Award-winning actress & producer talks about the importance of diverse stories in Hollywood
Melanie Chandra is an award-winning actress and producer passionate about bringing more empathy to this world through her work. She uses her platforms both on-screen and behind the camera to share powerful and diverse stories about women and minorities.
I loved chatting with Melanie Chandra, we discovered our common Kerala heritage and explored our journeys towards our cultural identities. Melanie Chandra is best known for her role on the CBS drama Code Black. I also loved Mel in the hilarious comedy central movie, Hot Mess Holiday, which she co-created, executive produced and also starred in. It’s the first buddy comedy on American TV to ever star two women of South Asian descent. It was awesome to watch two South Asian women near my age, playing the leads. A mechanical engineering student at Stanford University, Melanie traded her very successful corporate career for the arts and she hasn’t looked back. And we’re all glad that she did.
S5 Ep 6 Melanie Chandra: Hollywood celeb on why diverse stories matter
S5 Ep 6 Melanie Chandra: Hollywood celeb on why diverse stories matter
Melanie Chandra 0:00
I had this happen to me one time where I did the audition that was written for Middle Eastern, okay, because at that moment, any brown woman was auditioning for Hispanic mixed. Really, it made me realise that the casting world sees us in a way that we don’t see ourselves. They only see us in certain verticals. So we have to fit into these different categories. And that was very challenging for me too, because I just felt uncomfortable. I just felt inauthentic doing that, but when you’re just starting out, you don’t say no.
Sangeeta Pillai 0:55
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian American women. I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful. I loved chatting with Melanie Chandra, we discovered our common Kerala heritage and explored our journeys towards our cultural identities. Melanie Chandra is best known for her role on the CBS drama Code Black. I also loved Mel in the hilarious comedy central movie, Hot Mess Holiday, which she co-created, executive produced and also starred in. It’s the first buddy comedy on American TV to ever star two women of South Asian descent. It was awesome to watch two South Asian women near my age, playing the leads. A mechanical engineering student at Stanford University, Melanie traded her very successful corporate career for the arts and she hasn’t looked back. I’m so glad.
Melanie Chandra 2:38
I never felt like I was fully Indian or fully American. So to take a step back, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, which is a pretty diverse city. There’s actually a big population of Indian people in Chicago, but I was removed from that, I was middle America, middle class, it was a predominantly white neighbourhood, Jewish and Catholic. I went to a Catholic grade school, public high school. And yeah, you know, there were cliques of Indian girls here and there, and they would do the cultural shows, they would go to temple together. Then there were the very American girls, upper middle class, and I would try to fit in with them, because I felt like the Indian girls looked at me in a different way and I just felt very insecure. I think I was just constantly wondering what people thought of me, why people didn’t seem to connect to me, I think it was because I was just trying to figure out who I was and I didn’t have that. I was trying to figure out my voice and what I stood for.
Sangeeta Pillai 3:47
I totally resonate with that. I think I did as well. I wonder if that is because as young women we’re trying to fit in, because that’s such a big part of growing up, isn’t it? Especially when you’re a teenager, you’re trying to belong, or find who your tribe is, or things like that. Like you said, you grew up in a very different society, culture, maybe from where your parents came from. Do you think that’s what that was? Do you know why you felt like that?
Melanie Chandra 4:14
Sure. Another interesting thing about my parents is that they had a love marriage there. My mom’s Catholic, my dad is Hindu, so it wasn’t even like we could go to the Indian church, right? Or we would go to the temple because we were these kids that didn’t belong to either community fully or we weren’t really accepted. Our family was not accepted into those communities because of that love marriage. So my parents wanted me to, and I think they were a little unhappy about not being welcomed into their community. So they wanted us to just assimilate, but I just felt like I was just never fully there. And you know, I was a hairy Indian girl with sideburns and always in my books, I had big glasses, I was so nearsighted. So I looked, I felt like I looked like a dweeb. Then I was just so quiet too, because I’m not sure about you, but with my cultural conditioning, it was like, keep your head down and just focus on work, hard work. It was ingrained in my psyche from since I was in the womb, to do hard work. You just have to work hard. That’s all you do, work hard, and then the results will come. None of this like, believe and manifest and just use your voice. It was just to focus on your studies and that will lead to success. I leaned into all of that, and in a way alienated myself from the cool girls that had social lives, go out for movies after school, go to the shopping mall, have sleepovers, I didn’t do any of that kind of stuff. I didn’t, but then I also didn’t have an Indian dweeb community as well, I just didn’t have that. So I felt very much like a loner.
Sangeeta Pillai 6:03
I absolutely get that. I definitely felt that and I know a lot of other women who have. There’s something about occupying two worlds that we do, or many worlds for some of us, and never quite feeling like we fit in any of them and trying to find our place in some of them and you know, it’s hard. Do you feel like it’s gotten easier as you’ve grown older?
Melanie Chandra 6:31
I personally think so. I think what changed for me is when I got to college, and I went to Stanford University, which is very international. There’s just people from all over the US and you have people from India, and you have people from Arkansas, Indian people from Arkansas, that have never seen another Indian human being before, right? So there’s a huge spectrum. But what got me as I went to the South Asian Student Association equivalent at Stanford, and I went to one of those and I was just so excited, because there’s other you know, ABCD’s like me, just people that didn’t have really a strong access or connection to their culture, but it was in our DNA to find that, right. It was something I was craving.
You know, the first time I heard a Bollywood song was when I was in grade school, high school. I was like, I want to move to this, there’s something in my body that just loves this. I want to learn Hindi, I want to learn this, I want to wear beautiful Indian clothes. It wasn’t because somebody was telling me you have to do that, it was just something within me. So when I got to college, and we had cultural shows and dance teams, I was signing up for all of that. As I’ve continued my journey after school, I’ve just made so many great friends and confidants that are also Indian American that also have this dual identity. I think it’s finally been… There’s just so much community around that and I do think it’s been celebrated. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not easy for us. But I do feel like we’ve come a really long way since the early 90s in middle America.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:15
I absolutely agree and I think it’s been the same, I think so much of what you say resonates really deeply. As you grow older, as you find other people who have had similar experiences, you connect and it starts to make sense. I completely get that.
Something else I wanted to talk to you about was so many South Asian women, me included, we kind of live this double life, we have to be this, I don’t know, good Indian girl at home, then we’ve got to fit into whatever it is that’s happening outside. This whole ethic of working really hard, it’s kind of in our DNA, it’s encoded within us, with our mother’s milk we get this “must work hard”. And so, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about this kind of double life between the life you wanted to live and the life you ended up living as a young woman, and some of the career choices – tell me a little bit about that.
Melanie Chandra 9:22
Yes, even though right now I’m doing what I love, right, and it’s not the typical path and I made a sharp left from the street, from the corporate path I was on, I still feel that dual identity and it’s in my psyche, I think part of it is also that I am a mom of two kids and I am a daughter-in-law and I’m still connected to this. This world where there are perceptions and, should I also be you know -I have a full time career – but should I be cooking dinner for my kids every night? Because when I grew up, I had so many aunties that were doctors, but they also had four kids and somehow they were amazing cooks, cooking every meal for their husband and their kids. I was like, “Oh, okay, I’m not doing that in my life, I am a failure, because I can’t do all of it.” I love my kids, and I love my family, but all of their meals, I would rather be spending quality time with them and order out when I need to. But yeah, I feel even on the conservative spectrum, right? Should I speak up about this? Should I wear this? Is this too much? It’s not so much what my generation is saying, for some reason, it’s what my parents’ generation is saying about me and the truth is what I’ve learned now, it took me a long time to figure it out. It’s that no one’s really thinking about you. Everyone’s really just focusing on their own personal struggles. But for some reason, I feel like that community still has their eyes on me and are judging what I do. I am able to get out of that when I need to, but I’m just admitting that it’s still there. I’m not a vulgar person, first of all, but talking about sexuality or all of these things, it’s just that I never grew up saying that, it is a taboo in our community. So, as a grown woman, I still have this sense of discomfort and it’s just, I don’t know if you feel that way, too, but I don’t know if it’ll ever go away. It’s just there, I honour that it’s there. But you would think by now, yes I am a career woman, I’ve got all this, I’m doing all that, but I am still… it’s all there, it is still all there.
Sangeeta Pillai 11:44
I think what we’ve got to remember, you know, when you said that voice of your parents or aunties or whoever, it’s so deeply conditioned and ingrained in our psyches, that even if we’ve, I don’t know, become these amazing…You know, you’re really well known, you’ve done all these amazing films, you’re in Hollywood for God’s sake, but you’ll still have that voice of that Auntie who spoke to you, when you were 14 saying, “Oh, Mel, why are you wearing that thing?” Or “How can you say this?” Or whatever. It’s the same for me, every time I hear someone’s voice and I’ve got to – it’s almost this double work you’ve got to do – not only have you got to be amazing at whatever you do in your life, and then you’ve got to spend half your energy trying to quiet this other voice that’s not yours. But you’ve kind of inherited it because of your culture and your heritage, that tells you “Oh, should you be really doing that?” Or “Have you made dosa’s for your family as well as done this gazillion million dollar movie?” You know, or whatever. I’m just saying dosas, but whatever you add, whatever food you like, but I don’t think it’s our fault. I just think it’s the stuff we’ve inherited. It’s almost like this conscious work we’ve got to do to kind of not hear those voices. Does that make sense or am I rambling?
Melanie Chandra 13:04
No, no, it makes sense, I felt like I rambled that, you said it much more succinctly than I did. But it’s just, yeah, I think it’s just about honouring it, right, versus just complaining that “I don’t like it, I don’t like it, It’s my parents fault.” It’s just…is it their fault? Or is it their parents fault? Who are our parents? My mom grew up on a farm in Kerala, came here to work as a nurse with one suitcase, didn’t speak English that well and figured it out. She didn’t talk about all the things that maybe American moms talk about with their girls. But is it her fault? She didn’t have the internet on a farm in Kerala, Googling how to be an open communicative mom. They did what their mother taught them and she comes from a family of eight kids. She’s the third youngest and so whose fault is it? I can’t blame my parents for it, I can’t because they were just doing what they knew. Maybe their friends were doing what they knew but it’s here, and I am working hard to make sure that my daughter, two daughters – two and five – don’t grow up with that sense of shame that I think is inherent to someone in our generation.
Sangeeta Pillai 14:26
That sense of shame that’s going to be deeply embodied within us, and we’ve kind of carried it for all our lives and are slowly starting to unlearn it as we grow older and go into the world, but yeah, I’m really happy you’re doing that for your girls because they’ll have less of this stuff to deal with. I want to talk to you about this kind of quite pivotal moment in your life, choosing to do the expected career of a smart South Asian person and you chose a particular career, you went down that career path, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Melanie Chandra 15:05
Sure. I did engineering in school. I got my degree in mechanical engineering, pride of my family, all the relatives in India are so excited, even though I don’t really know them or have a relationship. For some reason, I was really proud of myself that my parents could tell all their friends and family members that their daughter was going to be an engineer from Stanford University. I worked in the tech industry for a little bit of time, I did a fellowship out there. But I realised that I didn’t want to be an engineer, per se, but I wanted to do a little bit more of the business side of things. So what do you do next? If you don’t want to be an engineer, and you go to school, like Harvard, or Stanford, or Princeton, you go into investment banking or management consulting, because all those firms just come to the schools to recruit people with these sorts of degrees. So again, it was kind of like, what is the best I can do? You go into investment banking or management consulting, because all those firms just come to the schools to recruit people with these sorts of degrees. So again, it was kind of like, what is the best I can do at that time, and working for a company like McKinsey and Company and Goldman Sachs, those are the really highly coveted jobs right after school. I ended up pursuing and getting an offer from McKinsey and Company in New York and again, my parents are super excited and proud, earning an income as a young professional in New York City, on my way to taking over corporate America, their daughter from Stanford, with all these student loans, she’s gonna pay them back, it’s gonna be great.
About a year in, I think it was a year and a half, I told McKinsey I wanted to quit and become an actor. It wasn’t that abrupt but I mean, if I were to sum it up, that’s just what happened. I dreamt of being an actress my whole life. But for some reason, I always thought that theatre growing up was very much a white privileged thing to do. When I talked about being an outsider amongst my peers in high school, I felt like even more of an outsider with the theatre kids, if that makes sense. But it was just this childhood dream, this is just something in my stomach that was telling me this is something that you should try. So I would do little productions here and there, not part of the theatre program but just the variety shows in school and grade school, and high school, and even college as part of the South Asian Student Association. I’d be the one emceeing all the cultural shows performing and emceeing and doing the comedy sketches in between. And that was all fun but when I moved to New York, I Googled acting classes, and I just enrolled in one. I thought, okay, this is interesting and then I just kept going and I would just meet other actors who told me, okay, try this program and work with this teacher. Before I knew it, I was just living this double life -I was working in a very serious work environment,I was working at McKinsey and Company, which was such a great opportunity and I actually really loved the company and who I worked with, and I was learning all these cool things about helping businesses and project management, which is something that’s honestly helped me right now in my producing career. And on the professional side of being an actor, I think it’s helped me tremendously, but I just knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for my life. I was helping businesses with their problems. I was consulting them on their problems and helping them be the best that they could be. But I really wanted to focus on the potential I had within me in the creative arts as a performer and I had all these interesting ideas for stories and characters. And so once they started doing this actor on the side, I would get off of work and run to an Acting Program from like, 8pm to midnight, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and then Saturday mornings, I was up doing improv at UCB here in New York for four or five hours a day just training and performing. I started to meet some champions in the field, like an assistant at one of the top talent agencies in the US, right, who’s like, what is this? What are you doing? You have something, this is really interesting. I’ve done a couple of things on stage she had seen. I also started doing commercial lifestyle modelling. It’s like you’re not tall enough to be a runway model, but you can endorse a product and take pictures with it. So through someone in the South Asian community, they recommended me to their agent so if there was something like a gig that worked on a weekend, or if I could take a sick day from work, I was able to do that. The reason I mentioned that was because it gave me a revenue source, it became an income stream. Between McKinsey and all this stuff I was doing on the side, I started saving up some money so when I had about three months worth of savings and, mind you I was still in debt from college, I knew it was time.
There was also one thing, a huge thing I’m forgetting to mention, it is a big part of it. I gloss over it, because it’s not something fun to talk about but I think I should tell you that there was this inflection point where I was just working so hard at McKinsey, right and I was getting a little burnt out. And things in my arts, in acting, and I was also dancing as part of the troupe, in New York City, things are starting to take up. I was just so excited, I kind of had my heart invested in that. And then what happened, I was about to be sent away on a case study on a project in Detroit for six months in the middle of winter because as a consultant, you travel to various companies, wherever they are, and you just camp out there. My heart drops, because I can’t do all the other stuff that I’m doing here in New York, and I’m not going to be, I don’t know, this is just going to be hard. I came to work the next day, when I got that email. I was at a training session, it was like a training session for all the analysts. I remember we had broken out into small groups, and I was role playing. It was just giving a presentation, essentially and I had a seizure. A grand mal seizure, I just remember being wheeled out and waking up in the hospital room and seeing the doctor. And yeah, apparently my brain just short circuited and it was just, I didn’t know what it meant. At the time, I was just thinking, I’m not sleeping much. I’m just being a little unhealthy. I needed to take better care of myself. But I really think it was the universe trying to tell me that this is not what you’re meant to be doing. Stop being so strong willed and doing what other people are expecting you to do. I was so in my head about this, if I quit what are people going to say? I have to do this, this is what I committed to and I told my parents I was going to do this, that’s what I should be doing. So I can’t be an actor. But then my heart was saying no, you should, you should be doing that. And just one day, it was too much and my body gave out. That was really what that inflection point was, not just like, “I want to be an actor and I saved money.” That logistically would happen, but emotionally, my brain short circuited and had to figure out okay, which path am I going to choose? Because I cannot do both.
Sangeeta Pillai 23:20
When you’re talking I get goosebumps. It’s almost like, we don’t think of this enough – I don’t think we realise how intelligent our bodies are. If we’re doing this thing where we think, “Oh, mind over matter, if I can push myself hard enough, I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do that.” Your body at that point just went “No Mal. Actually, what you want to do is this. So I’m going to create a short circuit in your brain, so that you just sort of listen to what you actually want to do.” And it sounds so hard, doesn’t even sound so harsh, but your body was more intelligent at that point than your mind was, and it did this thing for you so you could pursue the path you were meant to pursue. How amazing is that? I’m kind of making it all a bit like, “oh, how amazing” and I’m sure it was really painful and difficult and traumatic.
Melanie Chandra 24:20
No, but now I have epilepsy, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I take medication every day and it’s under control, it’s completely under control. But every time I take that medication, it’s actually a nice reminder that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. I made that choice.
Sangeeta Pillai 24:41
Wow. That is incredibly powerful. I almost want to stop there. So every morning when you’re taking that pill for your epilepsy, you’re saying I’m doing the thing I’m meant to be doing in my life. Wow, that’s incredibly powerful.
Sangeeta Pillai 24:59
My body staged an intervention a few years ago. I was working in advertising for decades, sort of miserable, but didn’t have the courage to make that big change. So my body stepped in and it was extremely difficult. I had panic attacks, I had desperate anxiety, I had debilitating depression. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for days and it was terrifying. But as awful as that sounds, it was also my wake up call. Did I really want to spend the rest of my days advertising products that I didn’t believe in? Did I really want to stay stuck in Ellis offices trading drinking stories with colleagues? The answer was a massive no. It took time and it took a lot of energy but eventually, I quit that career to set up Soul Sutras. And now it feels like I’m doing what I was born to do. My body tells me now that I was put into this world to help my South Asian sisters, and that I’m finally fulfilling my purpose.
Sangeeta Pillai 26:14
So how did your parents react or the broader family from this engineer and Stanford and McKinsey like, really, really big names, to then Mel turning around and saying, actually, Mum and Dad, I want to be an actress. What was that like?
Melanie Chandra 26:35
So leading up to that conversation? They knew I was doing stuff for fun. They’re saying, “Mola, it’s great, you look beautiful, this is funny.” But it was never like, keep doing it, you should do it professionally, you should quit your job. Of course, they’re not thinking that. But I called them and I told him what I plan to do and there was just silence on the other end. I don’t think it was silence in a way that was coming from a place of anger, or disappointment. I have to say it was not disappointment. I think it was just confusion and concern. So the first question was, “how are you going to pay back your student loans? How do you make money doing this safely?” And the next one was, “what are you going to do about health care? What if you get really sick? What are you going to do?” And again it was concern, and I honestly would have the same concern about my daughters if they’re going into a field I’ve no idea, no clue about. Is she going to be safe, is she going to be happy, is she going to feed herself? I told my parents at that moment in time, I said, “I will, I promise I will pay back my student loans on my own.” Now I told them that I’m going to do this, and I’m going to succeed. I promise you, I’ll pay back my student loans and my first big role on TV were NCIS and Code black. I remember halfway into the season, in one check, I just wrote off all my student loans. It was one of my proudest moments and I remember calling my parents and they were so happy. But needless to say, I think they were confused, but slightly reassured that I was, so I had so much conviction. I started off doing small things and then I had some big wins, and then nothing and then some wins, but they were always super happy about the fact that I was doing something that I was making ends meet. I eventually got healthcare, I did it right away and I should have but it was too expensive at the time. During that time, I got this weird infection and it cost me a lot of money out of pocket to treat. So my parents were absolutely right that you do need healthcare but I was able to make it work.
My parents are my biggest champions, especially on WhatsApp with all their relatives. In India, they all know what I’m up to. And again, that’s where the mental chatter is still coming back into play. Everybody knows what I’m doing and they’re watching, but in a way I use all of that as fuel, not just the fact that my parents are watching and maybe my extended family is watching but part of that is I want to make people proud. So in addition to my daughters and my community, I want to make myself proud too. I’m my biggest competitor. There are no competitors, I just want to do what I said I was gonna do, if that makes sense and I’m gonna keep going.
Sangeeta Pillai 30:06
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, “what is a podcast?” Yes, I did that, to creating the multi award winning masala podcast and now, I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting master classes on my website, and one of them’s been created, especially for women podcasters. Just go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. and I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:25
I mean, you and I’ve never met before today, but when I saw you, I remember watching you on Hot Mess Holiday. I remember seeing an ad for it and I thought “oh my god, Asian women. Divali! Oh my God, like it’s an actual film.” I got so excited. I watched it as soon as it came out. I remember feeling so proud, I didn’t know you. But I just sort of looked at you and thought, oh, wow. I felt like I had done it, If that makes sense. All the sisters have done it like, you know, so you are already doing it. Well done. Was it hard making that shift? Or was going from this quite high flying well paid career to acting, which is not as consistent, was that challenging? Or did it all kind of fall into place?
Melanie Chandra 32:18
Nothing falls into place, I think in retrospect you look at the journey and it makes sense, right? But at that moment in time, you’re just throwing things on the wall and hoping something lands and taking advice from the wrong people and falling flat on your face and losing money here, making a little bit of money here, it was challenging, but I love the challenge. That’s why I know that my husband, that’s his biggest concern he is like “you works so hard, and very few things pay off.” But all you need is just one. All you need is just one, you have no idea how before Hot Mess Holiday was made just pitching an idea about two brown women being funny, two best friends, it just… no one understood and we’d started that journey many years prior. So that was just trying to put something, my own thing on air, which is a huge hurdle. But starting off as an actor in New York City, I just had to knock on so many doors and just ask questions and like I said, fall flat on my face. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know anything about the acting industry. I didn’t come from a family of performers. I didn’t know. But the engineer in me, the first thing she did, the first thing I did when I quit is I bought a whiteboard and put it on my wall, in my tiny little apartment share in Manhattan and I did a flowchart like how to become a working actor. I was like, “Okay, you have to have headshots, you have to make a reel, you should take these sorts of classes, then meet casting directors”, and I mean, of course nothing happens the way you want it to happen, but it happens. There is work you have to do and the good thing that I’m trying to do is one thing I’m trying to instil in my daughters too, is it’s not necessarily for you to work, work, work and focus, focus focus, it is you have to be strategic, right? They don’t know that word right now but it’s more like, what do you want to do? What are the steps? You’d be really surprised and I tell young actors this too is how many actors don’t have those things in place to have a professional career. It’s a career, it’s not just about “this is my dream. I want to be an actress.” No, it’s a career, you are a commodity. You have to cultivate your instrument and that talent because if you don’t have that and there’s an opportunity, you’re not going to get that opportunity, right? And also if you don’t have the right sort of, if you’re not, I hate to use the word “brands” but if you’re not positioning yourself in the right way, you’re not making good relationships, you’re burning bridges. That’s not good for you either, right?
Sangeeta Pillai 35:16
What was it like, as an aspiring actress who is South Asian, at that age, trying to break into mainstream TV and film? Do you face any kind of racism or sexism, any of that? And how did you kind of navigate all of that?
Melanie Chandra 32:18
Yeah, it was. First of all, I never saw myself as a South Asian actor. I never really qualified myself when I started,I just wanted to be an actor or a New York City actor. That sounded cool and sexy. I wanted to be doing interesting projects, but I never thought, “Oh, I’m South Asian, so I’m not going to get cast.” I would read scripts, and I’d be like, they’re never going to cast a South Asian person for that. It’s definitely going to be… I would think that but I still went after every opportunity I could, the things that were challenges were that even though I would have the opportunity to audition for things that were clearly written for white, I knew that wasn’t gonna go to me. And then if it was an Indian character, when I was starting out, so many of them were required to have accents and I always felt resistance, having to do that, or play the daughter, that’s so so many projects a decade ago, or about girls being married off or having that battle between their parents about getting an arranged marriage. I know, it’s still relevant today, but back then that was the only storyline. So that was really frustrating. I did have, like I said, I was able to find some good champions in the industry that saw past my ethnicity and my skin colour. But there was a point in time where I was working with some representatives, and they would only submit me for like, Indian or exotic girl. I feel like they didn’t have the open mindedness to push me in different ways. And, yeah, I didn’t work with them for too long. I can’t say I face blatant racism in my face but I did notice that you could go in a room and a casting director, I had this happen to me one time when I did the audition, it was written for Middle Eastern, okay, because at that moment, any brown woman was auditioning for Hispanic mixed, they weren’t so specific about whether you had to be the ethnicity or not. So I had to throw in Spanish accents. And then, with this audition for this Middle Eastern character, who was American, I came in, and I just did my normal American voice, because I’m also American, and they were just like, “just do this one with a Middle Eastern accent. I think they will love that” and it really made me realise that the casting world sees us in a way that we don’t see ourselves, they only see us in certain verticals. So we have to fit into these different categories. I think that was very challenging for me too, because I just felt uncomfortable. I just felt it was inauthentic doing that, but when you’re just starting out, you don’t say no, you just go you don’t know. You have these opportunities and as long as it’s not violating something, a deep part of your belief system, then you just go for it and you get practice, but you can’t control the way other people see you other than just being so good that they see something in the character in a new way. But yeah, I find that too, a lot of my peers do too. They would only get submitted for Indian characters, and those are few and far between. So you really need to work with the right people that see beyond that.
Sangeeta Pillai 39:11
But I guess, from what you’re saying, you kind of kept going and kept going until the opportunity presented itself, right?
Melanie Chandra 39:20
Yeah, I’m still going.
Sangeeta Pillai 39:23
That’s pretty powerful. And you’re still going!
Melanie Chandra 39:25
Yeah, I am still going. It’s still a grind. I mean, you’re still putting yourself out there for so many opportunities, and maybe 1% of them will work.
Sangeeta Pillai 39:34
Yeah, yeah. This is the thing, I don’t think people outside of the film or TV industry realise how much work goes into. They might see the 1% that actually is on Netflix or on TV or on your movie screens, but they don’t see the other 99% of work that you’re actually doing that never gets made. I don’t think people realise that.
Melanie Chandra 39:57
It’s a lot. Even actors that you see on TV all the time, most of them are still auditioning, even while they’re filming whatever they’re doing, they’re still auditioning for the next thing. And, see there’s really no job security, unless you’re making…Well, I was gonna say, unless you’re making your own content, but even then, there’s no security with that. I’m really encouraging the next generation to go for it.
Sangeeta Pillai 40:31
I would say you’re getting them to be realistic.
Melanie Chandra 40:34
Be realistic, it is very fulfilling and rewarding. It really is, I’m so grateful. So grateful to be doing what I’m doing. I’m just saying you need to be realistic, it’s a grind, it is an absolute grind.
Sangeeta Pillai 40:46
Yeah, and I think it’s important. Thank you for seeing that as well because I think most of the world doesn’t understand that. I think they just see somebody on TV, and they’re like, oh, they just kind of rocked up and it all happened – it doesn’t happen like that. There’s a lot of work that goes behind that and a lot of times, you may or may not be successful, and then you keep at it, and you don’t give up and you keep going and then success happens. I think that’s important for people to hear. I think there was something in one of your interviews that had really kind of stuck with me. I thought it was a really beautiful moment and I wanted to talk about it. Somewhere you spoke of the fact that your dad wanted to be a drummer and he was never really allowed to pursue it, in the same way that you said, got to be doctor, lawyer, engineer, whatever. And then, for him, the fact that you’ve become an actress somehow is equivalent to that. But how does he feel now that you’ve really succeeded in this profession, this creative profession that he sounds like a creative soul as well?
Melanie Chandra 41:45
I think he’s super proud. He’s really proud. You summarised it really well, my father grew up playing drums in his backyard and just entertaining all of his neighbours and his family and he had dreams. He wanted to be a drummer one day and, his father, my grandfather said, “no, no, you can’t do that, you have to pursue this field, and you have to make money and you have to support the family.” So my dad did that, he trained to be a med tech. He worked his way up and he, to this day, still sends money back to support his brothers and their families in Kerala, which is really, really nice. Meanwhile, his neighbourhood friend who he’s playing drums with became one of the most famous drummers in all of South India, which is insane. When they would come to Chicago, my parents would always take us to go watch that, watch him perform. But yeah, my dad had this dream that he didn’t get to fulfil. I think he saw that creative spark in me too and so while he could never say, “go for it, you should quit all of this and pursue your dreams.” He felt like he wasn’t allowed to say that. He felt like the right thing would be to just encourage me to do it. He was my biggest champion. I know he is and he’s a great example to have, you should never give up that creative outlet. When he retired, he started picking up the drums again and now he’s recorded, I think now, probably eight or nine albums. I mean, he’s not selling these things he’s giving them to family and friends, but he will bring his drums to family events, or he’ll go to the retirement home like he has. It’s so funny. He has these gigs, these weekly gigs at retirement homes where he plays the drums with him and his fellow drum circle. It’s amazing. And my mom, my parents are in their 70s, my mom’s helping carry the drum up, and one time I designed his album cover. I mean, it’s just, it’s fun. I’m just so glad that he was able to reconnect it to his passion in this music arena. I think he is just really happy. But also, you know, got married, had kids, so I think he’s happy that I have, I didn’t do it all, but I think having… I’ve always wanted to give him grandkids and so I’m happy I was able to do that as well.
Sangeeta Pillai 44:27
Which leads me to talking about expectations. I feel like South Asian women, whichever part of the world you’re in, we kind of come into the world loaded with expectations. Whether that’s the career we choose, whether that’s having to get married, or have kids, or be a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way. There’s so many expectations, how do you feel about them, and how have you navigated them?
Melanie Chandra 45:00
A lot with that, especially being in the creative field and in front of the camera and not having, you know, when I was in my 20s, not having made it, but also thinking, oh well, I should get married, and then I should have kids by a certain age. But then what is that going to do for my career? I mean, I’ll be completely frank about it. What is that going to do for my career? I can’t work in front of the camera, and I will be so busy with the kids, and I’m just not going to be able to do it all and do people care? I feel like, what was really hard is I was talking to an Indian producer, and I said, “hey, my husband and I are thinking about having kids.” He’s like, “why would you do that? That’s career sabotage.” Other people in the industry that were not Indian, they would have been like, “oh, maybe you should wait until you’ve had your big breakout moment. And look at all the other A Lister actresses, they had big careers before they got married and had kids.” But there was something about hearing it from another Indian person that was just like, it just felt icky. Like, you shouldn’t be doing that but you also should not. And so I felt like there was no win-win.
What I’ve learned is you don’t have to give up your career when you have kids. In fact, it’s fueled me more because A: I have a tremendous new vessel in my heart that has opened up after having kids and these things aggravate me, but I also love them so much. I’m able to bring that love into my work, I’m also able to become a kid again through them and I bring that to my work. I also have this sense of showing my kids that I can do it, I have a dream, and I’m gonna pursue it and I love you guys so much, but I’m gonna figure out how to do both. It’s two things, it’s being a South Asian woman, like I said, I grew up with these…everybody cooked and cleaned and also had careers, so I should be able to do that too, but coupled with having to be in front of the camera and capitalising on more opportunities, or the idea that there’s more opportunities when you’re young, versus an actress in her 30s or 40s. I think that is changing. I think that is completely changing. But when I was working my way up, there was this perception that once you hit 30, when you’re a male, if you haven’t made it, you haven’t made it. And then if you get married and have kids, and you haven’t made it, good luck, right? And then if you’re Indian, and you don’t have kids, you’re a failure. So yeah, what do you do there?
Sangeeta Pillai 47:50
Either way, we’re in trouble.
Melanie Chandra 47:52
Either way, we’re in trouble.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:56
As a South Asian woman, your life is mapped out for you, before you even take your first baby steps. I was taught that I was expected to finish my school, then university, then get a job, and then quickly get married, and then as soon as I got married, start popping out kids. I remember feeling this immense sense of pressure as a young woman walking to my college in suburban Mumbai. I could physically feel it on me almost as much as the heat of the noontime sun, scorching my skin as I walked. I knew I didn’t want this life that was being mapped out for me. But I was a shy and scared young woman and the thought of hurting my parents, by disobeying them would make me tear up. I was so torn between fulfilling my duty to family, and being true to myself. It almost felt like a war was being waged inside me but I did eventually emerge from that war, to become the woman that I became. I’d love to talk to you about your film on this holiday, which I absolutely loved.
Melanie Chandra 49:15
Like I said, it was so many years in the making. We actually sold the concept as a television show and developed it with Comedy Central, but during the pandemic, they wanted us to make a TV movie and we said, okay, great. We’re gonna make a TV movie for them. But we’re like, you know, we want all the South Asian characters, this is our mandate. We want all these South Asian characters and we want it to revolve around a South Asian holiday, Diwali because they asked us to do a holiday movie and so they were totally on board so we just got to work.
We auditioned all the amazing South Asian actors we call the bar friends, if they could come and do cameos and then we showed up on set and it was so amazing walking into the trailer and just seeing all of these beautiful brown faces that were just generally so excited to be there and working on a movie that celebrated us, our culture and our community. All of us in leading roles, you know, every buddy on that screen had a moment to shine and take on characters that were not things we’d seen before really as South Asian characters on the screen. So we had so many pinch me moments throughout that and my co-creator of Hot Mess Holiday and my dear friend, Serena Jindal, and I, we literally, a new actor would walk onto set that we’ve always wanted to work with, an actor or movie , we have these weird friendship moments, but we’d squeeze each other and squeal, and it was happening. Then we would shoot the Diwali party scene, right? And all of us are in these amazing clothes and we found some great Indian music, and then we have this absurd plot thrown into it. We’re like, are we really doing this right now for a major TV network? They’re letting us do it, no I don’t want to say letting us do it, but we are doing it for this major team and our interest is just so new and wonderful, and what a joy. The first time we could see an all brown ensemble on TV in the US. It was very me watching that I felt very moved. I mean, even if we didn’t make it to see that I would have just been like, “oh, I wish this existed when I was much younger to show that it’s okay, like brown representation is awesome. And it’s fun and, and relatable.” Yeah, it was just such a wild ride, it really was. It was fantastic!
Sangeeta Pillai 51:51
What do you think needs to change to get more of this kind of stuff on our screens, more South Asian creatives and storytellers and actors, what needs to change in Hollywood, or among the kinds of people, the powers that be that make these decisions?
Melanie Chandra 52:09
We need more South Asians who make those decisions, we need more people at the top right. And right now, there’s a lot of people that are rising in the ranks, and it’s very exciting. We need more people to go on that journey too. But those people that are raising the ranks, they’re doing a good job of pulling people up, right? I think we have to keep doing that. So we have to, if you have stories, find a way to tell them and find the right people that can make them happen. And it is hard, it’s hard getting something made, anything made in Hollywood, but it’s a huge obstacle if you’re not seeing an executive on the other side that can understand your experience to when we were pitching our television series, which ultimately became Hot Mess Holiday, we were talking about how when we shot a short film, and we put it online and the South Asian community really loved it and went nuts and said, “Oh, this is so relatable.” They just… this white executive was like, so confused. He’s like, What is, what was relatable? What? Why do you think people relate to it? And we’re like that, because it’s just that South Asian people are being normal, right? We’re not trying to fit into a certain idea. It’s very authentic. But yeah, we need those storytellers. There are so many talented South Asian storytellers out there but we need to continue to get in those leadership positions where I’m the Executive here, I have this person, they pitch the show, it is brilliant. You should give them real consideration. You need those advocates in the room. I mean, because people see 1000s of images every year, but just if you have that one person advocating for you, it makes a huge difference, it really does.
Sangeeta Pillai 54:05
You’re the co-founder of this Not-for-profit Charity Hospital for hope in India. What’s this cause about and why is it important to you?
Melanie Chandra 54:14
It is a hospital in India that is serving this amazing community in Jharkhand. It’s been over a decade now. It started because at a voluntary interpon College, a couple of classmates and I are like, we realise that this one community didn’t even have access to healthcare. Here in the US, we break our leg, we just go to the ER, we’re there in like an hour, whatever happens. There this community had to hop on it and we would see this, someone gets injured, or they’re sick, or a wife is about to give birth, they have to drive hours to a hospital and imagine if it’s monsoon season. It could take a day to get through all that. So, when we got back to school, we thought, well, what can we do? As you know, these zealous college students, everybody wants to make a difference, right? When they’re in college, what can we do? And we said, let’s try to fundraise and let’s figure out a way to build the hospital. We had all graduated, we were working in our respective careers and so we partnered with different organisations and raised a lot of money. We were able to get a team there and build them a functioning hospital, hire doctors and nurses and fundraise more for an ambulance. So right now, they’re treating over 1500 patients a month and I think the idea of helping others is ingrained in my DNA, because my mom was a nurse for 30 years, too. So I grew up seeing her take care of me, my brother, but I would visit her at the hospital too and so in a way, I think I was channelling my mom, my mom’s love and energy and her kindness into building an organisation that can do that for other people.
Sangeeta Pillai 56:16
That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Mothers and daughters, you have two daughters, as you mentioned, what legacy or what world would you like them to have? As young South Asian girls growing into women? What’s your dream?
Melanie Chandra 56:34
I hope that they feel like they belong, and know that there will be challenges. There will be insecurity, and there will be fear, but there’s a community of people to support them to achieve all that they want to achieve in the world.
Sangeeta Pillai 56:52
That’s beautiful. What about another little girl? So if Mel now could talk to five year old Mel or six year old Mel, what would you say to her?
Melanie Chandra 57:05
I would say that the reason you feel like you don’t belong is because there’s something special in you that you just need to get out and own. So find out what that is and lean into it and don’t be so worried about what others think of you because you’re gonna blossom, you are blossoming, that inner conviction is just going to light the world up. So be fully you, put your heart into it.
Sangeeta Pillai 57:33
What’s coming up for Mel? What new projects? Anything we should know about that you’re really excited about?
Melanie Chandra 57:40
Sure. I acted in a project that had a premiere at Sundance this year, which is really exciting. So now it’s continuing with this film festival run and then I’m also going to continue my work as a producer, and actually will be forming my own production company so I can continue to champion stories with South Asian protagonists.
Sangeeta Pillai 58:07
You’re being exactly what you just said earlier, what we need for change is for people to have the power and you’re going to be one of those people. Wow, I can’t wait to see what comes up. I have a feeling it’s going to be some amazing stories.
Melanie Chandra 58:21
Thank you. I hope so.
Sangeeta Pillai 58:22
I cannot wait. Before I let you go, any words for listeners of the Masala podcast? Anything you can think of advice, whatever anything?
Melanie Chandra 58:32
I would say, continue to champion and celebrate each other. That’s the only way we’re going to continue to make a dent in this world, right? So if you’re in a position, if you have the motivation and courage and interest to explore new territories that other South Asian women haven’t, make sure you keep the door open behind you for the next generation of South Asian women and champion them, hold their hand because that’s the only way we’re really going to continue to represent in all all facets of life.
Sangeeta Pillai 59:06
Absolutely agree. Keep the door open and more of us come through and we change the world for everybody, for ourselves and for our daughters and their daughters and so on. Thank you so much, Mel. It’s been such a joy chatting with you and thank you for being as open and vulnerable and authentic as you have been. It’s been such a pleasure.
Melanie Chandra 59:29
Thank you. Seriously, this is such a wonderful podcast series. I’m very, very grateful to be part of it.
Sangeeta Pillai 59:40
Thank you for listening to the Masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soul sutras.co.uk, I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.