Finding a balance between my South Asian heritage and my American reality has always been a challenge, but actress Annet Mahendru has always had one more identity to toggle with. In between gushing about the hot celeb weddings of the past year, dating in Los Angeles, her adorable family and husband, Louie, and making fun of the pathetic fruit plate I ordered for lunch, we found some time to talk about Mahendru’s rise in the industry, and how her background played a hand in her big break as ‘Nina’ on FX’s “The Americans.”
Born to a South Asian father and a Russian mother, Annet Mahendru grew up surrounded by everything from Bollywood films to experiencing the St. Petersburg’s famous ballet, art and theatre scene.
Me: How much would you say that Indian culture is present in your home life today?
Annet Mahendru: It’s abstractly present. I’ll do a puja every once in a while. I did Bharatanatyam for a while in LA and my son would love to watch. So, it’s present as much as I can make it feel like home. I was baptized as Russian orthodox but then we would go to temples with my grandma. It was fun to imaginatively connect the two cultures of my mom and dad into one that made sense. It’s like living in an abstract space. I always loved how the Hindi celebrations were so elevating and colorful unlike a catholic mass which feels super rigid sometimes.
She told me how she grew up on Sridevi (excellent taste, Mr. Mahendru) and how she would “bust out her lengha” and dance whenever a Hindi song came on. She went on to describe how having a Mehndi party before her church wedding was important to her and how after her dad gave his toast, he opened the dance floor with the song “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai,” one of her favorites and, if I do say so myself, quite the banger.
Annet Mahendru: I just loved how everyone went all out once the song played. It’s not like a waltz, you know?
Mahendru moved from Russia to the United States at a young age and was always drawn to the arts and acting. She and her family lived on Long Island, and she would go into the city and audition for plays and Indie films, do some modeling, and take classes at the HB Studio. With no artists in her family, she tried everything to get noticed in front of a lens.
Me: How did your parents react to you hustling within the arts like that?
Annet Mahendru: My dad wanted me to do something sustainable, as most Indian parents want for their children. He wanted to make sure I’m safe and he didn’t know anything about this world [the arts] or how it worked. My mom was always curious about it, I think. She started singing later on in life and it inspired me to also explore the arts.
Me: And now the question I’m sure you’re tired of answering but I, unfortunately, must ask… How did the opportunity for “The Americans” come up?
Annet Mahendru: Well I was doing a lot of comedy and so that’s what I thought I would end up doing. The director [for the “The Americans”] saw my commercial reel and there was a black and white Ray-Ban ad where I was speaking Russian. Up until then, I’d never really done anything Russian because I don’t look like a typical Russian girl with the blonde hair and blue eyes. So, I never in a million years thought that would be my breakout. My husband coached me for the role and then all of a sudden, I went from not being able to do a Russian accent to being a straight up Russian girl from the ’80s.
Me: And it was such a specific role at that. Did you have to do a lot of research for it?
Annet Mahendru: My dad was a journalist who had covered the Cold War, so I talked to him and used my mom as a mold for the truly Russian aspects of the character. I also have those memories of Russia, but it was still a lot of work. ‘The Americans’ is a really dangerous world.
Mahendru talked about how playing Nina became a bit of a bipolar existence. She explained how when you work on a show for many years, your character really becomes a serious part of you and how her world becomes your only world.
Me: Did you ever get tired of being Russian? How does playing the same character for so long impact your life?
Annet Mahendru: It was challenging. It was my breakout role, so it became this huge deal. It was a transformative experience, but at times I had thought I’d hit rock bottom. But that’s a good thing because that’s how you grow and learn more about yourself and learn more about life.
Me: I imagine hitting rock bottom during your first big break is something that’s unavoidable?
Annet Mahendru: It’s like having a baby or getting married. It’s this great and anticipated thing, but when it happens it’s also the scariest thing and shakes things up. But if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way to do it and work through it. That’s just human nature.
“The Americans” is one of my all-time favorite shows. It’s smart and sharp, but Nina’s role is one of the racier ones in the show. It got me curious about the Russian stereotypes that persist in American culture: communism, promiscuity, notes of betrayal. I’m sure Annet always had to battle the stereotypes that come with being South Asian but wondered if she ever had an uphill battle with Russian stereotypes as well.
Me: Did the fear of embracing a variation of Russian stereotypes or the intensity of the role make you feel like you’d be betraying yourself? And your mom?
Annet Mahendru: Playing a Russian was so close to home so yes I felt like I really had to protect Nina and I didn’t want to be this ‘stereotypical Russian whore.’ After all, she breaks up a marriage and is naked in the first season. The writers had made Nina so special, so I wanted to make sure that when I played her, and she was naked, she was still special and respected. But I always struggled with where to draw the line — all actors do. When do I say no? When can I say no? But you find a balance and a way to always stay true to yourself and the character.
Me: Did your Indian heritage ever influence Nina?
Annet Mahendru: Definitely. It helped me make her really unique. Her warmth and coyness came from that side of me. Russian women can be pretty icy, but I wanted Nina to break that mold, embrace a side of her she was probably made to subdue.
Me: Was it difficult to manage wanting to have a family and acting? How did you find a balance? Did you feel any pressure to not settle down because you were clearly having a lot of momentum with “The Americans?”
Annet: My dad’s initial concern was that this career is so promiscuous. Not only that, but he had concerns about everything he had heard from the outside about this industry. He wanted me to have a career, but how could I do this while pregnant? I had these concerns too. But after “The Americans,” I realized that I wanted to ground myself. I always wanted a big family, and sure my career stalled me a bit because there is that fear when you don’t have any familial connection to the business that ‘oh no one will hire me if I’m pregnant.’
And even when I was up for a proof of concept film I took my baby and we would break every two hours to breastfeed, and they were okay with it, which I always just assumed that they wouldn’t!
My favorite part of meeting Annet Mahendru was her attitude of working hard to have it all. She started her career by hustling as soon as she knew what she wanted to do. With zero connections in the industry and an identity that was difficult to find a community in she started from the bottom; from submissions on LA Casting like many of my aspiring actor friends are doing today.
Not only has Mahendru risen, and continues to rise as an actress in influential television, but she has also found a way to start the family she has always wanted without compromising on her own dreams, while always finding room for both her South Asian and Russian heritage.
February 28, 2023March 5, 2023 5min readBy Arun S.
Born in the US and raised in New Zealand, actor Anya Banerjee made her television debut, this past Sunday, in season 10 of NBC’s “The Blacklist.” She is seen playing the character of Siya Malik, daughter of former task force member Meera Malik who met with an untimely death in season one.
An MI6 agent, Malik is hoping to learn more about her mother and the work she did with Raymond Reddington. Her character is a sharp, inventive, fearless spy with a knack for spotting what motivates others. Even though this is her first-ever television role, one can see how deeply involved Banerjee is in the character, pushing you to connect back the dots to the history her character comes with. In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Banerjee talks more about her journey into acting, what drew her to the role of Siya and what should the audience expect from the 10th and final season of the show:
People, in general, are very influenced by the content they consume. Was there a specific film, play, or television series that got you interested in acting?
As the first in my family to be raised in “the West,” just being in the world involved performing some kind of identity. Film and TV acted as a third parent in that regard. I’m the first actor in my family, but have wanted to do this since before I can remember. Watching “Bend It Like Beckham” when I was in primary school showed me there was a place for South Asian female leads in Hollywood. I’ve also always been drawn to media with some element of the fantastical. I loved Baz Lurhmann’s “Moulin Rouge” because it brought the theatricality of the stage to the screen in a spectacular way. I remember being tickled by the cultural fusion in the film. It reflected my own sense of being at the intersection of various cultures and the appeal of escaping into a made-up world.
Were you a part of any productions in school or in college that influenced you?
I did a lot of singing and dancing as a kid; Indian dance-dramas at Durga Puja and yearly ballet recitals. We did musicals and Shakespeare productions at secondary school and that’s also when I started working in Auckland’s professional theatre scene.
What were some of your favorite roles while pursuing the acting program at Columbia University and how did they prepare you for your television debut?
Casting director James Calleri headed the acting MFA program at Columbia when I was there and his on-camera classes really set us up for success in TV. We also had the tremendous good fortune of being Ron Van Lieu’s first cohort at Columbia. The master acting teacher directed our thesis production of “Where Do We Live?” by Christopher Shinn. I played Lily, a British party girl who has to be physically and emotionally vulnerable in the play. With the help of movement coach Sita Mani and intimacy co-ordinator Alicia Rodis, I gained the confidence to take more risks in my acting. Now I’m playing a very different Brit with a totally different background and disposition but I’m using many of the same tools I used as Lily to feel grounded as Siya.
How would you describe “The Blacklist” to people wanting to learn more about the show?
Action-packed, full of intrigue, and endlessly entertaining. There’s a reason this show has been killing it for a decade and that’s the high caliber of the cast and crew, as well as the inventive and topical writing that keeps fans coming back for more. Audience members who’ve watched from the beginning will appreciate the full circle moments that my character ushers in — I play the daughter of Meera Malik, late CIA agent from season one so my storyline is a bit of a throwback. But new viewers can use me as an access point into the world of “The Blacklist” as Siya uncovers it, bit by bit, as a newcomer herself.
How did you prepare for the role of Siya Malik and how similar are you in real life to the character you’re playing on screen?
Some of the first things I had to learn on the job were stunts and how to operate a firearm. You’ll be seeing a lot of Siya kicking butt. The gun stuff was entirely new for me but I took to it very quickly and my background as a dancer helped with the fight scenes. Something I identify with in Siya is her resilience. She’s turned the tragedy of her mother’s death into the fuel that led to her own career as an MI6 agent, overcoming obstacles and others’ underestimation of her. That’s the kind of fire inside that I really admire and hope to practice in my own life.
I love characters with complex inner worlds — ones who are deeply flawed and may even be outcast from society, but who rise above the odds to carve out space for themselves and the ones they love.
Do you feel South Asians are still pigeonholed into certain roles or has it gotten better?
I think things are a lot better than what I grew up seeing in the early 2000s. “Sound of Metal,” for example, is one of my favorite movies because Riz Ahmed’s riveting performance has little to do with him being South Asian and everything to do with his commitment to an expertly crafted role.
Is there a dream role you would want to play?
On stage, someone as volatile as Emma from Duncan Macmillian’s “People Places & Things.” On screen, someone as funny as Amina in “We Are Lady Parts” or as brave as the title character in “Kimi.”
You have worked with many talented individuals. Is there anyone still on your list you would want to work with in terms of directors, actors, actresses, and others?
Parminder Nagra, obviously! As a Kiwi, it would be a dream come true to work with Jane Campion or Taika Waititi. I’m most excited to form meaningful relationships with artists daring enough to challenge the status quo.
You describe yourself as a “Kiwi-Bengali in the Big City.” How have you felt as an Indian American, raised in New Zealand, coming into the acting world?
There’s been a lot of juggling aspects of my triangular identity. A lot of the times in this industry people want you to be just one thing, or maybe two, but three’s pushing it! The reality is that we live in a globalized world. We have to make room for cultural nuance in the media. So maybe I’ll lean into my American side today, turn up the Kiwi tomorrow, and speak Bengali with my Indian parents on the phone. All are valid, authentic expressions of myself and reflections of the real world.
It’s okay to be a chameleon — in fact it’s a gift. Adapting aspects of your personality and identity to different circumstances is part of being a multicultural artist.
What is something not many people know about you?
I can be a little introverted and have struggled with social anxiety since I was a teenager. I had a bit of an emo phase then, but have since learned to take life less seriously and it’s made me a lot happier. My loved ones nurture and embrace the goofball in me. If you get to know me, I might let you see my inner clown!
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview?
Take pride in your difference and embrace the outsider in you. It’s your superpower. There’s no one right way to be a Brown Girl so get out there and be whoever you want to be!
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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