Actor-Producer Shaana Levy-Bahl Opens Up About Life, Love and ‘Ladies First’

Her mother was a Gujarati from Kenya; her father was a Swiss-Hungarian Jew. Shaana was born in Kenya, raised in Switzerland and London – where her enterprising parents discussed social causes and activist campaigns for British beauty brand The Body Shop on the dinner table.

She made annual trips to Mumbai to “stay in touch with her Indian roots”. Her unconventional looks and mixed upbringing as an only child ensured that she felt like “both local and foreigner” in all parts of the world where she lived.

This state of constant dichotomy perhaps led to Shaana rejecting the regular ‘formula’ to get into Bollywood, and embarking on her own unique journey of producing films with a women-centric focus.

And so far it’s working: Ladies First, her new documentary on India’s best-known woman archer Deepika Kumari, has already won international awards including at the London Independent Film Awards and Los Angeles Documentary Film Festival. It releases globally on Netflix on Women’s Day, March 8.

L-R: Shaana Levy-Bahl, Kanika Kapoor, Deepika Kumari and Uraaz Bahl

It was as a young undergraduate student at Columbia University studying theatre that Shaana got her first taste of feminism. “New York was a playground of cultures,” she recalls. Inspired by the women students and professors around her, she took up a role in the Off-Broadway production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

“Here I was, a 19-year-old who hadn’t even yet been in a relationship, doing a monologue on stage about women pleasuring other women,” she laughs. Around the same time, she interned with Mira Nair who was then working on the Indian-American drama film, The Namesake. Her New York experience rekindled her childhood ambition to act.

But destiny had other plans. Shaana was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a long-term auto-immune condition that mostly occurs in the developed world, when she was still in college. The diagnosis meant she had to give up her plans to work in Hollywood, and instead return to London to live with her parents.

“It forced me to be aware about nutrition. I adopted an anti-inflammatory diet and now find joy within that. I meditate and do yoga. I entertain mostly at home to avoid eating out,” she says, adding that one can’t live life as a victim. “You have to adapt, to rise and fight another day.”

Photograph by Pernilla Danielsson in Majorca, Spain

While her health taught her one lesson, her first taste of Bollywood taught her another. Having auditioned for a small role in a Hindi film to be shot in London, Shaana ended up in Mumbai when one of the crew members failed to get a UK visa, and a song had to be shot in India.

She then got a second lead role in another Hindi film, but most of her parts were cut out in the final edit. Ever the optimist, Shaana took it in her stride and auditioned for more roles.

Soon, however, the constant demands to act in a certain way – dumb or sexualized – left Shaana disillusioned. Unwilling to compromise on her values, she again turned to theatre, finding salvation on stage with the award-winning Chaos Theory.

L-R: Frieda Pinto, Shaana Levy-Bahl, Mira Nair, Uraaz Bahl, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Sarita Chowdhary at the first academy private screening of Ladies First in New York City

Her true path revealed itself to Shaana in her mid-20s when her mother then asked her, “Why put your destiny in others’ hands? Why not make your own film and be part of the entire storytelling process?” It all suddenly clicked. Shaana took on the role of executive producer (EP) of West is West, the sequel to the BAFTA-award winning East is East and a coproduction with BBC, starring Om Puri and Linda Bassett.

In the same year, she was EP of the hard-hitting documentary Living in Emergency – Stories of Doctors Without Borders. “The sense of control and power I got as a producer was intoxicating,” she says.

Shaana is quite the fashionista and is frequently featured in fashion magazines for her wardrobe full of international designers. Photograph:  Pernilla Danielsson 

Soon her personal life spilled into her professional. Shaana was wooed by Mumbai real-estate baron Uraaz Bahl and, when she was 29, tied the knot with him at a glamorous destination wedding at the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. It made it to all the fashion magazines and tabloids. “I’m a hopeless romantic,” she justifies with a laugh. “It was the biggest production of my life.”

The married couple took off to the US to study production at the University of Southern California’s film school. They returned to Mumbai, inspired to create films based out of India.

Unwilling to go the Bollywood route, however, they decided to make films for global consumption. That’s why Ladies First, their maiden venture with Shaana as producer and Uraaz as director, is being released globally on Netflix, not in cinemas.

Shaana Levy Bahl and Deepika Kumari
Shaana Levy Bahl with Deepika Kumar at Tata Archery Academy, Jamshedpur

“We both grew so much spending three years with Deepika Kumari – before and after the Rio Olympics. We were humbled by her story and her challenges, and how strong and resilient she is,” admits Shaana.

“Deepika took up archery out of necessity – in a bid to earn food and shelter – not out of a desire for fame. Indian women are capable of so much but most don’t get the opportunity or the means to prove their talents and worth. This is the cause I want to work towards.”

March 2018 coverShaana is now working on another film with a female protagonist. She continues to travel globally, especially to Majorca in Spain where her parents now live, walks the red carpet, is interviewed for her posh home and extensive wardrobe full of international labels, and throws some of the most talked-about parties in Mumbai.

And yet, it is the message of adapting and constant pushing of boundaries that defines the 34-year-old’s life: “Growth comes out of your most difficult experiences. It’s always darkest before dawn.”

Cover photography by Pernilla Danielsson. First published as the cover story of eShe’s March 2018 issue. Read it for free here.