In many ways, speaking your truth in an authentic way is the most courageous act of all. Ask Tahira Kashyap Khurrana, who has mastered the art of using her life experiences to inspire others. Her directorial debut in 2018, Toffee, was a sensitive exploration of the concept of child marriage, based on a real-life incident from her own childhood. That same year, she underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction procedure (and took to Instagram to lay bare the details, even throwing in a little quip where she called herself the “half Indian Angelina Jolie”). A few months later, Tahira put on a stylish front, sans any hair, after chemotherapy. She walked a runway, gave passionate interviews to highlight the stigma around breast cancer, and went on to record a seven-episode audio series called My Ex Breast, which chronicled how the writer and filmmaker came to terms with the emotional ramifications of her surgery.
Last year, Tahira also released her fourth book, 12 Commandments Of Being A Woman, a tongue-in-cheek, upfront take on being a ‘celebrity wife’, her battles with depression, insecurities, and cancer, and her learnings from all of them. One of the things that strikes me about Tahira—a thing partly visible in the photographs you see here, and unmistakable on our Skype call later—is her spirit. If I had to give it a colour, as is done in 'energy tests', it would probably be a sunshine yellow. That might explain how, through her entire journey, Tahira has made humour and faith her shield and armour. Her candour is refreshing, and the fact that she doesn't take herself too seriously, too often, comes as a breath of fresh air.
I am interested to know where Tahira derives the strength from. Her unique brand of courage and reinvention. Here is an excerpt from a very special conversation we had over a video call:
Nandini Bhalla: Congratulations on your latest book—I'm told it has already sold out! Tahira, what are the commandments that you live your life by?
Tahira Kashyap Khurrana: In my book, 12 Commandments Of Being a Woman, each chapter refers to my life as a woman—that’s the lens I have used and that’s the only lens I know, to be honest. I feel that every woman should have her own set of commandments. I have 12, but others can have 10, 20, 50...I really don’t want to 'box' anyone of us.
The ones that truly define me are, 'Small Towns Have Many Laws; It's Hard to Break Them' and 'Be a Rebel With a Cause.' Just like we were discussing earlier, we live in a patriarchal setup, and most regulations are made by a particular gender, conducive to that gender. People aren’t used to women expressing themselves or being in a position of power, and if they do so, they are termed ‘rebellious’. I come from a small town [Chandigarh], and in a funny way, I have tried to relay certain incidents, where it’s okay if they call you a 'rebel'. That’s on them. But it’s always good to stand up for what you believe in. When you read my book, you will know what commandments have worked for or against me. The ones that have worked are amazing, and the ones that haven’t, I’m grateful for them because they are what have led me to be where I am."
NB: Why is there a need for more women to speak up, and tell their stories?
TKK: "Well, we are the other half of the world's population, and it only makes sense that we have equal representation. When it comes to films and female directors, only 6.2 percent of those filmmakers have been women. The bad news is that it's only 6.2 percent, but the good news is, it’s not zero. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Because there are such few stories written about women, it leads to a lot of generalisations; it’s much easier to create and feed into stereotypes about women. We are either portrayed as tragic heroines or revolutionaries. It’s amazing to be both, but there is so much in between! We have wit, we can be fun, we have engaging stories to tell, and we have our idiosyncrasies. Which is why when it comes to my screenwriting, I feel there is so much that needs to be told; so many roles that each one of us has. And so many facets within each of those roles! So, a Nandini won’t be similar to a Tahira, in a certain situation. It's the same with men, but because so much has been written about them, you are more comfortable with the colours of their personalities. But for women, we are just black or white. Where is the in-between for us? That is why it's so essential that we speak up and have stories about us."
NB: You have been vocal about so many different causes. Do you think women need to do more to back up the causes that affect them, and push for change?
TKK: "Well, to each her/his own. We all have a conscience that we live by, and I’m no-one to judge someone for being just a bystander. But when it comes to myself, if something bothers me, I’d rather express it because that’s what I have done since I was five—I have been writing ever since!
I'd write about my good and bad days in my diary. And it became the way I expressed myself. The truth is that each person can bring change. It doesn't matter how influential you are on social media; each life is so significant, and once you start attaching that value to it and begin taking charge—once you believe that you are the protagonist of your own life—you can generate so much more value. We all have the capabilities, it’s just about opening your eyes to it. And if you feel strongly about something, you must voice it, because every voice truly counts."
NB: What was Tahira like, as a little girl?
TKK: "I went through different phases. I was scared, timid, nervous...I was also bullied. Many of us go through these phases, and then you try to be a strong adolescent, because as a kid, you were bullied. There is still a part of that inside you, but you cover it up. And all these issues keep getting covered up in layers, and that’s how all your complexes develop.
I went through all of that and I still do, on bad days, but it’s about fighting the fundamental darkness. All of us live with these emotions, anxiety, insecurities, or sadness—it’s all a part of our life and routine. What is important is to keep fighting on bad days. The difference between then and now is that earlier, I would react to situations. But now, even if I want to react, there is a sense of awareness. So instead of reacting, I respond."
NB: When and how did you find your voice?
TKK: "Writing really helped me, and I was always inclined towards dramatics and art, even though I was a science student. Theatre gave me wings, and I wrote and directed several plays—that was one way of expression. Life teaches you in its own way, I can’t pin-point a specific incident when I finally found my voice because we are constantly evolving and transforming all our lives. So it was an evolution, and I’m still a work in progress."
NB: Earlier, we were talking about how people aren’t just 'black or white': we all are all shades of grey. What are your views on learning to accept and embrace our flaws?
TKK: "I feel very strongly about it. You always have this societal pressure around you, and even if it’s not coming from your family or your partner, it’s there in society or media exposure. You always see these ‘perfect’ women being depicted, who literally have 10 hands in advertisements. Even if it’s a working woman, she will be shown taking her child's call in the middle of a board meeting—these messages are constantly thrown at you. I put a lot of pressure on myself, trying to do everything to the 'T' and being perfect. Whatever faults I had, I tried to hide them, not just from the world, but also from my own self, because I was ashamed.
And this shame caused a lot of sadness, because you are not accepting such a large part of yourself. The flawed you is also you, and you need to embrace that. It will never work if you are always at war with yourself. My journey and my introduction to a beautiful practice, Nichiren Buddhism, truly transformed everything for me. From not wanting to acknowledge my negative tendencies to actually embracing them and working through them was a huge shift; a shift I wish had taken place earlier. In the past, I wished I didn’t have these faults, but now I know that our faults will remain a part of our life. I have developed an understanding of how to perceive, accept, and embrace them."
NB: There is a lot of negativity online, especially against women. Do you think we need to be more sensitive, in terms of how we judge women and men?
TKK: "Irrespective of gender, we need to be more sensitive. One thing I know is this:‘When you dig a grave for someone, you are bound to fall in it yourself!’ [laughs]. We all can live in a happy, conducive environment by pulling each other up, not down. I feel a shift in our humanity is what is needed. Yes, when it comes to women, grave offences like rape and murder threats are so casually made. It's not the women who should feel ashamed and shunned publicly, but the perpetrators!
There should be zero tolerance towards sexism, and you should not be expected to 'adjust'. Women who express themselves aren’t just rebels. I don’t know why we keep seeing generalisations like, 'You are frustrated’ or ‘She probably isn't getting action in bed’, or ‘It's because she is single’! I don’t see such statements being used for men, ever. Which is why there should be zero tolerance towards sexism from any gender, towards any gender.”
Styling and Creative Direction: Zunaili Malik;
Photographs: Anubhav Sood
Fashion Assistant: Manveen Guliani