A day before this interview was scheduled, Alaya Furniturewala—or Alaya F as she prefers to be called—had boarded a flight to Dubai, for her first “proper” holiday this year. “I don’t know after how looong I’ve stepped out,” she says enthusiastically over the phone the next day. “I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying myself!” Happy to be vicariously transported to vacay-lands, I gladly probe deeper...what are her plans, what’s on the itinerary, the works. “You know, I went to eat out last night, and it felt other-worldly! I can’t even remember the last time I went to a restaurant and saw people around me...it was really nice. So yeah, there's a lot of safe going-out on the cards!” The break is a well-deserved one, that the newcomer has worked hard to earn. Alaya had her debut release, Jawaani Jaaneman, with Saif Ali Khan, on January 31, 2020—after “almost a year and a half of trying” at auditions in the Hindi film industry. The film was commercially well-received—doing a business of `20 crores at the domestic box office in the first week—and the actor received rave reviews for her prowess. Sadly, the lockdown followed soon and the world shut shop. But that didn’t daunt Alaya, we discover in the conversation.
Cosmo: Tell us about your growing up years...what were you like as a little girl?
Alaya Furniturewala: “I was a highly, highly introverted child. I had massive social anxiety...to the point that till Grade I, not a single person in school had even heard my voice! My parents had to take me to a doctor, and be like, ‘She doesn’t talk!’. At home, I’d be all chirpy, but would go into a shell the moment I stepped out. Gradually, I began opening up...and now, as you can see, I don’t stop talking. But I had a really happy childhood... And even though my parents got divorced when I was very young, I only have great memories. They made sure it was a normal, fun childhood...but with balance. I had freedom, but also discipline. So I could go out, hang with friends, do my thing, as long as there were no complaints and my grades were in check. I was very obedient, anyway. Even now, I’m very strict about following rules, and I’m fairly responsible!”
C: You’ve been brought up in an unconventional set-up, by independent parents. How has that impacted and shaped you?
AF: “I am extremely independent myself, and that’s something that I’ve got from my parents. I share a wonderful relationship with both of them, and they, as individuals, have taught me so much about life, through their own experiences. They have stayed friends, and I’ve seen them help and support each other despite not being together—that’s been a huge influence, too. Also, my mother has never let stereotypes deter her. I’ve learnt to be my own person from her. She’s also been one of my biggest support systems. Even when times weren’t all that great, or things weren’t as smooth as she would have liked for us to believe, she never let us feel anything was amiss. And she always dealt with things with so much kindness and love. So, no matter what’s going on in life, one has to be happy and optimistic. And strong and kind. That’s what I have learnt from her, and that’s how I want to be.”
C: When did you realise you want to be an actor?
AF: “Very late in life! It might surprise you, but I had been averse to the idea of becoming an actor, all my life. I kept running away from it for the longest time. I was like, ‘I love the world of films, but I don’t want to be in front of the camera’. So even when I went to college in New York, I decided to get into filmmaking and direction, not acting. As part of my course, though, all the directors had to act a little bit for each other, too. That was the first time I actually faced the camera...and loved it! I remember, I learnt all the lines so fast, and acted with such dedication. Everyone was like, ‘It’s fine, you don’t have to put in so much effort’, but I was like, 'No! I got this’. I was enjoying myself so much.”
C: And thus it all began...
AF: “I did give it a very serious thought before making my final decision. And I knew I had to do it then or I’d change my mind...I was so indecisive. So I applied to New York Film Academy without telling anyone (and was accepted). I returned to India and informed my family and friends that I wanted to be an actor. I was sure they’d laugh and be like, ‘Oh, really now?!’. So before I told my parents, I chalked out my entire POA for the next five years—exactly what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, how long each phase would take, where I’d train, when I’d apply for auditions...everything. That did the convincing— they realised it wasn’t just on a whim, I had really thought it through.”
C: And how have things changed since your debut?
AF: “It has been quite bizarre, actually! I haven’t been able to assess exactly how much life has changed, because my film came out in January, and we went into lockdown within a month. But that one month was a pleasant surprise! Suddenly, everyone was talking about the film. People were so warm. I hadn’t expected that. So many icons I had grown up admiring reached out to tell me that they had watched my film and liked my work. And I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen all your films and I love all your work!’. And people I didn’t even know were complimenting me and saying such lovely things. It was amazing! I became so much more confident and self-assured...and then we all went into lockdown! And I was like, ‘Okay, now what do we do?!’”
C: So what did you do?
AF: “I firmly believe that you can either sit and whine about things, or you can get up and do something! I cribbed and complained for a bit in the beginning, and then decided to take action. I go mad when I’m idle. So I went back to creating art, which I hadn’t been able to, in forever. I also decided to revive my social media account. I felt it didn’t reflect my personality...I was doing it more as a chore earlier. That became a baby project for me, and kept me busy. And once I started putting out posts, they started getting noticed, and I began getting calls from various brands, for interviews, collaborations, etc. Things got really hectic. In fact, it is only now, in Dubai, that I've managed to get some time off. I realised I hadn’t taken a break at all...work was keeping me so busy.”
C: And how has the response from your social-media followers been?
AF: “Mostly everyone has been really kind. Although, sometimes, no matter what you do, negativity just invites itself. But I’ve had a great experience so far. And I like to put happy, positive things out there. But there are some stray comments that amuse me...like I had gone to Goa for two days recently, and uploaded a picture of myself at the beach, captioned ‘Freedom’. And this one gentleman commented, ‘You can enjoy this freedom only because you’re rich!’. I was like, ‘Huh?!‘. So I went to the comment thread, and it got even better! Someone had asked him what he meant, and he had written, ‘Because she is rich, she could empty and sanitise the whole beach before she went there!’. It was hilarious...I mean how do you even do that?! I’d love to do it to all the beaches in Mumbai! I didn’t engage with him, but I was like, ‘I’m so glad he thinks so highly of me...let him believe it!’.”
Styling and Creative Direction: Zunaili Malik;
Photographs: Anubhav Sood
Fashion Assistant: Manveen Guliani