as one of Johns
receive awards of
up to $10,000 over
four years. The program allows undergraduates the opportunity to pursue an
project over the course
of their college careers.
With Astin as my mentor, I compared the
ancient art form
Kudiyattam with modern
or contemporary theater in
the West. I examined how
the universal intention of
theater serves as a common
ground for two seemingly
contrasting art forms.
What was it like working on
It was shot in Chennai and
Kumbakonam. I was accompanied by my mother, who not only
helped me with my gestures and
emotions, but also running the
production. She is now an executive producer.
The team behind the film had not
worked extensively in India and anyone who has shot a film in India
knows how daunting the challenges are
and yet things get done in the chaotic
world. My mother goes to India every
year for about three months to conduct
workshops and launch productions. She
ironed out many logistic problems for us.
As for my work it was exhilarating and
draining. Janaki is a very complex and
very resilient character — from a child
bride to a young married woman who is
separated from her husband and yet
stays by him and nurses him patiently.
What was the toughest part in playing
It was very exhausting and exhilarating. I felt very drained and I could not
see any immediate gains. The film took
so much of me and in return, I will
have to wait for many more months.
There were a few other challenges, like
learning to wear the long Iyengar style
sari. I have worn saris for dance but
here I had to do it very quickly without
any assistance from the production
department. The costume designer is
British but that did not help me in
wearing the traditional Iyengar saree.
At times I had to get the help of the
local people, especially if my mother was
not around. Sometimes I even requested
the mamis (older Tamil women) passing
by the location, to help me. We would
go behind a tree and wear the sari. They
must have found all this a bit amusing
but they were very helpful.
What did you find most appealing in
Even though the film is set in the
early 20th century, I can relate to her
character. She is sort of
like me and exhibits the characteristics
of a modern woman. She was extremely
strong to live her life without a husband
(after he leaves for Cambridge), while at
the same time giving back to the com-
munity despite having problems of her
own. She helped many young students.
I admire her strength in character.
She was ahead of her time.
How did you prepare for this role?
I had read Kanigel’s book many years
ago. I reread it and read a lot on Janaki
and Ramanujan. And Hardy too.
I met Kanigel in Baltimore. He had
met Janaki just about the time she died.
It was a learning process to hear his
account of the woman I’m going to play.
Does you role run throughout the film?
It does, but I regret there are no
scenes with Jeremy Irons. I met him
when I went to London to meet with
the producers and director of this film.
He was very gracious and encouraging.
You have made an interesting docu-
mentary. Have you been working on
Right now I am giving everything to
Yes, I want to make documentaries
and feature films. (She has been attending events like the American Film
Market to study how the how the film
What is the role your mother played in
My mother has always been a source
of inspiration to me, not only as a
mother but also as a performer.
When one is a performer it is so
important to have many creative outlets
so that one does not rely on a specific
skill set, especially because the arts are
so fickle when it comes to finding and
maintaining work. My mother start-
ing her nonprofit organization
Sanskriti, and producing her many
Sadir Theater festivals and upcom-
ing KunQu opera in India is an
example of using the skills of a
performer in other realms.
Our home in New York always
welcomes artists from India.
Sonal Mansinghji is a family
friend and is like a mother to
me. It was so thrilling to see her
at my arangetram in New York
a few years ago. The way she
bounced back after a serious
injury is a big inspiration.
I have always had a diverse
array of interests — from art
history to chess to music to
dance and, of course, act-
ing — and I have learned
from my mother that you
don’t have to cubbyhole
yourself into just one of
your interests while
pursuing a career.
You were not only a
pupil at Sanskriti, but
also a teacher…
Sanskriti is an
amazing outlet as a
I can improve my
skills. It’s a spe-
cial treat for me,
being in my
not so long ago!
I also work with Symphony
Space in their CAP (Curriculum Arts
Project) program on behalf of Sanskriti,
where I teach public school adolescents
about Indian arts and culture through
dance. Many of these children do not
have much global exposure and I feel
lucky that I get to take part in such an
important part of education and shape
their views and outlook on India before
common stereotypes set in.
What is next for you?
I am going to be in another independent film. Shambala will be shot in
Australia I cannot give out many details
but I can say that unlike Janaki, I play a
light-hearted part. It is an outward
looking part. After the exhaustive work
on the Ramanujan film, this should be
some fun. n
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
India Abroad February 27, 2015
THE MAGAZINE M7
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On the cusp of stardom