August 7, 2020March 22, 2021 6min readBy Juanita D.
July 16 marked the premiere of Netflix’s hit television docu-series “Indian Matchmaking.” As many of us grabbed our popcorn, and settled in with our girlfriends, mothers and even aunties, we fell into binge-watch haze episode after episode observing eligible singles on a journey to find “the one.”
Enter matchmaker Sima Taparia from Mumbai (she never fails to remind us where she’s from). Sima Aunty has been in the game for 15 years and has a well-regarded reputation for a reason. The show’s producer, Smriti Mundhra, met Sima almost two decades when she was hired to find Mundhra a suitable life partner. Even though Sima Aunty was unsuccessful in finding her a match, Mundhra’s producer hat turned on. She knew a show following an Indian matchmaker could be both eye-popping and fulfill the guilty pleasures of millions around the world.
While many find the show’s cultural context interesting and are curious to see how these matches are made, it’s most definitely stirred up longstanding issues within the South Asian community. From the sometimes subtle to other times overt jabs of classism, sexism, colorism, casteism, to discussing stigma surrounding divorce and mental health, the show gives us a horrid inside look on the pressures we face before tying the knot.
As an Indo-Caribbean woman myself, the highlight of the show for me was cast member Nadia Jagessar. My first impression of Nadia was that she had an easy and pleasant way about her. She resembled a girlfriend you’d call when things aren’t going right, the one who offers nothing but love and support. My own mother swore if she had a son she would want Nadia for him.
“Meh like she, she wan good gyal,” she said.
We learned early on Nadia is a wedding planner and a recreational Bollywood dancer, who loves everything about her hyphenated Indo-Caribbean-American background and wants more people to understand her ancestral roots. It’s clear Nadia has felt like an outsider for not being Indian enough, and this notion of Indo-Caribbeans not being “Indian” is evidently reinforced when the matchmaker makes it clear she would have a harder time finding Nadia an Indian match. It’s no surprise because many Indo-Caribbean women who have dated Indian men can relate. Being a fusion of Indian and Caribbean culture is sometimes viewed as not being too different.
Nadia broke the mold for Indo-Caribbeans living in the Diaspora. With her bubbly laugh, raw and candid feelings for some of her dates, she makes us feel seen, and for that we love her. Thankfully, we had the opportunity to sit down with Nadia virtually and get to the bottom of the show.
What made you want to work with a matchmaker? How did you get on the show?
“My dance company receives a ton of emails so that’s how I first heard about the ‘matchmaking project,’ which is how it was originally positioned. My girlfriend who monitors the inbox sent the email to me and was like, ‘hey, are you a single South Asian millennial?” And I was like ‘yeah I am!’ So that was just kind of how it started, and I had nothing to lose by just trying. You know, you sign up for these things and are like ‘oh they’re not going to pick me, like whatever.’ And then it started going through and getting more serious and I was like ‘whoa, this is real.’”
What were your initial thoughts when you learned about working with a matchmaker? Did you think it was old-fashioned or was it pretty cool?
“Honestly, I was kind of excited because my parents were matched the traditional way. So many couples in my family are matched weddings and so I was like, ‘oh yeah, there can’t be anything terrible about this.’ And dating is really tiring let’s be real. I tried the app, I tried dating people through friends and it’s exhausting. So I was like, ‘okay, at least this matchmaker can bring me somebody, who you know, has already been filtered and hopefully more serious than someone else I’d be meeting on an app or through a friend or whatever.’ So that is what I was actually looking forward to the most — that she was gonna bring me people who were already, as my friend Draya said, ‘pre-vetted.’”
Obviously, on the show, you touch on Guyanese culture. How do you feel dating is different when dating Indo-Caribbean men and Indian men?
“So, I’ve only dated one Guyanese guy in my whole life. Most of my boyfriends have been Indian, or Gujarati specifically. I would say it was different dating my ex who’s Guyanese because I didn’t have to explain to him why my family acts a certain way, what we do, or why our culture is similar but different to theirs. So that was very easy and it’s nice in that way, but you know my boyfriends that were Indian didn’t take the time to pause and understand the differences. I think maybe because they didn’t want to take the time to learn about me. But I think that’s probably the ease of dating someone who’s Indo-Caribbean versus dating someone who is from ‘mainland India.’”
How did your Guyanese family feel when they first learned you were going to be on the show? How did they feel knowing you may have producers or cameramen come to your home and film? Were they open to being on camera or was it a shock to them?
“The first time the crew came to my house it was three weeks after my parents had the transplant surgery. Before this my mom was busy taking care of my dad so when filming started was the first time she was putting on a dress and dolling up with a little bit of a makeup. But my dad was quarantined in the bedroom because at that time he wasn’t going to be cleared to see people for another two months. It was hard for them, and they were understandably very nervous to have the crew film in the house for the first time. By the time they came back around for the second time, my dad was feeling much better so that’s when you see us having breakfast together in the morning, going over the second set of matches Sima aunty sent. I am grateful because my parents are super supportive and for any crazy idea I’ve ever had my entire life, they’ve always been the type to say ‘let’s just figure out how to make it work’ and that was exactly what we did here too.”
You work in the wedding industry. You see women walking down the aisle or sitting under the mandap. Some single women find themselves frustrated with the dating scene. Does experiencing weddings give you hope or does it make you wonder, “when is it going to be my turn?”
“It’s a little bit of both because sometimes I see the side where couples are fighting, families are upset about certain things. I’m always thinking, oh, gosh—this is the unpretty side or the unglamorous side of married life, but it’s also the reality. But then I also see, you know, the look on a groom’s face when his bride is walking down the aisle and when the sheet drops at the altar and they look at each other and I always think, “I really want that” or when they’re having their first dance and they’re laughing and talking to each other, I always wonder what they’re thinking. So those moments do really hit me sometimes. It’s hard not to think when will the baraat be for me? So, yeah, there’s definitely pros and cons to being so closely involved with wedding planning.”
I think the big question that most viewers have right now is, has Nadia found love?
“As of right now I have not. But I’m a very optimistic and hopeful person so it’ll be out there. Maybe he’s in my DMs right now (I don’t know because I haven’t looked through all the messages haha!). But no, as of right now I have not found love.”
If there was one thought or message you could leave with single Indo-Caribbean women, what would that be?
“Stay true to yourself and don’t forget your roots or sacrifice your roots because I have done that a lot in the past. I’ve had to put away my Guyanese side a lot and I don’t want to anymore. One of my ex’s liked that I listened to Soca or reggae music in the car but when I talked about going to Caribana, he would say, ‘why would you do that?’ That’s such a big part of my life and I don’t want to settle for anyone who doesn’t want to share that part of my life with me. Because there is somebody who is going to want to listen to my music, and go to Caribana and enjoy every moment of it with me. So, don’t lose that piece of yourself and who you are for someone you think might like you.”
Like many Indo-Caribbean womxn who watched the series, I found myself initially curious and then eventually addicted. It takes strength in a non-committal Westernized society to say one is looking for love and marriage. It takes strength to cry in front of strangers. It takes strength to admit that someone hurt you. It takes strength to admit one is not quite where she wants to be, but is still a work in progress. Jagessar has done all of this in front of our very eyes on Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” and she is arguably one of the most liked candidates on the show.
Is it because of her sweet girl-next-door-persona or relatability? Maybe—but perhaps it’s because of her vulnerability. It’s her ability to connect with us on a raw human level and to be emotionally transparent (something that is oftentimes taboo in the Indo-Caribbean community) that keeps us tuned in to this journey we call “Indian Matchmaking.”
February 28, 2023March 5, 2023 5min readBy Arun S.
Born in the US and raised in New Zealand, actor Anya Banerjee made her television debut, this past Sunday, in season 10 of NBC’s “The Blacklist.” She is seen playing the character of Siya Malik, daughter of former task force member Meera Malik who met with an untimely death in season one.
An MI6 agent, Malik is hoping to learn more about her mother and the work she did with Raymond Reddington. Her character is a sharp, inventive, fearless spy with a knack for spotting what motivates others. Even though this is her first-ever television role, one can see how deeply involved Banerjee is in the character, pushing you to connect back the dots to the history her character comes with. In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Banerjee talks more about her journey into acting, what drew her to the role of Siya and what should the audience expect from the 10th and final season of the show:
People, in general, are very influenced by the content they consume. Was there a specific film, play, or television series that got you interested in acting?
As the first in my family to be raised in “the West,” just being in the world involved performing some kind of identity. Film and TV acted as a third parent in that regard. I’m the first actor in my family, but have wanted to do this since before I can remember. Watching “Bend It Like Beckham” when I was in primary school showed me there was a place for South Asian female leads in Hollywood. I’ve also always been drawn to media with some element of the fantastical. I loved Baz Lurhmann’s “Moulin Rouge” because it brought the theatricality of the stage to the screen in a spectacular way. I remember being tickled by the cultural fusion in the film. It reflected my own sense of being at the intersection of various cultures and the appeal of escaping into a made-up world.
Were you a part of any productions in school or in college that influenced you?
I did a lot of singing and dancing as a kid; Indian dance-dramas at Durga Puja and yearly ballet recitals. We did musicals and Shakespeare productions at secondary school and that’s also when I started working in Auckland’s professional theatre scene.
What were some of your favorite roles while pursuing the acting program at Columbia University and how did they prepare you for your television debut?
Casting director James Calleri headed the acting MFA program at Columbia when I was there and his on-camera classes really set us up for success in TV. We also had the tremendous good fortune of being Ron Van Lieu’s first cohort at Columbia. The master acting teacher directed our thesis production of “Where Do We Live?” by Christopher Shinn. I played Lily, a British party girl who has to be physically and emotionally vulnerable in the play. With the help of movement coach Sita Mani and intimacy co-ordinator Alicia Rodis, I gained the confidence to take more risks in my acting. Now I’m playing a very different Brit with a totally different background and disposition but I’m using many of the same tools I used as Lily to feel grounded as Siya.
How would you describe “The Blacklist” to people wanting to learn more about the show?
Action-packed, full of intrigue, and endlessly entertaining. There’s a reason this show has been killing it for a decade and that’s the high caliber of the cast and crew, as well as the inventive and topical writing that keeps fans coming back for more. Audience members who’ve watched from the beginning will appreciate the full circle moments that my character ushers in — I play the daughter of Meera Malik, late CIA agent from season one so my storyline is a bit of a throwback. But new viewers can use me as an access point into the world of “The Blacklist” as Siya uncovers it, bit by bit, as a newcomer herself.
How did you prepare for the role of Siya Malik and how similar are you in real life to the character you’re playing on screen?
Some of the first things I had to learn on the job were stunts and how to operate a firearm. You’ll be seeing a lot of Siya kicking butt. The gun stuff was entirely new for me but I took to it very quickly and my background as a dancer helped with the fight scenes. Something I identify with in Siya is her resilience. She’s turned the tragedy of her mother’s death into the fuel that led to her own career as an MI6 agent, overcoming obstacles and others’ underestimation of her. That’s the kind of fire inside that I really admire and hope to practice in my own life.
I love characters with complex inner worlds — ones who are deeply flawed and may even be outcast from society, but who rise above the odds to carve out space for themselves and the ones they love.
Do you feel South Asians are still pigeonholed into certain roles or has it gotten better?
I think things are a lot better than what I grew up seeing in the early 2000s. “Sound of Metal,” for example, is one of my favorite movies because Riz Ahmed’s riveting performance has little to do with him being South Asian and everything to do with his commitment to an expertly crafted role.
Is there a dream role you would want to play?
On stage, someone as volatile as Emma from Duncan Macmillian’s “People Places & Things.” On screen, someone as funny as Amina in “We Are Lady Parts” or as brave as the title character in “Kimi.”
You have worked with many talented individuals. Is there anyone still on your list you would want to work with in terms of directors, actors, actresses, and others?
Parminder Nagra, obviously! As a Kiwi, it would be a dream come true to work with Jane Campion or Taika Waititi. I’m most excited to form meaningful relationships with artists daring enough to challenge the status quo.
You describe yourself as a “Kiwi-Bengali in the Big City.” How have you felt as an Indian American, raised in New Zealand, coming into the acting world?
There’s been a lot of juggling aspects of my triangular identity. A lot of the times in this industry people want you to be just one thing, or maybe two, but three’s pushing it! The reality is that we live in a globalized world. We have to make room for cultural nuance in the media. So maybe I’ll lean into my American side today, turn up the Kiwi tomorrow, and speak Bengali with my Indian parents on the phone. All are valid, authentic expressions of myself and reflections of the real world.
It’s okay to be a chameleon — in fact it’s a gift. Adapting aspects of your personality and identity to different circumstances is part of being a multicultural artist.
What is something not many people know about you?
I can be a little introverted and have struggled with social anxiety since I was a teenager. I had a bit of an emo phase then, but have since learned to take life less seriously and it’s made me a lot happier. My loved ones nurture and embrace the goofball in me. If you get to know me, I might let you see my inner clown!
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview?
Take pride in your difference and embrace the outsider in you. It’s your superpower. There’s no one right way to be a Brown Girl so get out there and be whoever you want to be!
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.
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.