Pallavi Sharda has the rhythm in her soul. The Australian-Indian actress may lead the life of an jet-setting celebrity, but deep down she just wants to dance on the beach. Pallavi’s been in numerous Bollywood flicks, and recently landed a role in the Oscar-nominated film Lion. More importantly, she’s wedded her work to a keen sense of social justice and is an outspoken advocate for women’s and children’s causes in India.
CONVICTS caught up with Pallavi on her recent visit to New York. Aside from sharing a pleasant afternoon in the sun with Pallavi, we got the scoop on her Indian-Australian identity, the responsibilities she feels as a woman of color with an international platform, and the importance of taking the piss out of people.
Hey Pallavi. Can you introduce yourself for us?
My name is Pallavi Sharda. I was born Perth and grew up in Melbourne. I am a true blue Aussie-Indian, currently navigating the big bad world of Indian movies and the glitz and glamour of film in general. Really though, I’m just a girl from the suburbs in Melbourne who likes to hangout with her friends and put on Friday night movie at home.
Did you always know you were destined for Bollywood?
There’s so much footage on old VHS tapes of me with a full Indian outfit, scarf on my head bindi on my forehead just yelling Indian music. My dad was a huge Bollywood film buff so he introduced me to that genre when I was really really young and I just fell in love with the fantasy and the dreamscape of it. In the background my dad was really happy because he was inculcating that love of language and dance and music from his culture to me in Australia. Which is a big feat. For me to have gone to India and seamlessly transitioned into Bollywood film was totally because of the education that I received from my parents. When I was growing up, I had this fantasy of being an Indian film actress. When I got to India and started doing it, I realized I wanted to experiment more and create out of that tradition.
How does dancing fit into that picture?
When I dance it has to do with rhythm and melody. It is very visceral, but I do know that I am inspired by Indian music and beats. That’s what I grew up listening to. It was quite ironic growing up in Australia that i fell in love with Bollywood film and music. Until this moment if i hear Indian drums or Indian percussion it creates a desire to move within me. A lot of that now is in my head, because obviously when I’m dancing sometimes in different situations I don’t have access to that music so I have to conjure it from my own imagination.
Talk about the headspace that dancing lets you access.
When I’m moving it’s meditative. I’ve always said that for me, dance is the greatest form of prayer. When I’m performing-especially on stage-I have this sense of oneness, this sense of everything else blanking out. Otherwise in life, ironically, I’m a real stress pot. You wouldn’t think it if you see me dancing on a subway platform, but in day to day life I get worked up by humans and human things. I really just want to be a gypsy dancing on a beach or in a forest somewhere all the time. If I can find moments to be that, then I’m happy.
Awesome. Were you on the acting track from day one?
I grew up in an academic family and my parents had this expectation that I would go to university. And I did that: I studied law at Melbourne University and studied media and French and was your typical Indian nerd going to school doing the right thing. It was a huge deal that I didn’t study math or science: all of the other Indian kids were like ‘Ah! how could your parents let you do that, you’re studying humanities?!’ So I already had liberal parents by Indian standards as a kid growing up in the nineties.
How did you transition from studying law to acting? Was your family supportive?
When I wanted to take a step further and really pursue the performing arts I presented a business plan to my parents. I was like ‘Here’s a one page concept of what I’m about to do. I’m about to go to India and study first semester in Delhi, then i’m gonna go and audition in Mumbai because that’s where the film industry was. Remember my father was a film buff and actually told me recently that he always wanted to be an actor. So without telling me to go out and do it, he allowed me to be free. What i appreciate about my parents is that they never stopped me. They didn’t have the means to connect me to anyone or give me lodging or any of of that in India, but they always said go and do what you want to do. I always grew up with that spirit. Otherwise there was no way I would have taken those risks.
Did you follow through with that plan?
I never studied. I went straight to Mumbai and started hustling. At a time that time Bollywood as an industry was very closed, the new wave hadn’t come in yet. I was only twenty years old and in my last year of university. It was shocking to me how different life in India was to Australia and how different that my imagined version of India was to the reality.
Tell us about your relationship with India?
The word addictive comes up, because I love to hate it and I hate to love it. It’s both at the same time. If you’re going to cram twenty million people into a ten by forty kilometer space there is some sort of spirit that makes people move. For me, India had always been spiritual and wonderful and beautiful and about respecting your elders and all of those values that were taught to me by my parents. I was overwhelmed at the start because it seemed very personal and transactional. Dehli is this bustling cosmopolitan city where people want to get things done and you are a dispensable commodity. It’s saturated so many people like you, you’re not unique. I was sort of on my high horse landing in Mumbai like ‘I’ve arrived guys! The Australian that wants to be an Indian actress!’ Everyone was just like ‘Alright, well it’s not going to be easy.’ I had this longing for Indian-Australian identity and through finding that, I realized how Australian I was.
Can you talk a bit about the Australian character and how that manifests in your personality?
Have you gotten in any trouble for taking off those hats and being your laid back self?
I do a lot of strange things and love when I get a chance to be spontaneous, which is rare in my life. Monkeying around is what I do. Ironically, I always kind of get away with. I was in Burma recently climbed on a pagoda illegally and they were like alright this random Indian girl is just doing this right now what are we gonna do about it. I feel like in Australia, if I tried that I would get in trouble.
Talk a bit about your travels? What has that done for you?
When you travel, especially by road through places like Asia and you see different landscapes, different people, topography changes, food changes, it just makes you realize we are a part of this global world. It’s always made me realize how insignificant I am really in a bigger scheme of things. In Australia, we’re so lucky and forget how privileged our lifestyle is. Even if you’re from a middle class Australian family you’re better off than most people in the world. When i go back to Melbourne and people are complaining about the traffic, I’m like this is amazing guys, this level of traffic is amazing. Beyond that, it also makes me feel quite lonely because I have a nomadic lifestyle. I have an apartment in Mumbai but probably spend a total of thirty days there in a year and it means that if i meet interesting people I always have to say goodbye. I say goodbye to people every week and that’s the saddest thing about my journey, the thing that i find the most heartbreaking. But I’m not as ready to settle down yet.
Can you talk a bit about this political moment, and what it means to be a strong female voice in this world?
Being a woman of privilege-and again I use the word privilege very consciously because of my upbringing that I’ve had and the environment that I’ve walked into in Mumbai-I have a responsibility toward social justice. I’m educated, I have a public profile, and strong beliefs about sexual repression in India, sanitation, malnutrition and the importance of nutrition for mothers about to give birth.
What routes do you take as an advocate for these issues?
I’m on the advisory board to a company called eKutir . We work with mother/child policies and with sanitation policies. I do a lot of work against child sexual abuse in India because that’s one of the biggest issues in India: sexual repression leading to interfamilial violence, sexual violence against boys and girls. It’s a topic thats really uncomfortable because India is very much based on that nuclear family unit. It’s not spoken about, it’s taboo things are swept under the carpet.
Are you able to integrate advocacy into your performance work?
I actually took a break two years ago and said ‘I need to stop playing characters that don’t actually represent what’s actually happening a in society.’ In my last film I play a prostitute. The film is set in a brothel in Kajab in 1947 and it was really challenging because there are sex scenes, there’s a rape scene. I was aware of the societal norms and the stigma around something that and I had to tackle it with my own family and my own parents and grandparents. But if I don’t do it no one will.
Can you talk a bit about straddling Indian and Australian culture?
When you grow up in Australia, you really believe that there’s a way to do things and there are things that are not acceptable. If you call something out as being wrong, the other person will logically understand that it is. But it’s kind of like the Wild West in India. Sometimes it’s lawless, the court system doesn’t operate very effectively. Even if you have legal recourse you’re encouraged not to take it because you will get stuck in court so the system. There was an incident on set a few years ago where two gay make up artists were allegedly being bullied and I walked up to the production manager that there was a problem and I was told off because I was moving away from my place.
Have you had other experiences in that vein?
I was on set years ago where my fellow actors were speaking about Australia in a really derogatory way and actually calling Australia out for being a really racist place. This is something that i deal with a lot because Australia has been stigmatized. In 2009 there were these stories about students being bashed in Melbourne. I was living in India at the time and I’d walk into production houses and the producers would say ‘Oh you’re Australian! You’re not going to bash out my crew are you?’ as a joke but it really stung me quite deeply. I always say I speak fluent Hindi and I’m a classical Indian dancer and I’ve seamlessly fallen into your film industry, but I was provided the environment to have that dual personality and heritage. So I’m very passionate about being Indian-Australian, but I know that’s not the experience of everyone. My parents were skilled migrants in the eighties. My brother and I went through the public school system and had scholarships to private schools and had access to so much infrastructure. It’s really important to me that newer Indian migrants have a similar, if not the same experience.
This seems like a good place to shift gears a bit, can you tell us about the film Lion?
It’s great. I have a really small role in Lion. I play one of the supporting actors but it was really important for me to do the film for the reasons i just described. It’s a film about an Indian-Australian searching for one’s home and homeland. I was playing a character that was an international student in Melbourne. It was a very conscious decision to play this part, and it was ironic because I play a girl with an Indian accent and Dev Patel had an Aussie accent. We shot in classrooms where I’ve actually learned, at Melbourne Uni. I taught dance in one of the studios we shot so in, so it was a real case of life going full circle.
That must have been wild to work on a script with so many personal parallels?
I was really inspired by Saroo’s story. Interestingly his journey to search for his mother occurred at the same time that I was moving to India, so there were a lot of subliminal parallels between his longing and my longing, despite the very different scenarios. Obviously, I didn’t go up to the director and say actually there’re a lot of parallels to this in my life!
Lastly, we always ask people: what’s your escape?
Home. When I can literally just curl up on the sofa at home in Melbourne and put on the 7:00 news and watch it with my parents.
What about when you’re on the road? How do you keep the nomadic lifestyle from getting you down?
Yoga, meditation, walking, a bit of crying sometimes. A lot of gibberish talk with my friends. When they’re like ‘Your life is pretty great you need to stop complaining,’ and then I always remember that I am so blessed and my life’s amazing and I’m really lucky.
Cheers Pallavi, it was a pleasure. Best of luck with everything.