In 1991, when Sarita Choudhury landed the lead role of Mina in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, opposite Denzel Washington, she was just out of film school. Conversations about diversity and representation had not begun in Hollywood, or gained credence the way they have today.
Mississippi Masala didn’t open up a world of opportunities for the half Indian-half English actress either. So Choudhury focussed on finding diversity in her career, working across theatre, film and television. By her own admission, her almost 30-year-long acting career has been mercurial. But she’s also consistently built an impressive filmography that includes The Perez Family, A Perfect Murder, The Hunger Games, A Hologram for the King, Homeland, Little Fires Everywhere and the recently released Evil Eye.
Speaking on the phone from New York City, where she lives, Choudhury talks about her journey as an actor of south Asian heritage, her collaboration with Nair and what she thinks of contemporary Indian filmed entertainment. Edited excerpts:
Considering your experience working in Hollywood, what are your thoughts on representation and diversity issues?
My career began before that conversation took off so I had not thought of it earlier. Even after Mississippi Masala came out, I couldn’t get a job, and that was normal. It made me fight, and try and come up with ways to remain a working actor. So when the industry started changing, I was so happy, even though that change is so slow. In comparison, theatre is more colourblind, especially in England.
There must have been periods of frustration. How did you overcome those?
Honestly, if I am hitting a wall it’s because that day I think I am ugly, or if something didn’t work out, I believed it was because I didn’t do a good job. I never thought of it as representation, nor did I succumb to thoughts about being victimised for my ethnicity. Though I understand it, it was not my mindset. But I am excited to see how representation is shifting, partly due to the rules being imposed, but there is also change in the point of view of screenwriters. For example, in a story like Evil Eye, it would be foolish to cast non-south Asians in a movie about south Asians.
It’s unusual to come across an American horror-mystery that’s centred around south Asian characters.
The story has been conceptualised with south Asian characters. All the actors (Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati, Bernard White) are of south Asian origin and live in America. When we realised that this film was going out on a global platform we realised the universality of the medium’s reach. We are proud that in a time when everyone is pushing for diversity, here is a story that doesn’t feel the need to explain why it’s partially set in Delhi and is unapologetic about its milieu.
Technology and digital entertainment have shrunk the world, making shows like 'Little Fires Everywhere' and 'Homeland' accessible to all. Do you think the perception of Indian entertainment is changing in the West, away from song-dance clichés?
Technology has changed the game for sure. My consumption of Indian shows has gone way up. Now I can watch new films almost at the same time as in India thanks to streaming. I see there is a lot of cool stuff happening in India, and I am hoping more and more people are watching it. From the quality of some shows and films I have seen, I am very impressed, especially with the writing. I have watched a bunch of things including Masaan, Sacred Games, Made In Heaven and Paatal Lok. These days, if I tell my friends to watch something, I find they agree more readily, whereas before I would have to drag them along with me.
Which roles have been pivotal for your career?
What I think is pivotal has nothing to do with the way the audience may perceive it. For instance, I know that if I do theatre, guaranteed if I walk into a movie audition, I would book it because my body is so warmed up to the gymnasium of articulation. I have literally gone from a play rehearsal to an audition and got the role because of the energy.
Homeland opened doors globally, such as the film I did with Tom Hanks, directed by Tom Tykwer. A Hologram for the King was so personal. I felt so proud and it took my spirit to another level. So there are personal pivots versus what the industry sees. My career has never been up and up. It has been up, sideways, down a little and then up again. I have never been able to relax fully. Just when I think things are good, I don’t trust it. I have a good year and then have to work on it again.
Mira Nair and you have been long-time collaborators ('Mississippi Masala', 'The Perez Family', 'Kama Sutra'). Was there any discussion about you being a part of 'A Suitable Boy'?
I always know when a project is right and I think for A Suitable Boy you have to have grown up in India. I didn’t see it as completely the right fit. I think an actor can do anything, so of course one could do it. But when it’s the right fit, Mira and I are like fire. And when it’s not, then it’s not. We just know, immediately.
Evil Eye is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.