Making waves in Hollywood with the pending release of her very first homegrown film, Americanizing Shelley, this self-professed lioness has not only starred in the film, but written the screenplay and produced it in-house at her own studio, American Pride Film Group. Not satisfied with just the movie-making process, she went one step further to get the feature picked up by distribution moghul, iDream Independent Pictures, which was responsible for the distribution of Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham.
Hailed by critics as ‘sweet, soulful and full of heart’ (The Washington Times, August 2006), Americanizing Shelley is a lighthearted comedy about finding oneself in order to find love. The movie stars Gujral in the title role alongside Hollywood heavies Beau Bridges, of The Fabulous Baker Boys fame, and Dallas star, Morgan Brittany.
Quite the ANOKHI story, Gujral is the only South Asian woman in Hollywood who owns and runs her own production studio, writes her own scripts, acts in her own movies and produces her own films. Read on to discover how she did it, and why.
You’re part East Indian, Latin and Tibetan. That’s one hell of a mix! What’s the story?
I’m predominantly East Indian. My dad is a Sikh. I don’t know if you know about Sikhs, it’s a religion…
Well I hope I know about them since I am half one myself.
Oh you are?!
Last time I checked. My dad is Sikh.
Hey, I never meet anyone that is Sikh in this industry, how cool!
Really? Well, let’s see, there’s at least three of us: you, me and Gurinder Chaddha—an actor, a publisher and a director.
How cool! I hardly ever meet another Sikh in this industry. I’m so glad to meet you.
And me, you, darling.
So I don’t have to explain Sikhism to you then. Great. Back to your question. So my dad is Sikh and my mother is part Tibetan and part Portuguese.
How have all of these different cultures contributed to your life, both positively and negatively?
There is so much diversity everywhere in the world now. Way back when, we used to believe that America was a huge melting pot, but today, no matter where you go — Paris, Thailand, Australia, India you see people of different cultures dating, married. You see offspring that are multi-ethnic as opposed to mono-ethnic, which was the case more so when I was growing up. What this exposure does for you is make you more global as an individual, which is particularly helpful in the entertainment business where as an actor, you have to portray a varied spectrum of ethnicities and roles for a better chance to work.
So your multi-ethnic background has, no doubt, been a great learning ground for you to pull from when probing and delving into different roles in your career?
Absolutely. It’s like growing up in a bi or multilingual household. Children from those exposures find it a lot easier to pick up other languages than those who grew up with only one.
Having been brought up in the West, gone to school in the West, and even having gotten your production/acting degree from the University of West Florida, how did you end up in a big blockbuster Bollywood flick, Kaante, when virtually all western-educated South Asian actors go the Hollywood route?
Well, I played the role of Renu Mathur, and the producers of Kaante decided that that was going to be the only role that they were going to cast in the West.
Because Renu was a drug junkie and an evil bitch and…
Tell me what you really think of her.
(Laughs) Ha! You’re funny. I know it’s a bit harsh but that was how the role was written. She had to be portrayed with a certain degree of harshness, which, when I was at the audition, I was told they couldn’t find in a Bollywood actress…convincingly.
Well you know why that is, right?
Because most Bollywood actresses go to beauty school, not acting school.
I know! It’s like acting 101 — that’s all it takes! Anyway, so they cast the role here and every actress in Hollywood who was South Asian went and read for the part. I was the fortunate one.
Yep, you probably played the bitch really well right, the forceful Sikh that you are?!
(Laughs) You know, I did OK!
But seriously, I’m very proud of you as I really love to hear these stories of how our girls here in the West are able to infiltrate that market because Bollywood is such a tight knit industry and its very difficult to be placed on their radar. There’s been so much emphasis of late on Bollywood actresses coming out here (Aishwarya Rai, Shilpa Shetty), but what about our homegrown talent being able to go to Bollywood. I think it should be a two-way street.
Absolutely! Actually, the funny part about it is that when we premiered Kaante, I went to Mumbai for the premiere and, actually there’s a guy in Mumbai whose doing really well right now, Nagesh Kookanoor, a really close acquaintance of mine. We met for coffee when I got back, and we were laughing because we both had similar experiences when we were in Bollywood. Right after the premiere, I had some people come up to me and say that they had a role for me. Now, I had already been pre-warned to be careful while I was in Bollywood, so I would set up meetings with them in the coffee shop of my hotel because I didn’t want to be put in a position of vulnerability by going to them. They would arrive, and they would literally take out these bundles of rupees and throw them across the table to me and say, ‘This is your advance’.
Wow! Really? I guess I’m in the wrong industry.
(Laughs). This also happened to Nagesh. I mean, it wasn’t because they wanted something from me, if you know what I mean, but this is literally the way they do business.
So, explain the process for those of us who are uninitiated.
Well, so the way it works is that they’ll approach you and say that they want you to be in a film. They’ll give you the roll of rupees they brought with them as an advance. Then I would ask, ‘Where’s the script?’ and they would say, ‘We’re still working on it’. And I would say, ‘You’re casting without a script?’ I would ask them when they would need me, and they would vaguely respond, ‘Somewhere between April 2003 and April 2004’. I’d never heard of having to book off an entire year for one movie when we do them in a matter of weeks here in Hollywood.
Wow! No wonder people are so laidback over there.
I know. They have a different way of working, and actors over there are used to this so it works for them. But for those of us who are used to acting in Hollywood, where the turnaround time is very short and everything is pre-scripted and organized, it’s hard for us to accept this work ethic. I’m sure that it must be as equally difficult for Bollywood actresses to work the way we do with all the prep.
So no more Bollywood movies after Kaante?
I actually had five offers.
So what happened?
It’s so much easier for Bollywood actors to come to Hollywood than the other way around because everything is organized for them by their Hollywood managers. But in India, it’s different. They don’t have managers there—they just have secretaries. I would have to do everything myself, and it’s just more hassle than I wanted to deal with.
So your focus is Hollywood?
And boy is it ever! You’ve been workin’ it! You’ve played a number of TV roles in hit series like The Agency, Family Law and Passions. Have they all been Indian characters or have you been fortunate enough not to be typecast?
I’ve been lucky because amongst others, I’ve played Iranian, Pakistani, Latin and German-Samoan.
Your ability to play these very differing roles with conviction, I’m assuming, is in part because of your multi-ethnic background?
In part yes, but in part (pause) I heard Kate Winslet sum it up perfectly. She said that being able to portray a part convincingly has 50 percent to do with talent and 50 percent to do with confidence. You have to believe that you can play the role before you can convince anyone else of your authenticity. Also, human reactions like laughter, tears, happiness and sadness are not culturally defined, they’re simply organic.
I’ve interviewed numerous Indian actors in the past who are striving for Hollywood careers or who are well on their way, and the most common hurdle they face is typecasting. It sounds like this has not been the case for you.
I’ve been very fortunate in that regard but just like everyone else, I went through a period earlier on in my career where I went to about a dozen different auditions and I was to play a Middle Eastern woman, and I was expected to cry at the drop of a hat. Now, I had a real problem with that because although we come from the East, we’re not all down-trodden and victimized. A lot of us are very strong women, and we have a great sense of humour but no one wants to know that we are normal. They’re only interested in the drama. As a matter of fact, I said to one of the casting directors, ‘Do you realize that India had a female prime minister [Indira Gandhi] over two decades ago and the U.S. still has never entertained the fact that a woman could run the country?’
Isn’t it interesting that the victimization of women is always considered an eastern cultural-based problem when there are just as many women in the West who are victimized on a daily basis. Astounding numbers of women are raped, beaten and murdered on a daily basis out here. Suffice to say, victimization is not culturally defined. It’s not even gender defined. It’s defined by power or lack thereof.
And that’s the point. Human beings are really not that different from each other.
Today’s society is very global in nature on many levels, and cultures that were traditionally geographically defined in the past are now becoming globally fused. I was asked to speak at the closing night reception of the fourth annual Human Rights Film Festival here in Toronto recently and interestingly enough, the docu movie, John & Jane, was about the Americanization of workers at a call centre who were Indian and were being trained to speak and behave like Americans for their job.
Yes. What was interesting was that these Aboriginals were adopting this ‘new’ culture at the expense of their own. There hope was to acquire the American Dream—a better standard of life. This brings me to Americanizing Shelley, a movie you have written, produced and are playing the principal role of Shelley in. Why Americanize her?
Well, here’s the story of an Indian girl who turns 30 and, to her parents dismay, is still unmarried. To save her parents honour, Shelley decides to come to America and find her childhood friend and get married. The only problem is, he’s not interested in her. She’s a very traditional-looking Indian girl. On arriving, she sees that he wants nothing to do with her, but happens upon an American who decides to Americanize her . Then follows a lot of comedic interplay as the process progresses.
What is specifically done to Americanize Shelley’? Is this referring to her physical appearance going from traditional Indian garb to western clothing, or are we talking here about her values?
We’re talking everything, but more aesthetically than internally. It’s a comedy, so Americanizing her is meant to lend to the comedic nature of the movie as opposed to a really serious adoption of American values.
Is life supposed to be better for her now that she is aesthetically Americanized versus Indian-looking?
Without giving out spoilers, there’s a line in the movie where one of the Americans says to Shelley, ‘Americanized or not, you’re one of the most beautiful people that I’ve met.’ The serious message of this movie, if I was to pick one, is that at the end of the day we’re all just people and we deserve to be treated as such.
Do you think that the western culture and set of values is more conducive to acquiring a better standard of life?
No because one of the points of the movie is that she gets what she came looking for but doesn’t want it anymore. Also, I think better standard of life has to do with your definition of it. Economic standard of life is generally seen to be better for an average American than it is for an average Indian (in India). Also, people believe that American culture has more freedom than Indian culture, traditionally speaking, which in turn, is supposed to equate to a better standard of life, which in turn again, is believed to translate into happiness. We touch on this notion in the movie when Rob says, ‘Are people happy with all the restrictions you guys have back in India?’ Shelley says back to him, ‘With everything you have in your country, maybe there’s some Americans that are unhappy with their lives.’
In other words, a good standard of material life doesn’t give you a good standard of emotional and spiritual well-being, which is needed in order to strive for the best possible standard of living your life.
You got it!
You’re also the president of American Pride Films Group that produced this movie. How do you feel about having three very important responsibilities relating to the film — producer, scriptwriter and principal actor? Was it not conflicting to be both the business person behind the movie as well as the creative force? Isn’t it like amalgamating Church and State so to speak? How do you define the lines so as to not compromise one over the other?
It wasn’t easy. But nothing that you really want in life ever comes easy I don’t care who you are. Right?
Absolutely! From one woman with a dream to another.
I knew what I was going into, and I knew it was going to be a juggling act. I feel we have succeeded in putting together a very high calibre comedy for all ages. We can’t be the only ones that think this because we’re getting ready to produce two very huge movies — that I can’t talk about yet — but you don’t get to do that without people believing in your abilities.
True, and besides, if the reviews are anything to go by, I’ll have to agree. The critics are raving. How does that make you feel? You put your entire repertoire of skills out there. Isn’t that scary, especially if the movie bombs at the box office?
Not if you have nothing to lose.
You’re right. I’m assuming that you set up this company because of how difficult it is for ethnic actors to get versatile roles in Hollywood. So, you put yourself in a decision-making position and cast yourself as the central character. Very much like Purva Bedi did when she set up Disha Theatre in New York and now in L.A. It’s a very smart move to make opportunities happen for you rather than wait for them to happen to you.
Yes, well, the great thing about running your own studio or production company is that you get to be able to make movies with roles that you really want to play rather than those that Hollywood dictates for you. Also, it’s very gratifying to be able to cast other talented South Asian actors into great roles. Then, there’s also the fact that I have more control over retaining the authenticity of a script than having it become something it wasn’t meant to be.
You know Namrata, I’m not one for pitting gender and culture against each other, but I have to say, it’s wonderful to see that a woman of South Asian descent has been able to infiltrate a traditionally male-dominated industry. You’re quite the pioneer.
Why thank you Raj.
You’re most welcome!
I never looked at it that way, but you’re right. For me, it’s the love of making good movies and making opportunities happen for actors who otherwise may never get their break. It gets my juices flowing and keeps me going.
What about the fact that your premiere movie has been able to solidify distribution comparable to Bend it Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding and Bride & Prejudice?
Honestly, I’m still at the stage where I wake up in the morning and say ‘No way! Holy cow! That’s great!’ But on a serious note, I knew from the beginning that I had to make a movie that was competitive if I was going to get distribution. I had to make a watchable movie for the masses, so that’s what I did with Shelley
Considering that there have now been a number of movies in Hollywood that have Indian subject matter and that have paid dividends at the box office, I don’t feel that our movies should be pigeon-holed into the category of crossover movies anymore. I believe that our infancy is over, and we have finally graduated into having movies of any remote ‘Indianess’ in them being considered simply as movies that are either good or bad, just like the rest of Hollywood.
I absolutely agree, but what’s funny is that people see Bend It Like Beckham as the beginning of the Indian subject matter crossover movie, whereas I feel that happened a decade before in the 80s with movies like Mississippi Masala. I view Bend It Like Beckham as the movie which ended the notion that Indian subject matter movies are crossover, and that they are, as you said, just like any movie — simply good or bad movies.
You also sang and recorded a Bollywood meets country music fusion song Dancin’ In The Clouds. Isn’t this a first of its kind?
Yes it is. It’s one of the songs in the movie.
When will Americanizing Shelley be on the theatre circuit?
From the 4th of May in the U.S. And so far, we have it in 15 markets.
Is Canada one of those markets?
Canada is an additional market. There’s actually a bidding war going on right now, so it definitely will be in Canada. But as of now, I have no dates.
So we ll watch out for it here then. Other than acting and singing and running your production studio, what else do you do? Sleep maybe?
Occasionally! (pause). When you’re a creative person, I believe that you can do anything that requires you to extend your creativity You put yourself out there.
What’s this about the ‘Babe-of-the-Week’ title you bagged, and how did it feel to be the recipient of a title previously held by Heather Locklear, Jessica Simpson and Faith Hill?
Oh, this was back in 2005. I got a call saying that a whole bunch of bloggers were writing about me as GOB’s Babe-of-the-Week. When I found out what company I was in, I was like, ‘Wow!
Is there a babe in your life?
(Laughs). There’s all kinds of babes in my life. (Laughs)
I’m in a very special relationship.
If you could take different parts of Hollywood and Bollywood actors to make your perfect man, what parts from whom would you take to make Mr. Perfect and why?
Oooh, what a great question! Hmm. It would have to be someone who looked like Matt Damon, had Amitabh Bachchan’s personality, Javaid Jaffrey’s sense of humour, and top all of that off with the niceness of Ethan Hawke. If you were to put all of them into a blender, you’d have one hell of a guy
A straw please!
What, in your opinion, epitomizes perfection in a woman?
Me (Laughs). No seriously, I would take Indira Gandhi’s accomplishments, the strength of Heather Locklear and the looks of Aishwarya Rai and Scarlett Johanssen.
What about you would you say is perfection or as near to?
I think my touch with reality
First published in Spring 2007 issue, www.AnokhiMagazine.com.
Stephen Harvey, Courtesy of American Pride Films Group
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