Creating Curry or Apple Pie?: South Asian Artists Break It Down (2003)

Saturday – October 25th, 2003 @ 3:00pm EST

An online roundtable discussion, hosted by the Non-Traditional Casting Project, Inc.

included the following participants:

Puja Lalmalani

Actor/Dancer/Choreographer/Writer

San Francisco, CA

Sunil Malhotra

Actor/Writer

Los Angeles, CA

Sunita S. Mukhi
Performance Artist/Poet/

Director of Charles B. Wang Center, Stonybrook University
Long Island, NY

Anuvab Pal

Playwright

New York, NY

(led by)

Geeta Citygirl

Actor/Director/Producer/Writer/

Artistic Director of SALAAM Theatre

New York, NY

Saturday – October 25, 2003 @ 3:00pm EST

Geeta Citygirl:
Before we start, I just want to say what a delight it is to be having this important discussion on one of the most auspicious days on the Hindu calendar – Diwali (also known as Deepavali – The Festival of Lights).  I truly believe this conversation shall serve as a bright light in an area that has been historically underrepresented and not discussed much.  I would also like to say that this is just a small sampling of the journey we are all on. Originally, I wanted to include one person from every creative discipline.  Then I wanted to discuss the problems from within our community.  Finally, I decided to have a handful of professionals from the field, tap into the general topic of assumptions and expectations in the hope that this shall trigger further and deeper conversations.  Let’s begin by each of us introducing ourselves, our birthplace, current place of residence and creative discipline (ex: actor, director, writer, dancer, producer, musician, etc).  I’ll leave the order up to you all.

Anuvab Pal:
I’ll take a shot – I’m Anuvab Pal – I’m originally from Calcutta India, I’m a playwright – I’m in NYC.

Sunita S. Mukhi:
I am Sunita S. Mukhi, born and bred in the Philippines, now in self-exile in Port Jefferson, Loooong Island. I like to dance, act, perform my poetry, and performance art. I currently run the Charles B. Wang Center celebrating Asian and Asian American Culture at Stonybrook University.

Sunil Malhotra:
Hello everybody. I’m Sunil Malhotra. I’m an actor who lived in New York for a while and has just recently moved to Los Angeles. I was born in New Delhi, India, came to the U.S. 6 months later, and grew up in Chicago.

Puja Lalmalani:
I’m Puja Lalmalani….I’m from Chicago….currently living in SF….I would define myself as an actor, dancer, choreographer, and writer…

Geeta Citygirl:
I am Geeta Citygirl, born and raised in NY – and still here! I’m an actor, director, producer, writer and Artistic Director of SALAAM Theatre, the first not-for-profit multidisciplinary South Asian American theatre and arts company in America.  The topic for our conversation today came from my own personal experiences as an actor.   In researching the topic of assumptions and expectations felt by various ethnic groups, I was amazed at how there are many similarities and yet, many differences.  The first question I have is do you feel there are assumptions and expectations of you simply because of where you trace your roots – in this case, the South Asian subcontinent?  Again feel free to answer in any order – let’s keep it conversational.

Sunil Malhotra:
Assumptions and expectations from the industry or our community?

Geeta Citygirl:
Both.  Or either.  And when we speak of “our” community – keep in mind the umbrella term “desi” and how that seems to reflect the second generation’s need to form an identity that challenges imaginary lines drawn on the Indian subcontinent.  In America, it doesn’t REALLY matter whether you trace your roots to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan or Maldives – you are the same and hence the importance of a word like ‘desi’.  Professor Vijay Prashad (author of “Karma of Brown Folk”) says, “Phrases like African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, etc. are bureaucratic words that do not hold within them the revolutionary aspirations and histories of a people (categorized but not controlled). I prefer words like Black, desi, Latino, Chicano, because these words raise associations of struggles, such as the Black Power movement (‘Black is Beautiful,’ etc.), the Chicano struggles of the farm workers, of La Raza, and what not. Desi seems to be a similar word, one filled with so much historical emotion. And again, it is an ironic word, because it means of the homeland, but it does not say what that homeland is. We who use it do not hearken back to the ‘homeland’ of the subcontinent, because we are generally not nationalistic in that sense. Our homeland is an imaginary one that stretches from Jackson Heights to the Ghadar Party, from the rallies against Dotbusters to the Komagata Maru, from the 1965 Immigration Act to Devon Street. This is a homeland that we can relate to and it is what makes us feel like we belong in something of a collectivity. Hence desi. And [the term] is under construction.”

Puja Lalmalani:
Well, I do feel like actors of color are often put in positions to “represent” their community….i.e. represent “black America.”  Or the Asian American experience.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

The industry assumes that because I am and look and sound Indian that I should and can play only these kinds of roles.

Geeta Citygirl:
Right.

Sunil Malhotra:
Since coming to LA, it’s been a lot clearer to me than when I was in NYC (not that it wasn’t in NYC either).  Specifically, they assume anything Bollywood or “spiritual” applies to you.  It’s only recently that the industry as a whole even really recognizes South Asians (or East Indians, as they prefer to say) in any way.

Geeta Citygirl:
So Sunil, it’s as if we were “invisible” until more recently, right? And now we are the flava of the month.

Sunil Malhotra:
In terms of visibility and casting.

Geeta Citygirl:
So let’s name some other assumptions and expectations — that way we can get some clarity on what exactly is assumed or expected by a look, a name, a headshot… And Anuvab, as a writer, you too must face certain expectations and assumptions. Perhaps you can share those.

Anuvab Pal:
I certainly believe, as a writer, when I submit something – and I happen to be South Asian – there is a certain expectation about the kind of work.

Geeta Citygirl:
Let’s get really specific about WHAT those expectations are.

Anuvab Pal:
Certainly from creating material, one can see that if there is a play with South Asian characters – there is an assumption that it may not have “mainstream appeal” – whatever that means.

Sunil Malhotra:
Yes, absolutely.

Sunita S. Mukhi:
The mainstream media industries suffer a lack of imagination of how this look and sound can actually make a role more interesting.

Puja Lalmalani:
Well, I think we’re expected to play roles that don’t necessarily represent our experience as South Asian Americans.

Sunita S. Mukhi:
I think Puja has a point. The roles we are expected to play are familiar to the mainstream audiences’ perceptions of what a desi is.

Geeta Citygirl:
Explain that idea further, Puja.  What type of roles are you referring to when you say “familiar” to the mainstream audiences?

Puja Lalmalani:
Well, for instance, seeing a South Asian play a terrorist or a cab driver does not reflect my experience as an Indian-American. I’m a Midwestern, girl-next door sort of person, but they would never cast me on Dawson’s Creek.  Or a similar sort of show that includes 20-something characters.

Sunil Malhotra:
Most of the people writing stuff that gets put “out there” in TV land or at your local cineplex, if they decide to write us in (or cast us) are only going off their own experience, which usually is very limited.  Which perpetuates a limited view of us.

Anuvab Pal:
That’s true, Sunil.  It seems as if when there is a diverse character, an effort has been made to write it in, it’s not assumed to be natural.

Puja Lalmalani:
I think that’s true for all minority groups….classrooms on TV don’t “look” like classrooms in America.

Geeta Citygirl:

I agree.

Sunil Malhotra:
Neither do hospitals, law offices, government offices, etc.

Puja Lalmalani:

ER is a great example of that, Sunil.  ER’s cast could be half South Asian.

Geeta Citygirl:

True that. (Except for the addition of Parminder Nagra this season. Yahoo!)  And often times I go to an audition and it’s a no win situation. I’m NOT “Indian-enough” for South Asians and not “apple pie-enough” for American projects.

Sunil Malhotra:

Me, too!  The issue of color and look fit very much into expectations.  In India, it’s “better” to be fair skin.  Here, if they want Indian, they want you darker (for men) (this is usually the case with black men, too).

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Which is why we need to write and produce our own stuff!

Geeta Citygirl:

So it boils down to power?  Who’s writing and producing, right?

Sunita S. Mukhi:

As we come of age and wealth, we can produce, direct, write and act – of course, we have to think that these professions are worth getting into.

Geeta Citygirl:

Can each of you give at least one, concrete and specific example of how you had to deal with an assumption from WITHIN the South Asian American community?

Puja Lalmalani:

Do you mean the South Asian artistic community–or just the South Asian community in general?

Geeta Citygirl:

I would say the South Asian artistic community – which seems to be broad enough considering there are many NRI’s (Non Resident Indians) calling themselves artists.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Ah, I have been cast as a mother too many times – I need a sexier role to play! An older woman who has sexuality – yes!

Sunil Malhotra:

An assumption I’ve encountered is that just because I’m in this industry, I must have the same ability as a star would to pick and choose material, which although I may choose from what I get, I don’t get much to choose from.  That wasn’t for artists.

Geeta Citygirl:

That’s totally okay, Sunil.  Any other immediate thoughts about expectations you have faced from other South Asian American artists?

Sunita S. Mukhi:

That you should give your talent for free, and be honored to be chosen.

Sunil Malhotra:

Big time, Sunita.  I think there can be an expectation to represent the community once you’ve “made it.”  I’ve encountered this a lot, where S.A. producers (present company excluded) feel they can push the limits of professionalism because we’re all South Asian.

Geeta Citygirl:

I would just add that there is a “type” that many of these new and upcoming South Asian American filmmakers (in particular) are looking for.

Puja Lalmalani:

Well, I used to have an assumption I made, but I’ve realized it’s not true anymore….but if it were true, it would bring our community up by leaps and bounds.  I used to assume that everyone (all South Asians, that is) sort of realized the power of unity as a community to rise up and have success in this industry–and though I’ve encountered people that believe in that, not everyone does.  I think if we had more unity and interest in climbing up together, we would have more collective creative control and power in this art and business.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

We are notorious for being backstabbing and self-serving; this has got to change!

Sunil Malhotra:

Our community as a whole (South Asians, not just artists) is so fragmented.  Part of the burden of representation falls on our shoulders.

Puja Lalmalani:

Yes, Sunil–I totally agree with that.

Sunil Malhotra:

Other ethnic groups make HUGE noise when something racist happens, or just being invisible – we as a community don’t make that much noise.

Geeta Citygirl:

Okay, let’s continue.  Anuvab, any thoughts on being a writer of South Asian roots?  Do fellow South Asians assume anything about the work you will produce?

Anuvab Pal:

Yes, they do and it’s fair of people to.  If one is South Asian and have relevant experiences based on their ethnic make up, it makes sense to incorporate them in the stories one is telling.  The key is to make those stories universally compelling.  The assumption that I often challenge is the thought that if it’s of a certain ethnic milieu, it will attract only that milieu and no one else.

Puja Lalmalani:

Which we know is not true—i.e. My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Sunil Malhotra:

Or Bend it Like Beckham or Monsoon Wedding.

Geeta Citygirl:

And I agree wholeheartedly. One must write and sometimes try and incorporate their roots – if they had relevant experiences with it.

Anuvab Pal:

I mean over and over again you see it proved wrong with Monsoon Wedding, Spellbound.

Geeta Citygirl:

So there is a place for that voice – the South Asian creative voice – in the mainstream.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Absolutely.  We need to write, perform from our own truth- this will cross boundaries, indeed!

Puja Lalmalani:

And I’d like to emphasize that there is space for multiple South Asian voices and artistic visions—I think it is assumed that we should all speak with the same artistic voice or mission–and this is just not possible or even interesting.

Geeta Citygirl:

Would you agree that the problem with our community is the lack of good writers?  Both in film and theatre.

Sunil Malhotra:

Yes, but that will change over time the more our writers write and get better at the craft, like anything else.  The more you act or direct, the better you get.

Puja Lalmalani:

So what are the actors supposed to do in the meantime?!

Geeta Citygirl: Good question, Puja.

Sunil Malhotra:

Push like hell, Puja.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Persist, be tenacious.  Hone your craft.

Sunil Malhotra:

Get seen, be seen in anything. Just be visible.  I’ve noticed that most actors of color who are not stars broke through with roles based on what was readily apparent – a combination of their ethnicity/race and their specific type.  Just finishing a thought! :-)

Geeta Citygirl:

Shukria (thanks in Hindi) Sunil.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Some writing has pandered to the undeveloped mainstream tastes.

Geeta Citygirl:

I would say that we have a responsibility to ourselves – the artists within. That artist is our creative force. We must find ways to nurture and help that artist within.

Puja Lalmalani:

I also think we should support one another—i.e. –Anuvab and Geeta…me giving your scripts to Carey Perloff here at A.C.T. in San Francisco.

Geeta Citygirl:

Right on, Lady Puja.  While at the same time, helping to break those negative stereotypes.

Sunil Malhotra:

Yes.

Geeta Citygirl:

In the past 3-5 years, there has been an explosion of South Asian/desi arts groups as well as South Asian/desi themed films.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Children of immigrants growing up!

Geeta Citygirl:

What are your thoughts on their place in the mainstream arts world? What do they mean to you?

Puja Lalmalani:

I think as far as film goes, eventually everything will melt into the genre of independent filmmaking as opposed to “Indo-American films”…and like all indie films, some will get attention for being good work as some will not—but we’ll stop looking at them as the latest film in “indo-American filmmaking”….I think people have stopped caring about this as a genre already….which shows an evolution as South Asian artists/art making goes.

Sunil Malhotra:

I think it’s important to nurture the behind the scenes people – writers and directors – but what I think is lacking is a place where directors and actors can stage works that don’t normally have South Asians in them, but would be a great spin if they did -merging name recognition of the play with something new with the cast.  That’s because the “genre” is very limited right now, if you can call it a genre.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

I think we all need to examine how we want to participate in the mainstream – do we want fame or do we want to express the truth?

Geeta Citygirl:

Interesting question, Sunita.  I think there are several parts to this puzzle… I know we all agree that all art is political.

Puja Lalmalani:

Sunil–what could that place be where directors and actors can stage works that don’t normally have South Asians in them? I’m unclear about this.

Sunil Malhotra:

For example, most South Asian theatre companies only spend time developing writers. While this is VERY important, I think it’s also important for those same venues to stage known works, where the writing is of a high standard, to showcase.  The talents of SA actors and directors, too.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

M. Night Shyamalan just writes stories – he is not “bound’ by his ethnicity. Is he doing justice to his ethnic community?

Puja Lalmalani:

And yet, he will never be the Spike Lee of his community, either–which isn’t expected of him, either.  It’s just a role he hasn’t played yet–or a responsibility he doesn’t care for.

Sunil Malhotra:

I think M. Night is an example of our expectations as artists – that when someone makes it, they must pull us all up.

Puja Lalmalani:

But, a Spike Lee for the South Asians couldn’t hurt the rest of the artistic community–someone to rise up to that challenge to build and nurture our community.  I don’t think that’s expected–but if they do make it and choose to pull others up, they are ultimately pulling themselves up, too…..and contributing to the community.

Sunil Malhotra:

I agree – but that must be true to their vision as an artist, too, and we can’t assume that because they’re South Asian, that it will be…

Puja Lalmalani:

Right, Sunil–and that goes back to the point that just because we’re South Asian, doesn’t mean we will or have to share the same artistic vision–which is an assumption that’s often made by ourselves and the mainstream.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

But M. Night succeeds because he is masterful. My point is we should be good at our craft first, and are we?

Sunil Malhotra:

Right, Sunita, and I would argue that as a community, we’re very much still growing.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Specifically as artists, we are still growing.

Puja Lalmalani:

And yet we’ve had very few opportunities to really showcase ourselves to the mainstream—i.e. big films, Broadway etc.

Geeta Citygirl:

This all reminds me of a debate I attended at Town Hall in January 1997 called “On Cultural Power” with August Wilson, Robert Brustein & Anna Deveare-Smith.  Except at that time, the question of race was BLACK AND WHITE.  There was no talk of brown folks or others…

Sunil Malhotra:

I’m so tired of race being just black and white, it isn’t.  We must shift the paradigm!

Geeta Citygirl:

And I agree – I think it’s changing. We have to talk about it for the shift to happen.

Sunil Malhotra:

Race is a topic most people in America are afraid to discuss.  So broadening the discussion is an uphill battle to say the least.

Puja Lalmalani:

It’s not just about race, though–it’s about gender, sexuality–I mean, it’s only recently that something like Will and Grace has put gay men into American households.  Along with gender, sexuality, there’s class, too.

Geeta Citygirl:

Do you think that race is the largest category of identification, the primary thing that establishes perceptions of you by yourself and from others?

Sunil Malhotra:

Yes, Citygirl.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

It sure feels like it here in the East Coast.

Geeta Citygirl:

But I, too, agree with Puja about gender, class, sexuality –

Sunil Malhotra:

Race and class are more “dangerous” to talk about than gender and sexuality these days, which is to say that the latter haven’t been dangerous to talk about.

Puja Lalmalani:

For me, yes, being South Asian is the primary thing that establishes perceptions and expectations.

Geeta Citygirl:

As a woman-of-size, I often think THAT is my biggest roadblock. I often think the desi thing is secondary…

Sunil Malhotra:

To be a woman of color in the mainstream, it seems you have to be ready to be exoticized.

Puja Lalmalani:

And hair loss–how often do see balding men in film 😉  In leading roles that is.

Sunil Malhotra:

They all wear wigs or shave it all :-)

Puja Lalmalani:

AGE is a HUGE thing, too–especially for women.

Sunil Malhotra:

Definitely.

Geeta Citygirl:

Absolutely, Puja. I just saw Rosanna Arquette’s documentary Searching for Debra Winger and it’s amazing to hear stories from “older” women — girls in their 40’s.

Sunil Malhotra:

That was a good documentary.

Puja Lalmalani:

I saw that, too–that was awesome.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

US standards are rather limiting. Foreign films and theater have more diverse standards, yes?

Anuvab Pal:

I feel it’s strongest in contemporary TV and film.  The idea of race, class and gender.  The “specific look, if you will, that a terrorist should look a certain way and a cab driver should look a certain way.

Geeta Citygirl:

So Anuvab, I’m still anxious to hear your reply about who you write for — keeping in mind all these perceptions we have to combat.  The rest of you, take a breath, a sip of water and exhale…

Anuvab Pal:

The point is that perceptions won’t change if we don’t start changing them.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

We have so much responsibility as artists.

Geeta Citygirl:

In your plays, are you writing with this in mind? And whose perceptions are we trying to change Anuvab?  Master Pal – keep thinking and holler back about this.

Puja Lalmalani:

So, Anuvab, would you say you would like to see more “responsibility” from people in power, such as M. Night?  Sunita, that question is for you, too….since you brought up the important issue of responsibility.  And for Sunil and Citygirl, of course.

Anuvab Pal:

I don’t think responsibility can be forced on anyone – if people feel strongly about making a cultural statement, then it will be seen in their work, like the kind of stuff Geeta is doing.

Sunil Malhotra:

I agree.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

The artist’s first responsibility is to his/her craft – to express some truth and express it well – integrity.

Anuvab Pal:

And I don’t think any of us were ready for the surge of South Asian popularity, but it’s here.  And largely because of the work we’re up to, I think all of us…

Sunita S. Mukhi:

But we do love this surge and should take advantage of it.

Anuvab Pal:

I mean ten years ago, there were African American actors playing us.

Sunil Malhotra:

There were white actors playing us!

Anuvab Pal:

And now we have 2 blockbuster films and a Broadway show.  And the audience will respond.

Sunil Malhotra:

Which, by the way, they still have white and black actors read parts that are Indian.  At least in LA.

Geeta Citygirl:

Let’s see how Tara Rubin Casting casts Bombay Dreams… I think that should be VERY interesting…

Anuvab Pal:

The audience is out there, and if we keep putting out good work, regardless of ethnic make up, people will come.  The hard reality is that no one will do it for us – because they have no idea who we are.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Do we know who we are?

Sunil Malhotra:

Very true, Anuvab.  The nature of that show itself – playing on Bollywood and images of a poor India is an example of perception by the mainstream of South Asia.

Anuvab Pal:

By they, I mean the mainstream casting people.  And even literary managers at theatres and people who read and write scripts, etc.  Because they will use their own notions of defining a culture.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

We also stereotype ourselves.

Anuvab Pal:

That’s true, Sunita.

Geeta Citygirl:

Do any of you feel you HAD TO educate yourselves about your SA roots because it was expected you would create with that in mind? Or that you would speak a South Asian language or know everything about the history.

Sunil Malhotra:

If I can’t correct a wrong notion because I don’t know, nothing good happens, but I don’t want to create just out of my South Asian identity, my identity is made up of more than just that (as I’m sure you’d all agree).

Anuvab Pal:

Good point, Sunil.

Geeta Citygirl:

As a native New Yorker, I really just identified with being a dancer and a New Yorker. That is who I was. I didn’t know too much about my roots. When I went to college and people started assuming things, then I thought that I needed to know more.

Puja Lalmalani:

I agree, Geeta.
Sunil Malhotra:

Me, too, Citygirl.  The same applies when a casting director or a producer assumes something – you have to know better if they don’t.

Puja Lalmalani:

I identify more with being a Midwesterner than someone with “South Asian roots.”  And I identify with the term Indian-American more than “Indian roots.”

Sunil Malhotra:

Definitely more American than not.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Multiculturalism for all its positive points has also divided us, made us ethnicity conscious.  I see myself as possessing Indianness, something I can tuck away or put on.

Anuvab Pal:

The fact is one’s roots don’t go away.  They find some way to creep into one’s work.

Geeta Citygirl:

But one’s roots do not completely define oneself.

Anuvab Pal:

Perhaps I only speak in writing, but I think it’s true for other disciplines as well.  It’s just more cultural pot to draw from.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

It goes back to Sunil’s point about having different aspects of one’s identity, rather than just ethnicity.

Anuvab Pal:

Like an Akram Khan, for example.  Or with fusion music, I suppose.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Wasn’t that a great performance?

Sunil Malhotra:

That’s when great stuff happens.

Geeta Citygirl:

Absolutely – great. For the longest time, I really identified as someone who was born in the city and moved out to the burbs.

Anuvab Pal:

The hard part is overcoming the “assumptions” we’ve been talking about.

Geeta Citygirl:

The question of roots is complex.

Puja Lalmalani:

I do feel our roots contribute to our work, Anuvab, but part of our work–especially as actors–is to play characters different from ourselves….to capture the universal truth of what it is to be human. So, when a casting director only lets me be “Indian” because I’m Indian, I feel like I’m not able to do my work, the full range of my work, and ultimately, I’m not achieving the purpose of the work to begin with.

Anuvab Pal:

Exactly.  Good point, Puja.

Geeta Citygirl:

I believe many of the SA artists born and/or raised here in the US do not even know the history of theater of India.  So how can they be expected to REPRESENT something?  They are American – apple pie.

Anuvab Pal:

And no one can see that a Burmese or Indian or Thai ER doctor can portray the basic struggles.

Geeta Citygirl:

I believe that notions of originality reinforce our idea of separate nations, each owning its unique and distinct cultures.  Something I’ve been thinking about is the term Sunita mentioned earlier – intercultural or multicultural.  This idea of the influence and adaptation across cultures isn’t new. The change now is the manner in which it is regarded.  So do we all identify with being an intercultural and multicultural artist?

Anuvab Pal:

Theatre is a great example,, Geeta.  We see so many plays written in the “western” form but with South Asian themes.  You see Mamet style writing set in houses in Bombay or Goa.

Sunil Malhotra:

Or movies like Titanic which are so Bollywood in terms of melodrama.

Anuvab Pal:

Exactly.

Geeta Citygirl:

Right – so there’s a bleeding of one culture into another – just like there is no pure race, similarly no pure culture…

Anuvab Pal:

Especially, nowadays.

Geeta Citygirl:

We are made up of more than just our DNA.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

We are more than our ethnicities.

Geeta Citygirl:

Our experiences play a large role in who we are.

Sunil Malhotra:

One feeds the other.

Anuvab Pal:

With so many people living as “expats” if you will. and then there’s a second generation.  Everything forms artistic fodder.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

We are fortunate to have experienced such fluidity, what Salman Rushdie’s describes as the migrant sensibility.

Anuvab Pal:

And I think migrancy is great for art because it always has a perspective from the outside, looking in, and at the same time, being an insider.

Puja Lalmalani:

Well-said, Anuvab.

Anuvab Pal:

Perhaps, I’m being optimistic but I really feel we, the people in this chat room, and our friends, sit on the cutting edge of making huge change in the perceptions of the rest of the world through American art.  We have to be true to ourselves and our experiences as Americans and tell our universal stories in the American mainstream.

Geeta Citygirl:

I hope we do that Anuvab.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

A huge responsibility!!!

Puja Lalmalani:

Yes, this room is charged with cutting edge thoughts and people….. :-)  And yet, we still have to struggle to find a place for this multicultural identity in the mainstream business of theatre/film so that our work can get out there…. It’s easy to have ideologies and philosophies, but it’s hard to find a place for them in the world or business that doesn’t understand or share those same philosophies–or that are just not aware that such progressive ideologies exist.

Anuvab Pal:

That is the undeniable truth, Puja.

Sunil Malhotra:

We’ve traveled far, but we have a long way to go.

Geeta Citygirl:

Applause for those thoughts!

Anuvab Pal:

I have a question for the actors actually.  Do you feel like perceptions are changing when you go into auditions now after Monsoon Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham and all that?

Geeta Citygirl:

Honestly, not really.

Sunil Malhotra:

So, so.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

No, not really.

Geeta Citygirl:

I recently had an audition and was asked to wear a Burqa (to play a Muslim) and then the director asked me if I could ALSO wear “that dot” (bindi) on my head.  What amazes me is the ignorance of so many people in this business.  How do people not understand that a Burqa or Hijab is a head scarf worn by some Muslim women and that Islam is a different religion than Hinduism?  The bindi, which comes from the Sanskrit word, ‘bindu’ means a dot or drop.  It used to be regarded as auspicious and in India, a red bindi meant a woman was married.  Now the bindi has become a fashion statement – worn by any/all women in all kinds of designs, colors, shapes, etc.  We’ve seen it cross over here with trendsetters like Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, Madonna, Shania Twain and tons of others.  But for casting people, costume designers, writers, etc to not understand the very different religious cultural symbols, is ridiculous.  And how does that ignorance play into what we get called in for?

Sunil Malhotra:

We still get called in for a lot of the same stuff, but there is a slightly bigger presence in terms of day player roles on TV – but very slight.

Puja Lalmalani:

Well, we feel like Monsoon Wedding and Beckham were milestones, but that’s because we’re artists and we keep up with what’s going on- – especially as it pertains to other work by and about South Asians, but mainstream America needs a bigger movie than either of those for things to change- – – – and it will take film not theatre for perceptions to change.  That’s just my opinion.

Sunil Malhotra:

They were just movies that seem more like anomalies to many in the mainstream- unless we have one of these discussions.  : – )  Then they say those movies are changing everything.  Films move faster culturally than does TV.

Geeta Citygirl:

I think the change will happen when, as Sunil and many of us brought up, we are in positions to showcase ourselves in ALL roles — and have South Asian-looking faces telling all stories.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Let us really be honest, are we really talented, or do we just yearn to be seen? Somehow I feel we are not critical enough about ourselves.

Anuvab Pal:

That’s a great point, Sunita.

Sunil Malhotra:

Our community is growing and there are a lot of growing pains – but there are a lot of talented people ripe for picking now, too.

Geeta Citygirl:

Sunita! I think many talented people do go unnoticed and I believe it’s because we are typecast.

Sunil Malhotra:

Absolutely, Citygirl.

Puja Lalmalani:

I think many talented people go unnoticed, and I think that’s just life and luck.  And many untalented people are “seen” and that, too, is just life and luck.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

And many think they should act or perform just because they are desi or want to.

Anuvab Pal:

Sunita, could we then say, that if our work was good enough, people would notice more?  I sometimes feel that way about my work.

Sunil Malhotra:

To question your ability is what an artist does – but that doesn’t mean you don’t have ability.  And frankly, talent is on the bottom of the list.

Geeta Citygirl:

Anuvab – I think GOOD WORK is also not always seen simply due to marketing/publicity and MONEY!  I see great films and great theater and often times, very few others know about it. Why?

Sunita S. Mukhi:

What I mean is let’s make our work really good, then be smart about marketing it. But let us not cry foul before that.

Anuvab Pal:

Agree with all that – but good work does shine though.

Sunil Malhotra:

It’s persistence, push and being seen at the right time by the right people for the right thing.  Good work does shine through – but only when that shine has a chance to be seen.

Anuvab Pal:
And we’re pretty good at marketing our stuff – I mean, most South Asian stuff I go to is always sold out.  There’s a huge audience in NY and LA.

Geeta Citygirl:

Yes, Anuvab but that, too, is because there is a South Asian community that’s got MAD MONEY and will spend big bucks to be seen – it’s all political and social drama.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Indeed, I think we need producers who are enlightened about these issues.  We need to penetrate every aspect of the industry – from actor to writer to producer.

Geeta Citygirl:

Like Martha Graham wrote to Agnes DeMille, “There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”

Puja Lalmalani:

At the end of the day, for an artist, creating art is like “breathing”….and whether or not, you have the right marketing, talent, or whatever, you’ll have to go on breathing….does that make sense? I know it sounds a little hokey.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

No, Puja, you are right, we need to do this work.

Geeta Citygirl:

I agree, Lady Puja!  Breathe we must always do…

Puja Lalmalani:

There are good audiences everywhere, you guys–I spent the summer in Chicago and they are THIRSTY for stories like the ones we can tell.

Sunil Malhotra:

Puja, good point – You’re right about audiences – they are hungry for our stuff when it’s done well, but the question is whether you want to be an artist in the mainstream or not – to do that you have to push harder to be seen.  That doesn’t take away from you as an artist, though.

Puja Lalmalani:

You’re right, Sunil, we have to be “hustlers,” though for most artists that does not come naturally.

Anuvab Pal:

This has happened to me over a few years and I wanted to share it with you guys to see how you felt.  From starting out with the kind of plays I really wanted to write, I have come to realize that a lot is “how to play the game.”  And that has really detracted from the real work that artists want to do.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

How to play the game is in every profession – art is not sacred I am sad to admit.

Puja Lalmalani:

The game–good point, Anuvab…that’s a whole other issue.

Sunil Malhotra:

The challenge is not just to create the art but to create it in that context.

Geeta Citygirl:

Do you really think that Sunita? I believe that art (separate from the hustle) is indeed sacred.  The BUSINESS part of it is what makes it a business.  Another important consideration is that we are all conscious of the process.  The uncertainties, misdirections, rethinkings, frustrations…

Puja Lalmalani:

Have you guys read The Colored Museum?

Geeta Citygirl:

Yes.

Sunil Malhotra:

No, tell me about it.

Puja Lalmalani:

Just bringing it up because George C. Wolfe–who is the Artistic Director of the Public Theatre–sort of is an example of someone that has really risen up in the mainstream theatre (He is African-American).  Anuvab, his work is an example of what you’re talking about.  And that comes down to “Who is your audience?”

Geeta Citygirl:

Wolfe’s amazingly political and humorous play… really sheds light on the experience of African Americans.

Puja Lalmalani:

Anuvab, if you haven’t read it, read it and try to answer the question: Did he write it for a “white audience” or a “black audience?”

Geeta Citygirl:

Good suggestion, Puja. Each of us can read it and ask that question.

Sunil Malhotra:

Good art always seems like it was made for you.

Puja Lalmalani:

Well-put, Sunil–you’re absolutely right about that….it does feel like it was made for you and that you could “access” it somehow….find your way in.  That play launched his career–and yet, I do believe part of its success was that he was extremely conscious of being successful in the mainstream theatre and conscious of his audience.

Sunil Malhotra:

But ultimately, you do it for yourself too, don’t you?

Puja Lalmalani:

Well-put, Sunil–you’re absolutely right about that….it does feel like it was made for you and that you could “access” it somehow….find your way in.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

So people, who do we want our audience to be?

Puja Lalmalani:

That is the million dollar question, Sunita.

Geeta Citygirl:

That, too, Sunita is not easy. I think at SALAAM, my targeted audience is the progressive NYC artists/activists. I also recognize that will need to broaden as SALAAM grows up.  I feel I am in a position to help deal with the assumptions by producing works that CHALLENGE and take risks.

Puja Lalmalani:

But, now look at something like Def Poetry Jam.  Who would have thought that show could have an audience as large and as “Broadway” as it did?  Audiences can surprise us.  Their interests can surprise us, and we can pique their interests if what we do is engaging.

Geeta Citygirl:

Def Poetry Jam has Russell Simmons and Russell has mad loot – money! That, too, helps break boundaries,–economic class.

Puja Lalmalani:

Yes, but would it have made it on Broadway, if there wasn’t an audience for it?  If money is the only thing that can take us to Broadway, then the South Asian community could have been on Broadway a long time ago.

Geeta Citygirl:

Well Puja, I also think Russell did it at a time that Hip Hop is American culture.  It’s no longer on the sidelines- Hip hop is not a risk because it’s everywhere- – from the East Coast to the West and the Midwest.

Sunil Malhotra:

That’s true, Citygirl.

Sunita S. Mukhi

We can create taste, take that risk, enlighten.

Puja Lalmalani:

There’s very little that’s risky about Broadway, though. What about Bombay Dreams?–Bombay Dreams isn’t American culture–I’m not even sure if it’s Indian culture!

Geeta Citygirl:

My take on Bombay Dreams is that Bollywood is very hot on the fashion runways and in hip-hop music. You hear it on the radio all the time — a sampling of Lata Mangeshkar… so hopefully for the producers of that show, they’ll get an audience that’s aware of the trend and get into the whole Bollywood Bombay Dreams trip.  As actors/directors/writers/producers, we should be conscious of the work we choose to do.  Whether we like it or not, everything we do is a political statement – even when we think we’re not making a statement, we are.

Sunil Malhotra:

The “different” intrigues an audience, brings them in. The “universal” keeps them in their seats and makes them tell their friends about it.

Anuvab Pal:

I think the moment we assume things about an audience, we cater to them and that takes away from originality.    If one is crazy enough to think of something original and talented enough to make it great work, then one should trust instinct.  UrinetownAvenue Q.  If someone told me 6 months ago that a bunch of puppets would rule Broadway, I’d start laughing.

Puja Lalmalani:

I miss NYC!

Sunil Malhotra:

Me too!!!

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Me three.

Puja Lalmalani:

Sorry to digress, but I really do….

Anuvab Pal:

You guys stop complaining!  You have warm weather and trees.  It was freezing in the thirties this week.  This city is nuts – but brilliant as well.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Try living the in burbs, pal.

Anuvab Pal:

I’ll try not to, Sunita.

Geeta Citygirl:

I think it’s superMINT that we’ve got two folks who are holding it down out in LA and San Francisco. The more we spread out, the more change will take place nationwide…

Puja Lalmalani:

Yes, you’re right, Citygirl.  Getting to the LA thing…though….I think it’s great that someone that thinks like you, Sunil, is in LA.

Sunil Malhotra:

What do you mean?

Puja Lalmalani:

Do you feel like a lot of what we’ve been talking about are thoughts echoed in LA?  What’s the West Coast vibe like?

Sunil Malhotra:

Puja, it is similar, but here it’s all about fighting to get seen – how you develop your talent is your thing, you’re expected to be better than perfect the first time out.  So when I talk about pushing yourself out there, that is very real here, or you won’t get anywhere, no matter your talent and ability.

Puja Lalmalani:

I could see how LA would be like that….

Sunil Malhotra:

That’s the short answer, we can talk more later.

Anuvab Pal:

I have a question- do you think South Asian work will ever be as popular here as in Britain?  And if it isn’t, is that because we don’t have the numbers?

Geeta Citygirl:

“Ever”, Anuvab?

Anuvab Pal:

Yes.

Sunil Malhotra:

Anuvab, in Britain we are more of the population than here, so it will take a lot longer, but it’s possible.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

We don’t have the history.

Geeta Citygirl:

Well, I believe that the history of our community in Britain is VERY different than it is in this country.

Anuvab Pal:

True, Citygirl.  In about 20 years, which for me, is “ever”, I guess.

Puja Lalmalani:

In some ways, we will get there faster than in Britain.  We don’t have any bad history to work against.  We don’t have the struggles that African-Americans have–the past history plays into that.  We have our own struggles though.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Aha! Immigrant history is steeped in racism.

Anuvab Pal:

So, do you think, Sunita, if Goodness Gracious Me were done here, it wouldn’t be that big?

Sunil Malhotra:

They’re already doing it here – they brought that show here, but with Latinos.

Anuvab Pal:

Ah! c’est la vie.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

Goodness Gracious Me-“U.S. style” will go over all of mainstream’s head.

Geeta Citygirl:

So, friends, as we come to a close of this really wonderful chat, I think this conversation could go on and on, but I want to end it here with a final question for each of you.  What are you doing right now to help combat assumptions and expectations made of you and our community as a whole? School, work, projects?  Final thoughts about what you are up to…

Sunita S. Mukhi:

I am trying to bring Asian-ness  to a segregated part of Long Island. My own personal work is always risky and bold, truthful.

Anuvab Pal:

I’ve just finished a play called FATWA – it explores one aspect of relations between US and Islam – that between two artists. It attempts to be a comedy. I’m in search of a theatre!!! !;-)

Puja Lalmalani:

Geeta, to answer your question….what I am doing and what I will continue to do no matter how much or little my own work gets recognized is to help others…..on whatever level I possibly can, whether that means forwarding a casting call, or connecting two people- – I feel it’s my responsibility to strengthen and unite the South Asian artistic community so that we can collectively be more successful.

Sunil Malhotra:

A couple things. I’m part of a theatre company (Will & Co.) that does classical adaptations and Shakespeare for students K-12. The company casts very diversely.  It’s great because kids and their parents see leads and classic characters played by people who look different than maybe what they see in the movies or TV.  Also, I’m just getting ready for the release of my next film, The Arrangement, next year, and trying to use that to get into some more mainstream doors here in LA.

Geeta Citygirl:

Great answers.  I too, like Puja, am continuing to balance my Lady Libra scales by helping and supporting other creative folks while maintaining my own craft as a creative spirit. And Master Pal, your biggest fan – SALAAM Theatre is here waiting, so let’s talk about FATWA.

Anuvab Pal:

Will call you, Citygirl – you know without your help lots of writers wouldn’t be artists- Happy Diwali, gang.

Sunil Malhotra:

Lots of artists get seen through SALAAM, wish I was there!

Geeta Citygirl:

Let me take a moment to thank our friends Sharon Jensen and Adam Moore at NTCP for helping make possible the conversation we had today.  I would also like to extend my personal thanks to Nancy Kim at the NTCP for serving as technical facilitator for this cyber roundtable discussion.

Puja Lalmalani:

Thanks– this has been really insightful, and I hope that we continue these sorts of conversations with others wherever we all are–they are so very important.

Sunita S. Mukhi:

This was such a thrill, Geeta!  THANK YOU!  I have got to go and ablute for diwali pooja – be prosperous guys!

Puja Lalmalani:

Happy Diwali, Sunita–talk to you soon!

Anuvab Pal:

Sunil, congratulations on Where’s the Party Yaar?

Sunil Malhotra:

Thanks, Anuvab!

Geeta Citygirl:

Again remember, this is just the start of a conversation we should all continue to have in our own little parts of the country — east, west, north, south – we WILL help make a revolutionary change — it’s already happening.

Sunil Malhotra:

I had a great time doing this, let’s do it again soon.  The talk and the revolution 😉

Puja Lalmalani:

That’s beautiful, Sunil.

Geeta Citygirl:

“Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love” – Che Guevara

Puja Lalmalani:

Let’s riot in the name of the arts!  Kidding, kidding!  A figurative riot would be nice, though.

Geeta Citygirl:

“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.” Rabindranath Tagore

Sunil Malhotra:

Bye, Citygirl.  Take care, everybody. Until we meet again.

Puja Lalmalani:National Diversity Forum Main Pagestrong>

Bye! Thanks, again!