The prosthetics and production value is usually not that great,” she says. “So horror can easily look comical.” But she vouches for Betaal to be a game-changer. It’s a show which, she says, has “many layers” of “colonialism and politics”. Without getting into details, she says that a lot of the political commentary is contained in a squad of Indian officers fighting the British undead, who emerge out of a closed tunnel.
“Patrick [Graham, one of the two directors] is all about abandoned spaces and places you don’t wish to touch,” she shares. He has previously created Netflix’s Ghoul, a horror-thriller set in an eerie military detention centre. “He wanted to do something again in that space but on a larger scale,” says Kamra. This time the stakes are higher, the canvas is bigger and so are Kamra’s expectations.
Betaal drops on Netflix on May 24