Toggling Between Two Cultures: An Interview with Annet Mahendru

[Photo Credit: Ginny Tucker]

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.

[Photo Courtesy of Annet Mahendru]

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.

[Photo Source: Screenshot / FX]

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.

[Photo Courtesy of Annet Mahendru]

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!

[Read Related: An Interview with Kailash Satyarthi: The Nobel Peace Laureate Who Encouraged Me To ‘Stay Angry’]

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.

By Nikitha Menon

Nikitha Menon (Nikki) hails from the obscure and snow-ridden Erie, Pennsylvania and has always had a passion for comedy and … Read more ›

Anita Verma-Lallian Talks Camelback Productions and the Need for Greater South Asian Representation

Camelback Productions

Award-winning commercial real estate and land consultant in Arizona, Anita Verma-Lallian, is venturing into the world of entertainment with her newfound production house, Camelback Productions, making her the first South Asian female in the state to do so. Verma-Lallian is a woman used to paving her own way, and now she’s committed to doing it for future generations.

[Read Related: Anita Verma-Lallian Launches Arizona’s First South Asian-owned Film Production and Entertainment Company ]

Through her production company, she aims to contribute towards greater South Asian representation in mainstream media with a focus on storytelling that’s relevant to the community. In a conversation with Brown Girl Magazine, the real estate maven spoke about what inspired her to shift from investing in land to investing in creative dreams.

Tell us more about Camelback Productions and what your hopes are for the company?

The intention is to help communities that are not being represented in the media. As you know, there are a lot more streamers looking for content so that presents an interesting opportunity for people to tell stories that are otherwise not being told.

For us it’s important to tell these stories that aren’t being told, and tell them in the way that we want them to be told. With South Asians, for instance, the roles typically given are stereotypical. There are only four or five roles we are playing repeatedly. I want to show the South Asian community and culture in a different way. 

You come from a business and investor background. I am curious to know what catapulted your interest towards establishing a production company?

Good question. There were a few things that inspired my interest. I was looking to diversify the different opportunities we offered our investors. We’ve done a lot of real estate, so we were overall looking for different investment opportunities.  And then, at the time when I started exploring this, the real estate market was in this wait-and-see for many people. 

Everyone was sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens next. There was a slowdown at the end of 2022 which is when I started looking into this more. Film seemed like it was kind of recession-proof and not really tied to what’s happening in the economy, which I thought was refreshing and exciting.

Also, overall, I observed what was happening in the industry with there being a push to see more South Asians in the media. The timing felt right, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.

What kind of content are you looking to create?

Good stories and good quality scripts. We are looking at all types of content — movies, docu-series, comedy shows, and reality shows. We’re open to anything that has a good message. 

On a personal level, what hits home for you with this production company?

Growing up I always loved film and TV. We watched a lot of Bollywood movies because that’s what we related to and I always loved that. But I did feel there wasn’t a lot of representation of people that looked like me. Being able to change that — especially after having kids, and a daughter who wants to go into film — is important for. It’s a contribution for future generations. It’s important to me that as they grow up, they see people that look just like them.  

Is there a significance to the name Camelback?

Yes! Camelback Mountain is a very iconic mountain in Phoenix. It’s one of the most famous hikes we have here and a relatively challenging one.

The significance is being able to overcome challenges and barriers. I have a nice view of Camelback Mountain and it’s something I look at every day, when I’m stressed and overwhelmed. It has a very calming and grounding presence.

To me the mountains signify being grounded and not being able to be moved by external factors. That’s what I want this production company to be!

What would you advise people interested in entering the entertainment industry?

The best advice I would give someone is to align yourself with people that you know are experts in the industry; that have a good track record. Learn from as many people as you can. I learn as much as I can, talk to as many people as I can, and I study different things to understand what was and wasn’t successful.

Photo Credit: Claudia Johnstone

By Rasha Goel

Rasha Goel is a 2X Emmy-nominated television host/producer and international correspondent. Her talent has led to opportunities such as giving … Read more ›

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History — A Review of Sundance’s ‘Polite Society’

Polite Society

For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage. 

[Read Related: Poorna Jagannathan and Richa Moorjani of Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ on Womanhood, Racism, and Issues Generations of Desi Women Still Struggle With]

Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress. 

Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other. 

This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily. 

“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood. 

Polite Society
Director Nida Manzoor, cinematographer Ashley Connor and actor Priya Kansara on the set of their film “Polite Society.”

Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.

[Read Related: Ms. Marvel’s Iman Vellani and Mohan Kapur Talk Cultural Pride, Hollywood and Brown Representation]

It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions. 

“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April. 

Photo Credits: Focus Features LLC

By Nimarta Narang

Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Nimarta grew up devouring Hindi movies, coming-of-age novels and one too many psychology textbooks. … Read more ›

Op-Ed: Has Mindy Kaling Become a Scapegoat for the South Asian Diaspora?

Mindy Kaling

Over the past few weeks we’ve all seen Mindy Kaling shoulder the blame for misrepresenting the South Asian diaspora in her work. I want to expose us to the flip side. She’s not “Indian enough” for some in our communities and “not American enough” for mainstream television and media. But I don’t know a single South Asian living abroad who doesn’t feel this dissonance. We’re a generation born to parents who strived to stay connected to their homeland but knew they had to assimilate to survive. Many of us got lost in the mix. I definitely did. And from the looks of it, Kaling did too. 

I feel like I’ve oscillated between these two extremes all my life. I’ve had moments of code-switching — performing as a white version of myself, melting into the groups around me. And moments of being a “coconut” (or an “oreo” depending on where you come from) — suddenly donning an accent as if Hindi was my first language. It wasn’t conscious. It also wasn’t fully unconscious.  

It wasn’t until I watched Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” as a 35-year-old mother of two that I realized what teenage Ambika was up against. Still wearing tank tops in secret, while girls my age had moved on to the midriff-baring trend of the early 2000s. Not thinking it was okay to explore my sexuality. Not seeing that sometimes I knew what was better for me than my parents did. Not understanding that it was okay to expand my romantic interests beyond the few Indian boys I knew. And then I rewatched “The Mindy Project” while on maternity leave with my second kid. And I ate it up.

I rewound dialogue as Dr. Lahiri got engaged, left a man who lost his drive, fell in love with the unexpectedly handsome curmudgeon, got pregnant, learned to mother, and found a new version of herself. She addressed her pregnant body insecurities on-screen (in “What to Expect When You’re Expanding — brilliant!). She grappled with her ambitions in the face of motherhood. She owned who she was when most of us were taught not to. She dated outside of her race. Her audacity and levity gave me so much oomph at a time when I needed it the most.

Art comes from lived experience. And when individuals reflect their life back to the masses through art, it’s a tenuous balance. Comedians in particular have to toe a fine line between hyperbole and reality, having the paradoxical job of speaking the truth (the dark truth, often), and simultaneously making people laugh.

Comedian Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, when interviewed on NPR’s “Code Switch,” says: 

Even though I didn’t speak Spanish — my parents don’t speak Spanish — early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ‘ay, mija.’ My mom doesn’t call me ‘mija.’ My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, ‘hey, girl!’ She talks like me. You know what I mean?

This is the inherent paradox that exists in Velma as well. Kaling, as she often does, takes her own experiences as a young Indian girl growing up against the backdrop of white America, and amplifies them. And now, Kaling is a grown, Indian woman whose career is evolving against the backdrop of an America, too.

Critics across different racial groups frequently talk about “the representation trap.” Even if a minority group is represented in a piece of art, literature, film, or television, the manifestation of that group is still filtered through the white gaze. In Ismail Muhammed’s New York Times piece “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap,” he says: 

Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible.

The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience? 

[Read Related: ‘Late Night’ Review: Mindy Kaling & Nisha Ganatra Hilariously Expose Diversity Issues in Hollywood & Comedy]

Let’s not forget that many of us (or maybe all of us?) came up in a society that devalues women, and horrifically devalues people of color. Let’s not forget that the majority of executives across every field still don’t look like us (if by chance you’ve forgotten, read this piece by Ruchika Tulshyan). Let’s not forget that when people are introduced to something foreign and unknown to them, their default is to reject it (again, if you’ve forgotten, read about “the mere exposure effect” and racism).

I’m unsure how Kaling has inherited the immense responsibility of representing all of the South Asian American diaspora? And is then being criticized for her representation of it. Third-generation South Asians are very different from second-generation, who are very different from first-generation. Our identities and how we fit into American culture, mainstream media, and business, are still forming as we speak. We are not a monolith.

And plenty of men have done exactly what Kaling is being criticized for, without anywhere near the same level of criticism. All men I (hopefully, we) love.

Riz Ahmed has taken on roles in which his race isn’t the central focus. Hasan Minaj doesn’t get criticized when he uses stereotypical accents to represent South Asians or for using politics as a launch pad for his content. We don’t hate on Kumail Nanjiani when he suddenly gets a six-pack, even though he also once played a nerd. I loved when Aziz Ansari went to Italy to make pasta and didn’t make it Indian.

Why are we tearing down one of the only women in America who is working to showcase South Asian culture and people? Because she uses humor and caricature? Because she’s not putting herself in the mindset of the type of Indian person who has learned to thrive at the intersection of their upbringing and their environment? Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist! 

It’s not on Kaling to represent every dimension of this diaspora. She’s done her job.

I’m a proud, second-generation, Indian American woman, married to an Indian American man, with two Indian American children. I was nerdy just like Kaling. I had arm hair just like Devi. I pined after white boys in my teen years just like Bela from the HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too. And Kaling is an absolute inspiration to me. 

I see a South Asian woman who chose to have children on her own. Whose career, post-children, skyrocketed. Who committed herself and her craft to tackle the most deep-rooted stigmas of South Asian culture — mental health, sex, and interracial relationships — while still honoring the way it manifested in her life. 

It’s now our job to get out into the world and dimensionalize our cohort. Show the world what us supposed “ABCDs” have grown up and done; who we’ve become and what we’ve accomplished. 

It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”

We still exist in a house of cards. Why are we kicking the building blocks of our own home?

I’ll leave you with this quote from Kaling herself: 

People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.

I hope this woman never gets discouraged. We need her in more ways than one.

 

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By Ambika Gautam Pai

Ambika Gautam Pai is the Chief Strategy Officer at full-service advertising agency Mekanism and a mom of two. She's a … Read more ›