It was just over a year ago that Devi, from Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever,” hit Netflix. I remembered the open casting call. My heart had thumped so hard in my chest, wondering if I could pull it off. Could I fake an Indian accent that I didn’t grow up around because I was adopted by white British parents? I was in my mid-30s and playing a teenager was out of the question. That was the only role that did not require an accent. To add to this dilemma, I had the body of someone who had recently given birth and a baby to care for. I was insane for considering it, but the dream of acting as a brown girl was going to come true for someone.
I used to dream about becoming an actress. In my sophomore year of high school, I was in “Guys and Dolls.” Everyone knew who would get the lead. She had brown hair and an innocent way about her. People talked about her acting dreams and her beautiful singing voice that was well-trained. As an adopted girl from Bangladesh, I was the opposite of this. The years of acting classes I took were not enough to erase the fact that I would never look the part.
Three years prior to this moment, I found a newspaper ad for an acting school an hour away. The owners had spent time on Broadway and the most advanced level students participated in an off-Broadway scene night where agents attended in search of new talent.
In acting classes that focused on improv, my race never came up, but when I took the higher course levels, things changed. I was taught how to create a portfolio of monologues and we worked with scene partners on sections of famous plays for our off-Broadway scene night. My choices became very limited because Black roles were considered sacred, white roles were also not quite right, and there was very little in between.
“You could try Shakespeare,” my teacher told me. “Lots of companies love to do different versions of his plays using diverse actors.”
I thought back to how I expected to understand what was going on in “Romeo and Juliette” in my high school English class. Would I ever be able to memorize it and make it sound convincing?
My mom took me to the bookstore to find books filled with scenes. I loved sections of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but it felt wrong to attempt to play her. Beneatha from “A Raisin in the Sun” inspired me and I got special permission to use her monologue for class, knowing that it would never become a part of my portfolio.
Watching me struggle, my teacher gave me a scene another person who worked at my acting school had written. There were no expectations for how the characters might look.
“I want you to try playing the bad girl,” she said. “You will be dressed in all black with a snake necklace. It will really take you out of your comfort zone.”
She was right. The F word was in every other sentence, and I could barely walk in the heels that went with my costume. I felt my walk become a glide as if I were a snake slithering along the floor. The heels made it feel natural to hold my head up higher than usual. This character almost scared me.
Aside from wanting to act on stage, there was the dream of being on television. I liked teen dramas with love triangles like Dawson’s Creek. The role of Joey was not relatable when it came to looks, but I understood what it felt like to be a shadow of the most beautiful blond in school. Imagining myself in shows, I wished I could be in was another part of my acting dreams. Sometimes, I would write pretend episodes where the brown girl stole the spotlight. Little did I know this was going to happen around the time my daughter was about to enter high school.
The first time I saw a picture of Devi on Netflix, all the hairs on my arms stood up. She was exactly how I dreamed her to look. With her wavy hair, she didn’t look like she was trying to recreate the image of a white girl who had brown skin, and the color choices for her clothes brought me right back to high school. She represented everything that was familiar despite being adopted and not fully identifying with the Indian culture the same way as many other viewers. It was the first time I saw a version of my high school self on the screen. I have four mixed-race daughters who will grow up seeing the Indian girl next door become familiar in the list of shows people watch will make their very existence less othered.
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
“Don’t bully me with your kindness,” says Pi Patel (Hiran Abeysekera) to Lulu Chen (Kirstin Louie), from the Canadian embassy who is visiting Pi in his hospital room in Mexico. Pi was the sole survivor of a cargo ship traveling from Pondicherry, India, en route to Canada. His family and the animals from his zoo from back home all passed away, and Pi turned up after being stranded for 227 days at sea.
In this scene from the “Life of Pi,” that recently won in three categories at the Tony Awards, Pi’s sanity is being questioned as his account of what transpired at sea is too…fantastical. His vivid imagination and inspired attention to detail seem like a story a child would share. The character Lulu, from the embassy, is trying to gently nudge him into telling her the more ‘truthful’ account of what happened —one that doesn’t include a carnivorous tiger, a cannibalistic island, and a horrific Frenchman. Pi finally tells her to stop patronizing him. To stop bullying him with her perceived kindness. To actually listen to what he is saying.
It is this one line from the show that has become one of the most surprising and thoughtful lines I have encountered in all the art I have consumed in 2023 thus far. In fact, surprising and thoughtful are words that I would use to describe the overall musical itself. Directed by Max Webster, and adapted by the playwright Lolita Chakrabarti from Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, “Life of Pi” is so enchanting, charming, and fantastical that with every beat of the show, I would hear gasps emanating from the crowd. The 24 cast members, many of whom were puppeteers, brought the different animals to life as we switched between the two timelines of Pi recounting his life at sea, in the hospital room, and Pi living out his life at sea.
Dreamlike to the audience and a nightmare to Pi, the scenes depicting his challenging, lonely, and magical time at sea beautifully depicted the magical realism of the novel. The choreography of the different cast members puppeteering the animals added a sense of whimsy and movement that lent itself to Pi’s childlike imagination. The lighting, the sound, the set, and the actors all came together to create a musical that is like almost being in a drug-induced trip — the set moves seamlessly from the hospital room to the boat, and back to the hospital room, and then the boat; sometimes both at the same time. You can feel the waves when Pi is on the water and see the little fish moving about. It’s as though you are with Pi throughout his journey — you feel scared when he is attacked, you feel inspired when he is in bliss, and you feel pain when he longs for his family.
The biggest marvel, though, is Richard Parker. The puppeteering behind this character is excellent — he is at once menacing, vulnerable, scared, and strong. The transformation of Parker is such that he starts out as such a grand animal and when we see him finally arrive on the island, he looks so frail and thin. You root for him as much as you root for Pi. And Pi himself is the heart of the musical. Abeysekera imbues Pi with so much confidence, playfulness, wit, and fear, that it makes you believe his stories and his relationship with the relentless tiger.
When Pi tells Lulu to not bully him with her kindness, he is telling her to not shatter his perception of the world he has lived; either it be real or constructed. Pi eventually shares with Lulu and Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji), a representative from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, a version of events that is devoid of animals but one that is darker as it depicts human beings in their primal, selfish states. He then asks them, “Which story is better?” Lulu and Mr. Okamoto are speechless, as is the audience. In the end, it’s not about the story they believe but the one he believes. For the one he believes is the one he lived. And no one can bully him into thinking otherwise.
March 20, 2023March 29, 2023 3min readBy Rasha Goel
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.
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.
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.