From Bollywood to Kenya – meet AKANKSHA NEHRA – born and raised in Kisumu
Born and raised in Kisumu, AKANKSHA NEHRA is imbued with the quintessential grit and hard work that many Kenyans are renowned for. NJERI MAINA caught up with the multi-faceted actress to learn more about her and her journey in the film industry.
Akanksha is an actress who has starred in several films and adverts both in Bollywood and in Kenya. She is also a former Miss India and a practicing dietician.
1. What did you want to be growing up?
Like most children, I wanted to be many different things in many different phases.
It would change with time and what I was exposed to. At some point I wanted to be a pilot, then at another journalist, then I became super focused on being an actress as then I could be almost anything I wanted on film.
I would discover food and nutrition and become equally drawn into it, which made me want to be a dietician as well. It all worked out in the end I guess.
2. How did you get into the film industry?
I have always loved plays. I would star in plays at my school and the local community as a young child.
In 2009, I would do my first pageant where I won the Miss Punjaban East Africa that year. I would contest in the Miss India Worldwide contest in South Africa a year later, after winning the Kenyan phase of the competition, marking my first taste of entertaining people on a bigger scale, as I had to present multiple talents during the pageants.
Back then, not much was happening in the arts scene in Kenya and very few Asians were on the scene if at all.
So I decided to move to Mumbai and dived into the acting and entertainment scene there. I took lots of workshops and trained with several Bollywood legends like Neeraj Kabi, Atul Kumar and Anupam Kher.
My first day on a movie set was on the set of Inkaar (denial) a great Bollywood movie that cemented my love for acting. After that the ball got rolling and I started getting more callbacks.
3. What did the pageantries teach you about life?
Pageants are a very tough training ground. Well-organized pageants can teach you a lot.
There is a sense of discipline and passion you need to have to even enter one. You definitely meet a lot of ambitious women at every step of the pageantry who teach you a lot about life.
The intense training makes a woman out of you. I enjoyed every bit of my experiences at the pageantries with my greatest lesson being learning the importance of discipline and focus.
It also taught me the importance of appreciating the diverse cultures and treating everyone as being worthy of respect.
4. Which films have you starred in?
In Kenya I have just worked in Crime and Justice, but am hoping to get more work with time.
In Bollywood, I have worked on so many films. I have worked in movies like Ribbon, ABCD2, Inkaar, Guns of Benaras and several television series like Adalat, Savdhaan India and an international show called TLC’s Trinny and Suzzanah. I have also done numerous short films.
5. It is hard to breakthrough in film yet you have starred in productions both in India and Kenya. What is your secret?
There is no secret. You just constantly network, audition often and think positive.
You have to be persistent and ensure you keep growing your skill level. Eventually doors will start opening and you will start getting callbacks.
6. Tell us a bit about your family.
My family is the strength and force that keeps me alive and motivated. I really appreciate my two siblings and my mother and father.
I’m like a puppet hanging by four strings and they each hold one. We are a very close-knit family with my siblings and I constantly watching out for each other and making sure that we are all okay. My older sister is like my Theo and I am her Vincent who she supports and takes care of in every way.
(Vincent Van Gogh reference- I adore him) She’s my best friend and my emotional support system. I have very supportive parents who have stood by me through every dream I choose to pursue.
I am blessed and fortunate that they take great pride in my work and get more excited about it even at times more than me. My brother is my greatest critique and the intelligence behind my work choices.
He is a very practical person, yet he is very emotional with me. He always wants more for me. They all do.
Needless to say as an actor you do have times when money is lean. I feel so lucky that my family has never criticized me during such hard times.
7. Which famous actors and actresses have you had the pleasure of working with and what did you learn from them?
I worked with a lot of celebrities in Bollywood and learned a lot as well. Amitabh Bachchan is a respected Bollywood veteran and yet his constant rehearsal and strive for perfection teaches you never to get comfortable.
There are others who teach you to take life with a light note like Arjun Rampal.
Here in Kenya, I’m looking forward to working with Peter pages, a Kenyan British director, in his upcoming movie. I am also looking to meet and learn a lot from Kenyan greats as well.
8. How do you prepare for your characters and how do you pick the scripts to audition for?
A good rule of thumb is to read and reread scripts. This helps one understand the nuances of the character you are going to play.
As for deciding on what projects to work on, I have a few friends who guide me and help me decide among them are prominent writers and actors based between LA and Mumbai.
They guide me and push me to pick jobs that at times I would not pick. They have contributed realty to my growth.
9. You are a certified dietician. What made you choose this line of work?
As a teenager my acne really bothered me. I read up a lot and realized that a change in diet could ease the acne.
I would spend all my free time studying food and nutrition from lots of magazines and books. I remember begging my parents to get me these thick books about nutrition from Readers Digest’s in South Africa so that I could read more on the subject.
I would cut out newspaper clippings about nutrition and still have folders of them. It was a natural step that I should study it in order to know more and be able to help others as well.
I am currently pursuing my second masters, in Public Health from Scotland.
10. You recently started a production company. Tell us more about this.
Yes, my partner, Pritul Raithatha and I have some very interesting and varied stories about the Kenyan culture. We hope to tell stories that touch the heart and rattle the soul.
We are in a fundraising process and looking to start off with a few shorts to make anthologies and also see what genres work.
We have different opinions but manage to agree on the right things and grow together as creators of art. We are open to producers internationally who want to invest in Kenyan stories.
11. How do you balance acting, being a dietician and family?
There are days you have no acting work, and that’s when education and my dietician work helps in paying the bills.
That makes you realize how important each and every aspect of your life is and with experience one strikes a perfect balance in whatever they do. I believe in doing things instantly and getting done with them.
This saves time as procrastination tends to consume lots of time and energy. I devote my evenings and weekends to my parents and use that time to solely focus on them and the relationship we have.
It is all about giving what you are doing at the moment everything you have, be it shooting, family or rest.
12. There are polarising views of Indian films. What is your view on this?
Bollywood is known to be very loud and dramatic. It is what makes it unique. But cinema in Bollywood is now moving from the satirical representation of life to more realistic cinema.
In the TV industry there is still a lot more caricature like representation of life, but this too is evolving.
In my opinion, entertainment has no limitations or defining parameters. I believe that a stylistic device that is working like those used in Indian films will be liked by some and not liked by others.
I feel privileged as an actress to have worked in that industry and be exposed to their work on an intimate level.
13. How does the Kenyan film industry compare to Bollywood?
Bollywood is a multi-million-dollar industry with the most film releases in the world annually.
Kenya’s film industry is in the nascent stages. But with the technology and creativity our country has, we are definitely growing and going in the right direction.
We do have a long way to go but if we follow the Nollywood example of creating more commercialized movies and in different genres, we should be at par in a few years.
14. What do you do to unwind?
I love going on long runs, playing board and card games with my family, as well as playing with my dogs.
15. What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier?
That people’s opinions of you do not matter, and that you just have to be thick skinned and do your thing.
There will always be people pulling you down, but do not let them win. Keep doing you.
16. What would you advise someone who wants to start acting?
I would advise them to hone their craft, do lots of workshops and a proper acting course from a renowned institution or even join a theatre group.
I would also urge them to learn film-making techniques like editing, they really help one to enhance their scene and know when to break out of character.
Volunteering on sets as an assistant in any department or even casting really helps one understand the industry at large and how things work on set.
Lastly they definitely need to work on several skills such as singing, martial arts, horse riding and also focus on their physical and mental wellbeing in order to perform better.