When I first watched “Work It,” I thought, great, yet another movie about a basic white girl who gets everything her heart desires. Fortunately, the movie includes a diverse cast, as they tend to nowadays. I had the privilege of sitting down to speak with dancer and actor Indiana Mehta and she allowed me to see things in a different light.
In getting to know her cheery and lighthearted self, I came to appreciate Indiana’s active involvement in the film, even though her role is relatively minor. Indiana Mehta personally showed me how brown girls like herself (and Liza Koshy — who slays her supporting role in “Work It”) frequently pioneer new paths, adding spice to things otherwise bland.
You’re from Mumbai, which is actually where my parents are from, which I love. Now that you’ve moved away from the motherland, and you are now part of the diaspora, how do those connections to South Asia and India now feel?
“It’s funny because I learned the term ‘South Asia’ after moving. [laughs] And even today, it’s such a new norm for me to call myself a South Asian, like, I don’t call myself Indian anymore. I just call myself South Asian. And when I’m talking to my friends [in India] they’re, like, “What are you talking about?” So it was a very new term for me before I moved here. I think home is still home because my parents are still there. So I still visit. I feel like it’s more open and welcoming here, at least in Toronto, I don’t know about the States or any other parts, but it’s definitely more welcoming here. And to be honest, it’s worked in my favor most of the time, being a brown person, especially when it comes down to auditioning for any jobs because they are always looking for diversity. It has definitely worked in my favor so far. Touch wood.”
I saw on your Instagram account that you were featured in Chitralekha, a Gujarati magazine in the Gujarati language. So you moved away from the motherland while then getting attention very deeply rooted to your own identity. How does that make you feel?
“Well, first of all, it was a really cool feeling. When they called me for an interview, I wasn’t expecting to be on the cover of the magazine. I thought they would just talk about my film or a little bit about my background. But I did not expect a two-page interview with a cover. That was a pretty cool feeling. It’s nice to see that we’re tapping into the Gujarati side, too, because Gujaratis are more into business. At least for Gujaratis it’s like, “What dance? You can’t take that as a profession, like who does that, who takes up dance as a profession?” But my parents have never seen it that way. My dad’s also a writer, so he writes a lot of Gujarati plays and Hindi TV shows. So I think there’s always been this creative artistic environment at home, so we never went down the stereotypical Gujarati family [path]. It’s kind of cool that we’re putting that out there now, especially my community, the Gujarati community, because it is possible to do something which is more than just Bollywood.”
That’s the beautiful thing about art. Like you said, it’s a creation of an identity, of a universe almost. So you are Gujarati and you’re from Mumbai. But in “Work It”, your name was Priya Singh, so you’re more like Punjabi Sikh. And when it came to Liza Koshy, it was never necessarily revealed what ethnicity she really is, you know what I mean?
“Liza plays the brown girl. She’s never really played that, I feel like, from the work that I’ve seen and this was also her first film. But [my role], I think my accent kind of gives it away. With Liza, that’s not the case. She’s born and raised in Houston, whereas I moved here two years ago. So I am more Indian than she is [in the film].” [laughs]
Obviously if you talk to someone genuinely South Asian, there are distinctions between Gujaratis and Punjabis. My family’s Baluchi. But we call ourselves Sindhi-Punjabi. And so there’s a lot of distinctions that WE know. In which ways did you get into character or shapeshift to better embody Priya Singh?
“So to be honest, at the start of the script, she was only Priya. I have a scene at the start of ‘Work It’ where I say, ‘The flyers said there would be snacks.’ [laughs]. In the background I’m talking to my mom. So initially on set, I was talking in Gujarati because we hadn’t defined her last name so it was open for me to be Indian, but I could have been a South Indian or North Indian or whatever. It was open for Priya to be anybody. And I don’t think my director at the time knew in depth about all the languages that we speak in India. And when it came to the last scene in the movie where I’m like, ‘OK, Priya Singh signing off.’ That’s when we were looking for surnames. And I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, Singh. Oh, now I need to go back and change that dubbing because I need to voice over in Hindi because a Singh would not speak in Gujarati.’ So then I had to redo that voiceover to speak in Hindi. And when I did that it was right after my brother’s wedding and he’s married a Punjabi. So I had hung out with the Punjabi family for like over two weeks. So I kind of caught their way of talking and their twang. And that’s what I used for those Hindi lines. So then I spoke to my director and then we redid the lines.”
You actually read my mind for the next question. When your first line happened in the movie, I just started laughing because that is something every Priya Singh would say, like, ‘where are the fucking snacks?’ You know what I mean?
“And even me as a person. Because all the people that know me, they were like, ‘Dude, even here, like even here [in ‘Work It’] you were asking for food?!’ Because I’m a big foodie and I’m a snack addict.”
I’m wondering, what are your favorite snacks? And now, considering that you’re part of the South Asian diaspora, feel free to respond in terms of India, in terms of biscuits, in terms of Canada, in terms of whatever you want to say.
“I’ll answer both because, of course, I love my street food when I’m back home which is not the luxury here. So I think that back home, I would say definitely pani puri. [laughs] And vada pav because I’m from Bombay. And here, I would say in Canada, I don’t really snack here because I don’t like anything. So I just end up making nachos at home or fries.”
Are there any Canadian snacks that people have tried to force you to like?
“No, I’m also vegetarian, so it kind of does become difficult for my friends. But I think, is it ‘cheerio’ or ‘chorizo’ or something like that, probably I’m not saying it right, but [there’s] that and then donuts and stuff. But I just cannot understand the concept of bread and chocolate. So I’ve never had a donut in my life, nor have I tried Nutella and bread. And I was introduced to PBJ on set for the first time because [‘Work It’ main actress] Sabrina [Carpenter] loves PBJ and I’m like, ‘What is PBJ?’ And she’s like, ‘Dude, you’ve never had PBJ?’ Like I didn’t even know what it stands for. She’s like, ‘peanut butter and jam.’ And I’m like, ‘What is that?’ And then they were all like, ‘You need to try this.’ And then I got hooked onto it just on set.”
And I have to ask, I mean, chai, it’s essential. So what do you do? Do you break up your biscuits in your chai? What’s your chai situation?
“At home I do two rupees parle-G with warm water. [laughs] In England it was digestives with hot water, because if it’s cold water then it doesn’t melt. But if it’s warm then the chocolate melts. I like that. And then here, well my trainer will shoot me now if I eat biscuits.”
Let’s stop talking about food then. [laughs] Do you mind telling me more about how Priya Singh came to be? How was the audition process?
“So when I auditioned for it, I wasn’t auditioning for the role. I was auditioning to be a dancer in any of those ensemble dance teams that were competing either for the qualifying round or for the finale [at the end of “Work It”]. So I sent a couple of videos for pre-screening and then after a couple of months I got a call for an in-person with choreographer Aakoman [Jones] and Laura [Terruso] who is the director, and after that, at the audition, we got through the panel round where they teach you the choreography and you showcase it in smaller groups. So you learn it as one big group. But then when it comes to showcasing it, you turn away from the mirrors and the panel is literally sitting in front of you at the table. No expressions—nothing—and a camera. And I went for it.
I was performing with two other male dancers of color who were 6’1” and 6’2” and I’m 5’1”. So there was already that pressure in my head that no matter how big or good I do that they’re always going to out dance me because they’re so big in presence. But I was like, no matter what. Just give it your best. And then I got through the round and we were standing on the side. And Aakoman asked if anybody wanted to showcase their unique style or something that they didn’t get a chance to showcase or any flips or tricks like any acro-based movements. And I’m standing there thinking that everybody in the room—because I know the community in Toronto—is going to pop or lock. And that’s not my forte. So I said, let’s not get in that line. So I stopped myself.
And then I was like, why, what are you afraid of? Like, just go and do jazz because that’s my strength. So why aren’t you doing it? And then I was like, nah I’ll never be as good as these guys. So I was just debating in my head. And then I was like, oh, maybe I should do Bollywood because nobody here will do Bollywood and maybe they might hire you because you do Bollywood and hip hop. So I threw myself in, took my shoes off, did bhangra, garba, and jazz, funk and hip hop in my freestyle solo. And at the end I finished with garba and I got a standing ovation from the whole panel and everybody in the room so that felt good. And after that, I got called in to read for a role. And when I was reading for a role, the character was “Leah.” So there was no Indian character in the film at the time.
And then as I kept clearing rounds, after rounds, after rounds, I got a call for a final audition that was like three weeks after my previous audition. And in those weeks, I saw that I haven’t booked the job. So I get a call and I open my script again and my agent’s like, hey, there’s a new script I’m emailing it to you. And then I opened the script and the name is ‘Priya.’ They added somebody in. So that’s how it happened… This is my first big project. And of course, like you, seeing that there’s not many others like us people of color in the foreground. But I really hope it changes. And I think it has with ‘Never Have I Ever.’ I think it is slowly happening.”
My takeaway from what you just shared is you literally forged the role almost by listening to your instinct but also by silencing your instinct. I think your role was interesting because you have few lines. So the “Indianness” was not necessarily part of your character, but your Indianness was danced. I don’t know how many people caught this, but you even did the nazar na lage gesture!
“Only us people—us South Asians are going to get it—but that was the whole point— representation. And why not bring something which I can and nobody else can. And that’s why Liza messages me out of the blue being like, “Dude, you have no idea like how proud I am of you, because my entire childhood I’ve grown up watching films, but I’ve always wanted to see something that represents us in its truest form. And you’ve done this in a really good way.” Because it’s not like I can’t do hip hop or I cannot do jazz. So, yeah, it’s a good feeling.”
Also, there’s no way the director could have directed you to be more Indian, right? Like, you were already being Indian.
“There was a thing that came up with our coach when he was like, ‘I want you to play in a really thick Indian accent.’ And I was like, ‘But I’m not feeling that.’ So he was like, ‘That’s okay, of course.’ But then he said, ‘Maybe check with your director, like what she wants you to do because usually that’s what people find funny.’ And Laura was like, ‘No, I don’t want that. I want you to be you.’ She didn’t care about this mixed accent that I have. She didn’t want me to work on my accent. Neither did she want me to pull back my little American accent…I don’t even know if I sound remotely close, but in my head I do.” [laughs]
I think you did great. I’ve also seen you post quite frequently about East-meets-West artistic collaborations. When we do such a thing of joining cultures or filling the third space between cultures, it can be very political. And so I’m wondering, when you’ve done these types of collaborations, what challenges and what successes have you encountered?
“So since I was in England, of course, I wasn’t very aware of the whole diversity. And the [my] world was just Bombay or Bangalore for me when I was training until I moved to England, which was the biggest exposure. At the dance school that I went to, I was the first Indian in their history and the college has been around for now, I want to say forty four or forty five years. And so my college also was very welcoming, just really I could just see, like everybody was so happy that they have somebody from India who’s come. So that’s what I started this whole bringing people together because it was really cool to learn about their cultures.
And I was like [part of] the ‘immigration crew’ of my college then because, in my year itself, we had a few people from Belgium, New Zealand, myself, then Chile and Portugal. So that was like the first year that had so much diversity. So I was tagged the immigration crew with them, which was fine because it wasn’t in any offensive way. And on Fridays, we would have a free warm up day. So, like, college would be 9am to 5pm, like ballet, jazz, but on a Friday we would just play music after registration for 30 minutes and dance. And I would always lead that with Bollywood. People didn’t understand the music, nothing, but they just loved it. And even on graduation, when we had a dance party going on, they played our favorite song, like people know the song that I always make them dance to. And it’s always been garba because…garba, I mean it’s like, why not? And people have always loved that. And I love sharing that joy with people and that too, through dance. So it’s been a great platform.
And then since coming to Toronto, just seeing how diverse Toronto is, it’s unreal. Like when we hang out with friends, we have people from Asia. We have myself or whites or Jamaicans from all over the world. And everybody sits together, drinking together, hanging out together. It’s really cool to see that. And I’m like, why not bring that in a show? And so whenever I cast a show or any performance, like I have a company which is called BollyHeels T.O. The ‘T.O.’ stands for Toronto, so we bring fusions of dances. So our inspiration is majorly from bharatnatyam. But we also take elements of like whacking in jazz and hip hop and contemporary and ballet and whatnot. That’s why I like working with these individual and diverse artists, is because they bring their culture to the table. They bring their style.”
In “Work It,” there was a line where Michelle Buteau says, “Schools are just walls.” In actuality, I found it really powerful when we think of it, like, where do we actually learn? What is learning, you know? I’m wondering, can you connect that statement to your experience as the only person of Indian origin at Lane Theater Arts in the U.K.?
“Hundred percent. So being the only Indian one, I had to work my bum off at school because ballet and jazz was not a norm for us growing up like at the age of three or four. Like you have so many local dance studios, And girls and boys going there as hobby classes. For me, growing up it was Indian classical or Bollywood or ‘western dance’ like we called it 15 years ago. So, yes, I definitely had to work a lot harder to match their skill set.
In academics, I hated going to school. Even when I was in school, I was not in classrooms. Like I played track and field and competed in roller skating for my school and my club at state and national level in India. So I always had an excuse to not be in the classroom and my parents have supported that. I don’t know how that makes them sound, [laughs] but they’ve supported that. And even my fiance doesn’t get it. I’ve barely attended college like I’m a graduate in economics and commerce, but my attendance would be like 0.3% in the year. So I never really sat in the classroom. I always liked doing things outside of class. I was always like, when am I going to use this? I was, to be honest, never interested in books in that way.
What Michelle says, I can really resonate with that. That school is just four walls. Even when we were at Lane, yes, I was still dancing, but we were always told that once you get out of the bubble, we call it a “bubble,” that that’s when you actually start to grow more as a human and as an artist because you’re now starting to face real challenges, because until now, yes, your parents are paying your rent or you have a scholarship and everything is taken care of. But once you get out of the college, you are by yourself. There is no teacher where you can turn around to and ask for help. There is nobody who will call you for training because you need to keep your training consistent. So then it all comes down to self-motivation and your willingness to wanting to do this and achieve in this industry. And it’s taken me 11 years to get here. But it’s OK. Just as one job makes it feel like it was all worth it. [chuckles] So, yeah, I definitely feel that you grow more when you are out in the real world and actually practically experiencing it.”
With that said, one thing that I especially liked about the movie is it gives very honest critique on the schooling system, right? And while I liked that critique, I’m curious: As a professional dancer, you’ve clearly spent a lot of time building this as being you. And it’s taken time, it’s taken energy, dedication, blood, sweat, tears. But then the movie makes it sound like someone can learn dancing within the span of one school year basically. What is your take on that considering that’s not an accurate description of how long it takes, right?
“You can definitely grow. Like I feel even when I look back at my videos before graduating from that school, I’m like, oh, my God. Like back then that everybody used to think I was like one of the best dancers in college. But now I watch myself and I was like, I do not want to put this out. Because obviously you grow, you grow with life experiences, you know, even by just watching YouTube videos of other dancers, of other dancers’ performances. And so I think, yeah, you’re not going to be the best version of yourself in just a year, but I don’t think that it is not achievable.
Because I know, like I personally have done it because my first year was a struggle, like I showed up for a hip hop class in ballet tights and a leotard and jazz trainers. So I knew it was a struggle. But then I had to spend extra hours before and after school to stay back and go over everything that I learned that week. And we definitely saw a huge improvement. Like, I was basically the queen of my college in first year. But of course, I’m not saying you’d suddenly be like a Brian Friedman in a year. That requires a lot more time and energy and technique and work. But whatever Quinn [the main character of ‘Work It’] achieves in a year, I think it is possible.
And I also feel that our characters, especially my characters, like it wasn’t like she couldn’t dance, because when you see her at the start, she’s able to do her things. But for Priya, it was a struggle to do it in a group because she’s just used to dancing by herself, that coming together as a group was a struggle.”
There is another line in the film about the importance of “blowing up the box.” And it’s kind of like a funny interaction. But I’m wondering, when you apply this to your life, how would you say that you blow up the box?
“I definitely did that with myself in the audition by just taking that risk and believing because I was more nervous about it because it was a Chris Brown song playing on loop. And that’s why I didn’t want to embarrass myself by doing garba and bhangra. But I think that’s when I stepped outside the box and ‘blew up that box’, basically.”
As a former competitive dancer myself, I really appreciated the way freestyle and the concept of freestyle is depicted and expressed in “Work It.” They keep emphasizing how it’s like the way to truly liberate yourself in your body. When you think back to freestyling and you’re so happy, you’re so free and you’re so liberated. What imagery or emotions or textures or sounds or shapes or colors or even smells do you think of when you’re just in a state of freedom in that moment?
“It’s very different every time. And it has a lot to do with the music that I’m listening to in that moment. And also, like my life stories and experiences also help. So if I’m listening to something sad or, you know, something like lamenting and obviously that’s where your life, real life experiences as a grown-up come into picture and that’s what inspires your movement. And that’s what inspires your feelings. Or if I’m listening to a Bollywood song, which I can relate to so well, than any English song, not that I don’t understand the lyrics but there’s just something about the connection that I have with our music. I don’t think I have that same level of connection with any western music. It’s not like I don’t enjoy dancing to it or don’t enjoy creating to it. So I feel like life experiences, my emotions in that moment or on that day or what I’ve gone through on that day or any news that I’ve heard or anything going on in the world. That plays a deep, deep, deep role in how I move. And sometimes when it has to be out of my comfort zone, then it’s just pure nervousness.” [laughs]
I was going through your Instagram and your story, and I noticed that you have actually had several hustles and side hustles in your lifetime. I saw posts about you bartending and working at McDonalds. How have these hustles kind of shaped your desires in life?
“It has definitely made me think. Especially when I was at work, like at John Lewis or Debenhams or Harrods in England or working in McDonald’s is just that my passion was that this is not what I wanted to end up the rest of my life. And that’s what kept me going. Well, that wasn’t the only thing, but that was one of the most important things is I did not see myself working here and just getting like—no offense to people who work there—but I was only there for a part-time job just to survive off of it.
And today, yes, I’m in a position where all my income is from dance or acting, which is great because I’ve always wanted to do that. And it’s finally happening, although some days I do feel like I’m not doing enough. And time sitting at home I could be like waiting tables and making some money. But then I’m like, okay, calm down, even just you investing time on your website or like creative work is still investment.”
I’ve taken a good hour of your time where you could’ve been waiting tables or working on your website. [laughs] Just kidding. But since we’re finishing up, is there anything that you would like to add?
“I mean, I always get asked: What advice do you have for upcoming dancers or aspiring dancers? My key has always been two things that I really believe in and stand by. One, which is my dad’s line, is that no matter what you do in life it will never be wasted, it will never be a waste. I stopped skating when I was 17 and then suddenly when I was in the audition room and just talking to Laura and happened to mention skating. And she threw that in for my character. So that’s why Priya’s kind of doing everything that I basically have done in my childhood. So that came to really good use because my parents have always been supportive. So they used to be thrashed on by their friends or society saying things like y’all are over-parenting. And my dad’s like, ‘no, because she enjoys doing all of this’. Because if I’m not happy, then you’re not happy, then there’s no point doing it.
The second thing that I’d really stress on, even to my kids that I teach here, is versatility, because otherwise you’re just boxing yourself as a hip hop dancer or a ballet dancer and then limiting your exposure and job opportunities.”
And it’s all about blowing up the box, right?
[laughs] “Do NOT stay in that damn box.” [laughs]
“Work It” is currently streaming on Netflix worldwide.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
For the Singh family, Chandan Fashion has always been bigger than simply a bridal showroom. Located in the heart of Gerrard Street, a bustling Little India in Toronto, the bright blue and pink building can be spotted from a distance. Over the years, Chandan has garnered attention from customers from all over North America, even as far as California and Virginia.
For Chandan and Roop, who work alongside “Mom and Dad,” Chandan Fashion is a family business and a way to showcase the beauty of South Asian culture while playing a helping hand in allowing every bride and groom to feel special on their big day. Chandan is their legacy and one they hope to be able to showcase the beauty and intricacies of throwing that “big Indian wedding” on their new CBC show, “BollyWed.”
“BollyWed” follows this tight-knit family through the joys and difficulties of running a multigenerational business. Throughout the variety of clients, discussions of new generation business practices versus old generation, many lehengas, and plenty of laughs, this is one whirlwind journey through the marriage industry.
Brown Girl had the opportunity to interview Chandan and Roop Singh, who were incredibly down-to-earth and a joy to speak to. Here is the interview down below!
What was the inspiration for opening Chandan?
Chandan: My mom and dad started the vision back in 1984 — they started the business. I have a store in India that was started by my grandfather which my father worked in as well, so it is kind of multi-generational of being within this industry of clothing and fashion. My father had a dream of starting what his father did in India, in Canada. While visiting friends in Toronto, my father knew that the Gerrard Indian Bazaar was the right place for them to start, it was the largest Indian market in the Northern America area. He rented a space for two years a couple of doors down from where Chandan originated and then in 1986 we had the opportunity to purchase the corner unit and grow it from one floor to two, to now a four-floor showroom.
Roop: And it should be noted that 1986 is also the year that Chandan was born, hence the name of the store. Chandan Fashion.
Many cities have their own versions of Little India. What was it like growing up/operating in Gerrard Street East? What do you think makes Gerrard Street unique?
Roop: It is funny you say that because even now when we have people traveling to Toronto, checking out Gerrard Street is on their itinerary. So we get a lot of clientele that are visiting from out of town whether it be visiting for the day or weekend. Some of them will sometimes get a hotel nearby for about a week and do their entire wedding family shopping with us.
Chandan has literally grown up in Gerrard Street, but I grew up in Toronto as well. I spent a good chunk of my own childhood in Little India on Gerrard Street. Growing up in the 90s, it was the only Indian bazaar in the greater Toronto area, so anyone who wanted to meet members of their community, have really good South Asian food, shop for upcoming events, or celebrate Diwali or Holi, this is where [they’d] go. This is where my mom would take me on the weekends and I remember popping into Chandan Fashion when my mom needed an outfit. In that way, our childhoods are connected over Little India and I feel like a lot of first-generation kids will sympathize with me, when we wanted to feel a little bit at home, that is where we would go.
How did you get the “BollyWed” opportunity on CBC? What is it like working with your family? What roles do you all play in the business? How do we get to see this in the show?
Roop: It has been quite a journey. It wasn’t necessarily such a drastic transition because already the family was very close-knit in the sense that they are working day in and day out. We do our social media together and our buying together, go to fashion shows. So naturally things we were already doing as a family were just translated to the TV. That is what I love the most about the show, it is just an authentic following of what we do on a daily basis as a family and as a business. It has been a great experience and something that we are super grateful for. It was actually seven years in the making and I’ll let Chandan tell you how “BollyWed” came to be.
Chandan: It started out in 2014. I was at a wedding show and I was approached by the executive producer, Prajeeth and we shot a shizzle. He had an idea of a wedding show with a family narrative and I had been watching ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ extensively. I knew that there was this really interesting market and this fascination with South Asian outfits and bridalwear given that it was so colorful and the beadwork was so ornate. There was a lot more interesting subject matter, especially if we tie that into a seven-day-long wedding and you tie that into multiple events and families. That is more prevalent in South Asian culture: what the mother-in-law thinks, what the mother thinks. But five to six years went by and we got 22 rejections over that period by almost every network imaginable. I was always excited that we were getting rejected because I knew that eventually, we would get a yes. Eventually at the end of 2021, around the end of the COVID era, the production company reached out asking if we were still interested in the show. I said it was never a question of ‘if,’ it was a question of ‘when.’ From the get-go, I knew that this show would be picked up, I knew it would be a success. In March 2022 we got greenlit. We had this amazing journey of seven months of continuous filming. It has been an amazing journey to be able to represent South Asians on television in a way that has not been done before. I like lighthearted programming and I am glad that we were able to influence the show because of our lives and make it a lighthearted family show that people can watch. But we still get to have important discussions.
Roop: I love that Chandan mentioned this. We get to showcase a lot of pivotal subjects in today’s society. For example, we made sure that inclusivity was showcased across all 10 episodes and that is something that I give credit to our directors and producers, they did a wonderful job showcasing how inclusive not just us as a business, but as a brand and as a family we are. These are values that have been instilled in us, that when somebody crosses your threshold and comes into your store, it doesn’t matter what their background is, their color, or their orientation, that is irrelevant. It is something that we don’t factor in, we just consider that this is the patron, the client. There is no judgment — not in our store, not in our family. And I love that we were able to share that on a big screen for everyone to see. That was one reason why it was so important to do this, but the other reason has a lot to do with Chandan and his childhood.
Chandan: So for me, I was born and raised in Toronto. I went to a very small school where I was the only South Asian for a long time in that school. I was the only Punjabi kid, the only kid with a turban, and eventually the only one with a beard, so I noticeably stood out compared to all my peers. My father with his best intentions sent me to a really small school, a private school, that he could not afford to pay for. Where at times the check would bounce every month, but he had a very strong belief that if he provided me a quality education [so] I would keep something really dear to him —keeping the belief in religion — I wouldn’t cut my hair, I wouldn’t cut my beard, I wouldn’t conform to society. He wanted to give me the best chance to succeed as is, [but] the unfortunate truth was I was bullied, I was picked on. I wouldn’t tell him, but people would grab my jurra, my turban, and my hair. And as a kid I would just let it go because you do not want to go home and tattle to your parents, but also because I knew how sensitive of a topic it was to my dad. And I think that my experience would have been different if people didn’t ask me every month, ‘How long is your hair? What do you keep under that?’ All these questions made me feel really uncomfortable, but the other kids also asked because they had never seen anyone like me. If I had grown up with a show like this, I would not have felt so alone, such a strong desire to belong. This is one of the reasons I really believed in the show, I really wanted to have representation. Even if there is just one other kid who watches this show and grows up in a suburb where there aren’t many South Asian kids; if he is able to turn the TV on and see my dad with such a thick accent — English isn’t his first language — but he still owns it so confidently. Or they see a guy like me with a turban and a beard and see that frankly he still has such a hot wife.
Roop: But beyond that, this gentleman with a turban and thick accent, they are such normal people. They love takeout, they like to play tennis, and they could be your neighbor. Other than their outward appearance, they are very much like you, very similar.
Your support in styling Priyanka for their drag performance was inspiring and refreshing to see. How do you change your styles/designs to foster inclusivity?
Roop: I think that goes back to what I was saying about how Mom and Dad have fostered this universal approach to our clientele. We do not look beyond their needs. I think it is also important to note that some people had thought that we had Priyanka come onto the show to make it more interesting, but their relationship with the store spans over the past five to seven years.
Chandan: Twenty years. Priyanka and their family have been shopping at the store for the past 20 years since they were kids. When Priyanka started exploring the world of drag, they came and said they needed a costume that they would be designing. It also wasn’t even any of my peers or me that made that connection with Priyanka, it was actually my dad, the older generation. He said, ‘Don’t worry beta.’ He actually corrected himself and said, ‘Beti, we will be there for you.’ And he got them a really nice sari and lehenga which they converted into a costume that won the first season.
Roop: And Priyanka put their own spin on it and created something amazing. Only because we were the designers of those pieces could we tell that that is a piece from our lehenga. They did such a fabulous job with it.
Chandan: I think we sometimes think of the older generation, like our parents, as being more conservative, but I think that it is a one-sided narrative. Not all of the older generation is as conservative as we think. And my dad just took it as a paying customer is a paying customer. It doesn’t matter what their orientation or beliefs are, and that just naturally unfolded into the story that we are sharing. He did not treat it as a big deal.
For our readers currently planning their weddings, do you have any pieces of advice on how to balance all the heavy details of wedding planning without losing sight of why they are doing it for?
Roop: One thing for the bride and groom is not to lose sight of themselves in all of this. I’ve been there and done that. You plan this extravagant seven-day affair, you have all these people flying out to your wedding, and you feel this really heavy responsibility to make sure that all these guests are taking time out of their lives to celebrate your union. And like myself — and I am guilty of this, which is why I want to tell my fellow brides — [you] tend to make it less about [yourself] and more about everyone else who is attending. And yes, of course, everyone is important and I owe them respect for joining us. But remember what you want in the heart of heart, if you want a small wedding, go for a small wedding. If you want a big wedding, go for a big wedding. If you want the seven-tiered cake, go for it, if you just want cupcakes, go for that. At the end of the day don’t forget what makes you happy. Don’t lose sight of it, just be authentic to yourself.
Chandan: Oftentimes in the wedding industry, people are really looked down upon. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are spending so much for this wedding!’ Or, ‘You are obsessing over these details!’ If it is important to you, it is okay. I would not let judgment get in the way of doing what you want whether it be a small intimate 20-person wedding or a having a 1000-person wedding. This is your moment. The biggest thing I hear is, ‘Oh, it is only for an hour.’ But, if you have a photographer, nothing is for an hour. It is for a lifetime. Those moments last a lifetime. If it is something that you hold near and dear to you, you will cherish it. I wish people would stay true to themselves.
Roop: Yeah, agreed. Be mindful of what sparks joy in you and let that be your compass. The most important piece of advice though: At every function please request that your caterer create a to-go container of the meal at the event for you and your partner to enjoy after because often, and it is so sad to hear this, the bride and groom will eat last at their own event or not at all. And you spend all these months planning [an] extravagant menu and then you don’t even get to eat your own wedding cake. Hah! That happened to us!
Do you have any future plans that you feel excited about sharing with Chandan?
Chandan: Yeah! I would say concrete plans are in the pipeline. In the first episode of ‘BollyWed’ [you] see that we come to the realization that there is just not enough space and we would love to expand into another space.
Roop: And this is where you get a lot of the new generation, old generation beliefs. Because mom and dad believe that the family should stay very close-knit and together to run the one location. And Chandan has the belief that [the] true success of a business is when it is scalable, and has multiple locations nationally, globally even. In Episode 10 you get a conclusion, but we will let the readers watch it for themselves!
You can now watch the inaugural season of CBC’s “BollyWed” on CBC TV every Thursday at 8 p.m. EST or stream it for free on CBC Gem! And that’s not all from the Chandan Fashion team! They’ll soon be featured in an Instagram LIVE chat with Brown Girl Magazine, so stay tuned!
Being a teenager is scary. Hormones, high school, trying to fit in — add to it a flesh-hungry demon from the Indian subcontinent and it becomes downright terrifying. At least, that’s what award-wining director Bishal Dutta’s debut feature “It Lives Inside” will have audiences thinking when it hits theaters on Sept. 22.
From the producers of several blockbusters including “Get Out” and “Us,” “It Lives Inside” stars Megan Suri as Samidha. Samidha is an Indian American teenager growing up in a quintessential small town, where she’s one of only a handful of South Asian faces at her school. She has a sweet, hardworking dad (Vik Sahay) and a caring, but stern mother (Neeru Bajwa). Both of them like their daughter home early to make prasad for prayers and insist no one whistles in the house, fearing it’ll attract evil spirits.
Much to her traditional mother’s dismay, when Samidha enters high school, she begins to resist her Indian culture. She prefers to be called “Sam,” and speak English, leaving her homemade lunch tiffins on the counter on her way out the door. Most significantly, she distances herself from her former best friend and fellow Indian, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan)
Tamira has become the center of school gossip carrying around an ominous black mason jar, dwelling beneath the gym bleachers. One day, she corners Sam in the locker room, begging her for help from the “monster” trapped in the jar, but Sam is rigid. Her desire to fit overcomes her emotions. Tamira storms out — and then mysteriously goes missing.
Little does Sam know, her childhood friend’s behavior and disappearance were brought on by the Piscacha — a flesh-eating Hindu demon drawn to negative energy — and Sam’s disbelief has just unleashed its terror back on her.
“It Lives Inside” is a breath of fresh air. It has the nostalgic backdrop of a 1980s teen movie (think “Sixteen Candles” or even “Halloween”) but adds the thrill of an exciting new monster for horror fans, and looks for the final girl.
Audiences have spent decades watching and screaming at faith-based horror stories like “The Exorcist,” “The Conjuring,” and “Carrie,” but “It Lives Inside” is the first of its kind for Hollywood, drawing from Hinduism for its frights.
Now, I can’t lie…when I first learned the story would be rooted in Hinduism, I was nervous. I worried that religion and culture may be used as a gimmick, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Dutta’s approach is reminiscent of Bisha K. Ali’s with “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+. Characters speak Hindi and we see South Asian religious practices, foods, and clothing displayed prominently, in a natural and authentic way that other groups can easily learn and understand. The culture merely rounds out the story, it’s not the main character or conflict.
The Piscacha, feeding on the despondence of its prey, may remind some of Vecna from season 4 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” but Dutta offers a fresh angle, alluding to the characters’ negative feelings toward their culture being the source of its power.
He offers South Asian American audiences relatable family dialogues and dynamics, but also steers clear of cliches like showing popular kids as mean or Sam’s American crush unlikeable.
“It Lives Inside” isn’t a horror movie you’ll lose sleep over, but that doesn’t mean it’s without palpable moments of fear.
Thanks to Dutta’s creative shots, smart pacing and sensory visuals, in addition to the emotion-packed acting of its cast, the film successfully makes your skin crawl and your jaw drop on several occasions.
The characters are smartly cast with several standouts. Suri is a welcome new face for the horror genre’s final girl and she delivers her role with the right amount of escalating fear and desperation. Meanwhile, Bajwa leans into hers with the passion you’d expect from a protective brown mom, though, at times, some of her Hindi dramatells come through.
“Get Out’s” Betty Gabriel is also noteworthy as Sam’s teacher Joyce and an early confidant. Her support of Sam was a refreshing break from the “this person must be crazy” trope we see so frequently in demonic films.
All that said, “It Lives Inside” does border on being formulaic. It follows a template and scares we have seen numerous times and ones that have done well historically.
But in its familiarity, it also manages to feel fresh. With its South Asian twist, the film proves that even formulaic horror films can find new life through diversity and inclusivity. It raises the idea that they have the potential to scare wider audiences and tell more spooky stories by exploring new cultures and casts.
While “It Lives Inside” is not perfect — the climax may leave you with a few lingering questions — it is a stylish and well-made film and a welcome piece of mainstream South Asian representation.
Recent past has seen South Asian stars delve into many different genres on television and the big screen, but horror has remained largely untouched. Thankfully, “It Lives Inside” has set the table for some brilliant South Asian-based horror films in Hollywood for years to come.
“It Lives Inside” made its world premiere at SXSW and has made its way through the film festival circuit. It will be released theatrically by Neon on September 22.
Few people can call themselves rocket scientists. Even fewer can say they are a rocket scientist-turned-actress, producer and Broadway star. Salma Qarnain is a Pakistani Muslim woman who can claim the title.
Artistry runs through Qarnain’s veins. Her grandfather was a filmmaker in Bombay and Karachi, before passing away at a young age. Her mother performed in plays throughout college. Now Qarnain is using artistry to build empathy, playing characters that represent her family’s story and promoting Black and Brown allyship through Black Man Films — the production company she co-founded with Roderick Lawrence.
Qarnain grew up in the Midwest but traveled back to Karachi often. Some of her earliest memories were in Karachi singing along to the Beatles and pretending to be Ringo Starr. When her family moved to the United States, typical of South Asian immigrant parental influence, her interest in math and science and immense love for Star Wars led her to pursue aerospace engineering, hence rocket science. Her mother’s passing forced her to rethink her goals and when she wanted to achieve them.
Today, she describes her purpose for creating art in profound terms.
I want people to be equal. I want people to understand we’re very much all together a speck of dust in the entire universe, and that there are so many more things we share than we don’t.
Starting entertainment work in the aftermath of 9/11 made it clear how she, a Pakistani Muslim woman, would be seen.
I remember [at] that time… Friends of mine told me, ‘Don’t let anybody know x, y, z about you, because they may have a bias against you. Something might happen.’
The beginning of her career was defined by how Western culture perceived Muslims and South Asians. Her first entertainment gig was as a casting assistant in Washington D.C. She noticed if South Asians were cast,
They were going to be playing something stereotypical to what a South Asian person is thought of… that could be the geeky, mainly male, math nerd, or a terrorist.
While the position provided an opportunity to learn about what it took to become an actress, Qarnain also leveraged her responsibilities to make a change — if a role didn’t absolutely require a white actress, she would gather diverse resumes for the casting director, slowly trying to shift the idea of what a person of color on television had to be.
With people of diverse experiences joining writer’s rooms and a “pipeline of young South Asian actors,” the industry has improved but isn’t close to equitable. She sees “Life of Pi” on Broadway and Black Man Films as ways to combat that.
Broadway’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel brings a multigenerational South Asian cast to the stage and has Qarnain playing two roles — Pi’s (gender-swapped) biology teacher, an analytical, guiding mentor, and the Muslim cleric Pi studies under. “Life of Pi” is one of Qarnain’s favorite novels for being a story about faith, storytelling and the power of both to provide hope. She took a callback for the role via Zoom in an Applebee’s parking lot.
I feel very invested in both of these characters. Just because they are absolute extensions of who I am as a person, and to have this be my Broadway debut — I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
She got to play a Pakistani Muslim character once before in the off-Broadway play “Acquittal.” It was the first time she could represent an authentic story. In “Life of Pi,” Qarnain helped workshop the scenes with the cast and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti to make them more authentic.
She absolutely took our suggestions and comments and reactions, for myself, from another person in our cast – who’s also a Muslim – and then from castmates, [who are] Catholic and Hindu, to understand what would work and what would people respond to. That’s where the gift was, that [Chakrabarti] was very receptive to what we had to say.
Black Man Films and her partnership with Roderick Lawrence run parallel to her theatrical journey. The pair formed the production company during the pandemic through a short film that Lawrence created to explore Black men’s mental health. As an enthusiastic fan of Lawrence’s work and having wanted to begin producing for film and television, Qarnain joined the project immediately. The short film, “Silent Partner,” went to 21 film festivals and won Best Short at several.
It was never done for accolades. It was done because there was a purpose and message to the story around Black men’s mental health told through the lens of micro-aggressions in the workplace.
The second short film, “Speak Up, Brotha!” was released in late March and will be played at Oscar-qualifying film festivals, this summer.
For Qarnain, Black Man Films is a platform for change and Black and Brown allyship.
I want people to look at our films and understand where they are, who they are in this film; in “Silent Partner.” If they’re complicit in propagating systemic racism, and, if so, what are they gonna do about it? How can they start? How can they talk to their parents? How can they, you know, engage with other South Asians and put a stop to colorism and any racism that exists against the black community?
Telling stories that reflect the experiences of people of color gives creatives the power to build systems that can improve people’s lives.
There is a racial hierarchy that exists and if we want to break that, we have to be a part of building everything, not just for us, but for everybody who isn’t white.
She is confident that the stories she’s helping bring to life will do just that and change the world in the process. From “Life of Pi” to “Speak Up, Brotha!” the possibilities for encouraging justice and empathy are endless.