No More Running Around Trees For Raashii Khanna

The actress gets real about the impact of working with feminist writers in Farzi and why she is done playing the pretty face running around trees in films
No More Running Around Trees For Raashii Khanna

It’s easy to discern a quiet yet clear commonality in the last few roles of Raashii Khanna. She plays a 30 something in all of them (a lawyer fighting against toxic single-use plastic in Sardar, an embodiment of the modern assertive dater in Thiruchitrambalam and an RBI officer who wages war on counterfeit currency in Farzi), but peel the onion a little further, and something else becomes clear. All of them come with agency and irreverence, a result of Khanna’s conscious choices. 

“As an actor, everyone gets stereotyped, be it men or women. That is why even actors are scared of taking risks because we all have certain audiences,” says Raashii, who made her debut in Madras Cafe in 2013, following which she went on to make a name for herself in the south with mainstream star vehicles including Jr NTR’s Jai Lava Kusha, Bengal Tiger and Sangathamizhan in Tamil. Ten years into films, Khanna still finds the mainstream exciting, but she’s trying to eke out a space where she can have the best of both worlds.

Raashii Khanna in Farzi
Raashii Khanna in Farzi

I’m conscious about how my character is written even within the commercial space, she says. “It can't be a floozy running around trees. Because I've done this for years. Yes, I do enjoy it, but I want to do so much more. There is just so much more I want to explore. So, everytime I meet someone I'm like ‘why don't you audition me for this role?’”

Fresh from the success of Raj and DK’s Farzi, Khanna answers our questions about how an IAS aspirant landed in cinema,  the impact of feminist writers in the industry, and why she is charged to play realistic women on screen, with rare candour. Excerpts from an interview.

I'm going to jump right in with Farzi. Megha is such a no-nonsense boss woman. It's also not so often we get to see fleshed out depictions of working women in the government, with an adorable romantic track. Tell us what stood out about Megha for you.

I think Raj and DK are very ardent feminists. The way they treat women even on set, I see a lot of respect that they have for the gender and that comes across in their writing. As a woman, I am a little sensitive and shy, but Megha is out there. She doesn't let any man upset her. There is this scene where Sunny wants to hang out with her, but she dismisses him because she has a lot of work. Megha is focused on her work, and that is why it will hit her hard when she figures out who Sunny is, if at all she does. 

They had realistically written the challenges that any 30-year-old woman faces today. It is only through marriage that a woman of that age is thought of to be settled. It doesn't matter where you come from, but if you're 30 and single, people will be like, "oh ladka nahi mila?" They don't care about how you're doing professionally. Despite these challenges, she is ready to go to war against counterfeit currency. She knows how she has to survive in a patriarchal world to fight all these men to go up the ranks. As a woman, you have to prove your skill to be taken seriously. These are things that Raj and DK sir have shown. There is no point in the show would you see her being disrespected for her ambition. That is what I loved about the role.

Shahid Kapoor, Raashii, Raj & DK and Vijay Sethupathi
Shahid Kapoor, Raashii, Raj & DK and Vijay Sethupathi

Could you also relate to Megha a bit because you've often spoken about how you were a studious college student who wanted to become an IAS officer?

Just the fact that she was an RBI officer working for a government agency was relatable. When I was growing up, I wanted to do something for my country, as niche as it sounds. That's what pushed me to get into the whole IAS thing. The only good part about being an actor is, it is also a service to people in terms of entertaining and it gives you a bigger responsibility and bigger means to do good. Megha's passion is also very endearing and innocent from her end. 

Yes, and she’s also the smartest in a room, and she knows it…sometimes to a fault? Like how she sneakily raids every printing press in Mumbai. We've often seen men in such roles of power and brashness.

Yes, absolutely, I've also grown up seeing only men doing this. This was obviously very refreshing for me to see that I was playing a character that was ready to take on the authority. Even for me this was new. And I often asked them (Raj & DK), 'Does this happen' and they were like, 'Yes, it happens'. People just don't show it but women are as driven as men are. That is the conversation I had with Raj and DK sir and I was enamoured because these were men who really get women. 

 With Rudra and Farzi, you're finally playing roles that speak Hindi, much like yourself. How was that experience, considering you’ve only been speaking languages like Tamil and Telugu in films?

I sort of became a South Indian when I was working in Telugu and Tamil to a point where Raj and DK sir, who are Telugu themselves, thought my Hindi and English had a South Indian accent. And I was actually really proud because it made me realise that I had really assimilated myself to this culture. Hindi felt very comfortable because it is my mother tongue. But I am very comfortable in Tamil and Telugu, too. But I do have an identity crisis because I am as much a South Indian as I am a North Indian. There are places where people ask me if I know Hindi (laughs). But that is a very good thing. 

Raashii in Rudra
Raashii in Rudra

But it must have been scary to jump into industries with unfamiliar languages, right? 

I was shit scared because Telugu and Tamil were like French to me. I wasn't able to understand anything in the beginning. But I also made that conscious effort to learn the language because I feel like that's the least respect you can give to the industry that's giving you so much. I wanted to give it my all, but it wasn't easy at all. But I had great people around me who helped me. I always speak to my co stars in the language even if I make mistakes. I am very fluent in both languages today and it is a very fulfilling feeling. 

You've been part of huge star-studded commercial films over the past few years and you've also spoken about how you've tried to break out of that zone and do films that see you more than just a pretty face. Can you take us through that phase in your career? 

I think I was at a phase in my career where I was like “I can act too”. Sometimes I was constricted by the writing, and sometimes people won't take it seriously. But the actor in me wasn't growing or learning anything. But a lot of times I feel destiny plays a huge hand. I might want to do certain things, but I don't get those opportunities. I was just lucky when Tholi Prema happened to me and took a gamble. That sort of changed my image in the south.

You have also been portraying the everywoman with films like Thiruchitrambalam, Sardar and Farzi. Is that a conscious effort on your part?

Honestly, for Thiruchitrambalam, I wasn't even convinced when I met Dhanush because I was like 'What is my character?' I had questions as to why Anusha was doing these things in the film (laughs). But he (Dhanush)  just told me 'Trust me on this, Raashi, this is really going to work.' 

I took that leap of faith and I was like 'Okay, maybe this is not just any other commercial film where I'm just pretty and I'm there and I'll go away. There is a touch of agency to her and there is a conversation that is happening. So, I am really glad I took that call. Sometimes it's difficult because you really don't know and sometimes things are told to you and they don't manifest like that on screen. 

Dhanush and Raashii Khanna in Thiruchitrambalam
Dhanush and Raashii Khanna in Thiruchitrambalam

For Sardar, more than the character, it was about the film. It was about the setup and us telling a great story about plastic bottles that I had never heard of before. And I knew I wanted to be part of it even if it was in a small way.  My characters are reflecting today's woman and I think even in terms of commercial films things are changing. I hope that we finally get the due credit of being this gender even in films. It should always be half and half and it shouldn't be like men are ruling and we're just a part of their world. 

Is there any kind of genre or role that you'd like to explore with your acting choices?

I really want to do an action film and one of these mythological films where you're a warrior princess. I also want to play Draupadi once in my life because I think that's the most amazing mythological character ever. I was a literature student and the way I saw her was different. I hope that happens.

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