Almost two decades after she made her screen debut in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala with Denzel Washington, actor Sarita Choudhury appears in the emotional drama For Real. Directed by debutante Sona Jain, the film features original music by tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain.
Choudhury has acted in two other films by Nair: Kama Sutra and The Perez Family, as well as several other American indie films and television serials. But For Real will be her first Indian production. Born to an English mother and a Bengali father, and educated in Italy, Canada and the UK, Choudhury has appeared in movies such as John Cassavetes’ Gloria, Andrew Davis’ A Perfect Murder and M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, and shared the screen with the likes of Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas.
She tells Lounge about her early experiences of working with Nair, her new film, and all that transpired in between. Edited excerpts:
Tell us more about your role in ‘For Real’.
I play a mother of two who gives up her singing career in London to move to Delhi and be a housewife. Her static life leads to such a change in her character that her six-year-old daughter begins to believe that she is an alien. It’s interesting in the sense that kids often find recourse in fantasy when things are wrong. It’s a domestic drama with a thriller undertone.
Set: Choudhury (above) makes her Indian debut in For Real (top,?left). Priyanka Parashar/Mint
After the three films with Nair, you’ve played everything from a Chilean to an Arab and an Israeli. Was this role interesting because it was closer to your own heritage?
On one level, I didn’t have to tweak my British accent for this one! But this character is so restrained that she’s not me at all. Mira and I are always trying to make something work, but after those early films she’s either needed a “parent” or a “next-gen” character and I haven’t fit into either.
You’ve had your hands full with independent films, television and theatre. What made you take up an Indian film after all these years?
I’ve always wanted to do an Indian film but I didn’t want to come to India and pretend that I could play an average Bombay girl. It was about finding the right kind of role, and when I read Sona’s script I was impressed by its maturity and nuance.
Tell us about your first meeting with Nair.
I was 23 and just out of film school and it was the first audition I was ever going for. We hit it off so well but I was totally sure that I wouldn’t get the role. Then, after an intense three-day audition, she told me I had the role. I moved to America and she became my mentor. It was like seeing myself in the future. As a half-Indian in a white society you don’t see an example of yourself and I’d never had anyone like her around me visually.
Were you intimidated shooting with Denzel Washington?
Hell, yes! He’d already won an Oscar for his role in Glory. I barely talked to him. We stayed in touch for a while after but I didn’t really pursue it. He’s married with kids now and I don’t want to be the actress who calls up her co-star to say “Hello”. I don’t want people to assume that I need them in my career so I go to the opposite extreme and don’t keep in touch.
Did you have a lot of offers to play Indian roles after ‘Mississippi Masala’?
There were no Indian roles and I had no offers. (Casting agents) were really trying to figure what to do with me. I’d have a Latin American bit role here and there. That’s why I took off to study theatre because unlike film, it is colour-blind. After a two-year stint at Cheek by Jowl theatre company in London, I put all my energies into breaking into New York’s theatre scene. It took me eight years to build enough to play lead roles. A few years ago, I got cast as a white boy in an off-Broadway play. So not only was it colour-blind, it was gender-blind as well. That would never happen in film.
From 1991 to now, do you find that there are far more roles for South Asian or mixed-ethnicity actors in the US?
People are always asking me if the industry is changing and my answer is always that it is changing only as much as we are. Many South Asian actors complain about being pigeonholed into playing terrorists and cab drivers but it’s time that we stop talking about it. The industry will always say “No” till we have enough to convince them. I do have the advantage of having a flexible British-American accent and “mixed” looks but the truth is that most South Asian actors in the US have that too.
What are your plans ahead of this movie?
I go back to do an indie film in October. But the plan is to watch a lot of the new wave films from India. I’m fascinated by the work of directors such as Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj. Things have reached a standstill in the US but there’s something new going on here. I feel that there is room for roles for someone like me.
For Real released in theatres on Friday.