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Brighter than a Shooting Star
As actor, singer, and music aficionado Raashii Khanna gears up for her upcoming digital debut opposite Shahid Kapoor, Aza tunes into her beat. Channeling the spirit of the new age Indian bride Raashii celebrates positivity and new beginnings in dazzling couture, entrancing us with her infectious energy and vivacity along the way.
Photographs by Ajay Kadam; Styled by Nikita Jaisinghani; Assisted by Sanoori; Hair by Loveleen; Makeup by Shraddha Mishra; PR Consultant Tree-Shul Media Solutions; Words by Sreemita Bhattacharya
There's a playlist for this interview - it features an eclectic range of artists, spanning from Karunesh, James Blunt, and Bruno Mars to Stella Jang and Yohani, among many others. It doesn't take long to pick up on the fact that music fuels her soul. Raashii Khanna lives in the beat of each moment. Our carefully curated, wildly assorted range of songs immediately breaks the ice at the shoot, setting the mood for each look. When Raashii self-assuredly strides into the studio in a white Charlie Brown-printed cropped sweatshirt, navy belted culottes and black strappy sandals without a smidge of makeup or the air of an actor who has worked in four of India's biggest film industries - Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam - the first thing I notice is her vivacity. A spark of contagious energy radiates brightly from her, immediately livening up the moment, like a peppy, mood-lifting song. She's the perfect muse for 'new beginnings, the theme for this Aza Cover Story, which is an ode to positivity.
As she winks and jokes, preens and emotes throughout the duration of the shoot, I realize that Raashii wears her beauty like an accessory, not letting it overwhelm herself or others. I see her singing into her poses, breaking into impromptu dance moves, holding eye-contact with every crew member, being fully present, but also preserving her shy, spiritual self by pulling her arms closer to herself every time she needs a break. She's warm as the sun and as silly as fun; Raashii is indeed “Everything At Once,” like the Lenka song she loves. As I get to know her, I appreciate Raashii as a young actor who isn't afraid to use her voice - to sing or speak up.
I didn't grow up watching a lot of films. We came from a lower middle-class background; we went to the theatre only on special occasions. Acting was nowhere on the radar!
About her sartorial preferences, she confides in us later that day: “I wear whatever I like, and I mostly prefer comfort clothing. I am confident in my skin, but I think fashion is about figuring out your own space and creating your own style.” Having already worked with three National Award-winning filmmakers - Shoojit Sircar, Satish Vegesna, Rajesh Mapuskar - within eight short years, I'd reckon Raashii definitely has found her space in films.
Outfit, Dolly J;Earrings, Mahesh Notandass Fine Jewellery
Soundtrack 1: “Colors,” Stella Jang
After sharing screen space with John Abraham, Prithviraj, Gopichand, Vijay Sethupathi, Mohanlal, Vishal and Vijay Deverakonda, Raashii is all set up to make her digital debut in Hindi, in a web series opposite Shahid Kapoor. Also in the pipeline is Ajay Devgn's maiden web outing, Rudra: The Edge of Darkness, and Thank You with Chay Akkineni (Naga Chaitanya).
Apparently, the Madras Cafe actor's first Telugu co-star, Naga Shaurya, referred to Raashii as the “free radio” because she would constantly be singing on the sets. Much to our joy, she's still the same. Raashii is one of those people who correctly remembers the lyrics to countless songs. We watch amazed as she flawlessly lip-syncs to most songs on the playlist during our shoot and grooves along to the beats while holding her pose and poise for photos. While getting her hair done for the first look of the shoot - a champagne-hued embellished Dolly J gown - Raashii shares, “While growing up, I wanted to be a singer, but I was more inclined towards academics. Acting was nowhere close to my aspirations in life. In fact, I didn't grow up watching a lot of films. We came from a lower middle-class background; we went to the theatre only on special occasions. Acting was never on the radar!” informs the Delhi-born and bred actor.
I tried joining the Dramatics Society in college to become a little more confident, but I ran away from the auditions because I was too shy!
Track 2: “Count on Me,” Bruno Mars
The fondest smile takes over her face as Raashii shares, “I have an elder brother, Raunak, who has always been like a second father figure to me. He pushed me to perform better in studies. From being the school topper, I went on to rank third in university, so I had ready scholarships. For the longest time, I thought I'll continue my studies to become an IAS officer, and if I had time to spare, I'd copywrite for ads or work in media. You need two subjects to become an IAS officer - I had already completed English Honors from LSR, Delhi, so I thought of pursuing Master's in Psychology. But, around that time, this girl...” Raashii chuckles, “who had been literally stalking me around the campus, approached me with her business card and said she was with a modeling agency that I should consider joining. Hailing from a middle-class background, my first thought was, 'This is not a good industry, I don't want to be a part it.' But I checked their website - it was Elite Modeling Agency, which seemed like a good bet. My brother suggested I could do this on the weekends because weekdays I had to focus on studies, so I joined the agency under such terms.”
I think the basic respect that you owe to any language is to make the effort to learn it.
Track 3: “You're Beautiful,” James Blunt
As I observe captivated, Raashii confidently glides into the set, effortlessly slips into the shoot's theme, and deftly channels the unbridled optimism of a new-age bride-to-be. Raashii is beautiful and she owns it. So, it comes as a surprise when she says she got very few modeling assignments in the first year. How did she get her first big break? I ask. “I was out with a friend one day, having pizza, and there was a Vaseline booth nearby stating: 'Take your Vaseline lotion, get a picture clicked and you may appear on the Femina magazine cover.' I was like arey aisa thodi hota hai! But I went to the booth, got a picture clicked and went home. Within a week, I got the cover of Femina; a TV commercial followed and things gradually progressed from that point as Elite decided to push me for more projects.”
The naivete of her college years trickles into her voice as she light-heartedly confides, “I tried joining the Dramatics Society in college to become a little more confident, but I ran away from the auditions because I was too shy!”
Post college, Raashii accompanied a friend to Mumbai, where her fortunes turned. She laughs as she shares, “My father was super excited about me leaving for Mumbai because he used to keep telling me, 'You are like this nerd. You need to get out and see the world.' So, I came to Bombay and my agency scheduled some auditions here. But I ran again from my first audition because there were too many people around!” A peal of laughter later, I learn that after a few handpicked auditions, Raashii bagged her “first TVC with dialogues” for Tata Sky. Astonishment lingers around her eyes as she says, “I'm not sure what happened, but as soon as they rolled the camera, I felt relaxed. I realized I liked the idea of becoming somebody else, even if for fleeting durations through the expanse of life.”
I don't like the tag 'regional actor'. Sure, the Hindi film industry is the predominant one, but Bollywood too is a region for people living in another region!
Track 4: “Kaise Bhulegi Mera Naam,” Euphoria
As she walks into the changing room for her next look, I wonder about the choices that led this reticent Delhi girl into films and, now, OTT. How did she find herself in The Family Man director duo Raj & DK's yet untitled web series, alongside Shahid Kapoor? It's after Raashii has changed into a stunning blue Rahul Mishra silk organza gown and is getting her make-up fixed while humming I Love You by Billie Eilish that my impatience wins out. I listen fascinated as she explains, “Shortly after the TVCs, I got a call for Madras Cafe. I straight-out refused to go!” She breaks out in self-depreciating laughter as she says, “I was like, why will they take me - I'm nothing! And I wasn't too keen on getting into acting. Twice they called me, twice I refused. The third time, Yogeshji, the casting director, called me and said, 'Why are you doing this? You have a shot. Just come and give the auditions!' So, out of respect, I went and gave the audition. And to my utter amazement, I got the film!”
Adjusting the beaded choker on her neck, Raashii adds, “I've worked hard to be where I am today, but I feel it was destiny that brought me into cinema. After Madras Cafe, I kept getting offers from the South, so I moved to Hyderabad. Now, life has come a full circle with me working in the Hindi space.”
Track 5: “I Want It That Way,” Backstreet Boys
Scientific studies have established that good music releases a chemical called 'dopamine' in the human brain that helps boost and sustain the happy feels. Raashii Khanna in the studio is a testament to this fact. Like the modern Indian bride, she could be dolled up in a voluminous embroidered lehenga by Tarun Tahiliani, Rianta's or Geisha with heels and jewellery, but she'll still break into dance moves and enjoy each moment to the fullest. From Linda Pritchard's Wicked to Bedardi Raja from Delhi Belly, she has the lyrics (and sometimes the signature steps) memorized. Perhaps she has a photographic memory, which makes it easier for this North-bred actor to overcome language barriers to essay roles in the South? Chuckling, she shrugs off our theory: “I'm just a fast learner. Initially, when I started out in the South with Telugu cinema, I was extremely scared that I may never comprehend the language. I was petrified as I held the film's script - it was a love story, so it obviously had a lot of dialogues. In the South, they offer you this option called 'prompting', where they give somebody your lines, and you just have to lip-sync. I was horrified when I heard of it because it went completely against my craft as an actor. So, on the sets, I learnt the language and picked up the nuances of Telugu.”
Shahid and I had much in common in terms of how we approached or built on a scene as co-stars. I think I have found a friend in him.
Track 6: “Manike Mage Hithe,” Yohani
As she speaks of Telugu cinema, I notice that the Delhi girl has left the sets and the Hyderabad resident has stepped in. It's endearing how she starts shaping her vowels and syllables differently, heavily emphasizing the clauses of sentences. It's a barely visible transformation, but she wholeheartedly embraces the body language, diction and intonation that has brought her immense love and fame in South Indian cinema. “From Telugu, I moved to Tamil cinema. I got a tutor during the lockdown to master Tamil. Then, I worked in Malayalam cinema. Let me tell you, the language is extremely difficult, but I have been trying my best to at least get the fundamentals right. I think that's the basic respect that you owe to any language - to make the effort to learn it.” Moments later, I admire her control of musical notes as she hums Thariraa, from her Telugu film Balakrishnudu.
Eight years since she made her debut opposite John Abraham in Madras Cafe, does she identify herself today as a regional actor returning to her roots with Hindi projects? What does the commonly-used tag “regional actor” mean to her? She's quick to reply, “I don't like that tag. Sure, the Hindi film industry is the predominant one, but Bollywood too is a region for people living in another region! The South has some five states with massive film industries and an unfathomable love for cinema. Sure, I'm returning to my roots in the sense that I began with Hindi cinema. But as actors, we can slip into any role from any part of India. So, we deserve the respect of being referred to as Indian actors.”
I love how Raj & DK Sir project female characters. They ensure there aren't any dialogues that objectify women or are even remotely in the patriarchal realm.
Track 7: “Woh Chali,” Bombay Vikings
With the third look out of the way, the on-set crew requests for a lunch break. Well, truth be told, Raashii's personal chef - who accompanies her to shoots to ensure she can adhere to her diets - had been rustling up some aromatic dish in his designated corner by the changing room. It's what had us all embarrassingly famished! After washing down a sandwich with a bottle of water, I find myself wondering how she made her way back into the Hindi film/OTT space. Looking every bit the stunner that she is in a pink Anamika Khanna cape-lehenga set and swaying her head to “Kya Soorat” by Bombay Vikings, Raashii shares, “I think the boundaries have blurred. A lot of South actors are working in the Hindi space and plenty of Bollywood actors have become open to working in the South. I think we can finally call it the Indian film industry without demarcating regions. As for me, I was elated to get an opportunity to work with Raj & DK Sir!”
Track 8: “Tareefan,” Badshah
She has an amused smile on her face as she shares anecdotes from the sets of her upcoming thriller series with Raj & DK. On being asked, she mischievously says, “I don't know if a lot of people know this, but Raj & DK Sir are actually Telugu people. Before onboarding me to the project, they would converse among themselves in Telugu on the sets. But with me around,” she giggles, “they would be like, 'Oh hell, this girl knows Telugu, so she will know all our secrets if we talk around her!'” With a fond chuckle, she adds, “On a serious note, I love how they project female characters. They ensure there aren't any dialogues that objectify women or are even remotely in the patriarchal realm. How they treat women gets translated in their portrayal of female characters.”
I was singing on the set of one of my first Telugu films (because I keep singing all the time anyway!) when my directors heard me and asked if I’d like to do playback.
Incidentally, the same filmmaker duo also launched Raashii's contemporary, Samantha Ruth Prabhu in the Hindi OTT space with the second season of the Manoj Bajpayee-starrer Amazon Prime Video series, The Family Man. As she bends low in high heels to help the hair and makeup artists touch up her look before a shot, Raashii proudly states, “Samantha did a fantastic job in The Family Man 2! She has always been a brilliant actor, but I feel The Family Man 2 gave her the right opportunity and the perfect character to showcase her acting prowess. It was a proud moment for all of us. I remember messaging her about it.”
After she gives a thumbs-up to the captures in the fourth look, we side up to her, almost conspiratorially, requesting her to share anecdotes from working with Shahid Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Prithviraj and Vijay Deverakonda. Sipping on a cup of black coffee, Raashii cheerfully obliges. “About Shahid, I used to think he would have this aura about him, like he’s a star. But the first day I met him, I realized he's extremely down-to-earth. He's also an incredible conversationalist. We had much in common in terms of how we approached or built on a scene as co-stars. I think I have found a friend in Shahid.”
About the Singham actor, she says, “Ajay Sir has this air about him that commands respect. It's easy to see he comes from years of experience. So, when he came into a set, I would be like, 'Hello sir, how are you?' He has been a great support on the sets.”
Whenever I get married, I definitely see Vaani as one of my bridesmaids - she's my soul sister.
Recently, Raashii stepped into the shoes of Radhika Apte's character in Andhadhun in the critically-acclaimed film's Malayalam remake, Bhramam, where she stars opposite Telugu superstar Prithviraj. With an expression of wonderment, Raashii shares, “Prithvi Sir is like an institution - he's a brilliant director and a fantastic actor. You get to learn so much from him about films, filmmaking, angles, lighting. I learnt from him that it is important to work with great directors because that's how you grow as an actor and in life. Yes, the first day I met him I felt intimidated because he's a legitimate superstar. But he's the nicest person.”
It's around this time that “Kangna” by Dr. Zeus starts playing on the speakers, and we watch charmed as Raashii sways to the lyrics and laughs to the rhythm of acoustics. She's on a music high when she resumes our chat, gushing praises for Arjun Reddy star Vijay Deverakonda. “Vijay is my buddy. He plays these strong characters, but he's an emotional being. He's extremely passionate about his work and about creating space in the industry for newcomers. He has started his own production house to help other creative souls. He may be extremely busy with his films, but he consistently makes time for newcomer auditions because he believes in the power of talent. I admire that about him.”
It's nearing the end of the shoot and light-classical numbers are playing in the studio. Perhaps it's the late-night shoot Raashii had the day that before that has caught up with her, and we witness a change in tempo. As she regally sits down on the plush rug like a rajkumari in an intricately embroidered Geisha lehenga, her hair in a feminine braid, it's easy to liken her soft sighs to that of a bride-to-be on her big day. She looks down coyly as Namita Choudhary croons the iconic “Chhaap Tilak Sab Chhini Re Mose Naina Milaaike.” Moments later, she channels the joy of an utterly self-assured woman declaring, “Ae Ri Sakhi Mohe Piya Ghar Aye.”
Maybe in the future, I will come up with a music album. It’s something I want to do. Right now, I want to focus on acting. But yes, it makes me happy to think that my childhood dream of singing did manifest into reality.
Raashii is a vision to behold as an actor, but she's also a legitimate singer in the South, having done playback for quite a few films. Music being one of her favourite topics, she chimes, “I was singing on the set of one of my first Telugu films (because I keep singing all the time anyway), when my directors heard me and asked if I'd like to do playback. That's how my journey as a singer began. Today, I've done playback for Telugu and Malayalam cinema. Maybe in the future, I will come up with a music album. It's something I want to do. Right now, I want to focus on acting. But yes, it makes me happy to think that my childhood dream of singing did manifest into reality.”
Speaking of the future - and since she's enacting a bride-to-be in this Aza Fashions cover shoot - I ask if she has envisioned herself as a bride. Does she see her bestie, Vaani Kapoor, as one of her bridesmaids? My questions make her split her sides with laughter. She's still chuckling when she says, “I definitely see Vaani as one of my bridesmaids - she's my soul sister. But I haven't ever envisioned myself as a bride. I think I would want to be a traditional Indian bride. I'd want to wear red for sure because of the traditional connotations of that shade. I'd want to be the quintessential Indian bride. That's perhaps the extent to which I have envisioned marriage,” she shines off.