The 18-year old Hollywood actor and producer on embracing her South Asian culture
At just 18, Avantika is already a force as a well-known Hollywood actor, and producer. She was the first ever Indian American lead in the Disney Channel Original Movies ‘Spin’. She was named in Variety’s Young Hollywood ‘Up Next’ list in 2021. Avantika just wrapped filming a lead role in the upcoming Sony Screen Gems feature ‘Horoscope’. Avantika also starred opposite Rebel Wilson in a #1 movie on Netflix, Senior Year. She is currently starring as ‘Karen’ in the Paramount feature ‘Mean Girls Musical’, for executive producers Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels.
She is also currently developing a TV series adaptation of the New York Times bestselling novel A Crown of Wishes, which she will star in and executive produce, for Disney+.
Avantika is the future, and that future is diverse, talented, and young. Watch this space; you won’t want to miss what comes next.
Things to take away from this podcast episode
- Identity & Culture: Avantika talks about how her South Asian heritage serves as a baseline for her identity. She embraces her culture wholeheartedly, from wearing a bindi to appreciating the roots of Jasmine stitched by her grandmother.
- Imposter Syndrome: Both Avantika and Sangeeta delve into the ubiquitous feeling of imposter syndrome, especially in creative fields. Avantika shares her coping mechanisms, emphasizing the importance of feeling something, even if it’s complicated.
- Mental Health: Avantika opens up about her struggles with depression and the lack of understanding she faced, especially as a young person. She stresses the importance of acknowledging and learning from such experiences.
- Challenging Stereotypes: The episode touches on the stereotypes South Asian women often face, particularly in career choices. Avantika discusses the need for representation in fields beyond STEM.
- Parental Influence: Avantika credits her parents for giving her the freedom to explore her identity and make choices that align with her true self.
- The Struggle for Balance: Avantika speaks about the challenges she faced in balancing her professional life with her personal life, especially the loneliness that comes with working in an adult-dominated industry.
Why Listen to This Episode:
As an 18-year-old Hollywood success story, Avantika dismantles the stereotypes around South Asian women. This conversation takes you through her journey of identity, culture, and breaking into Hollywood. This isn’t your typical ‘success story’; it’s a narrative that challenges, inspires, and provokes thought.
S5 Ep 9 Avantika Vandanapu: Hollywood star on loving saris
Avantika Vandanapu 0:00
I think for a person who struggled with their identity and who they were for so long, being South Asian was like a baseline, you know? Speaking Telugu, wearing a bindi, and knowing that this bindi meant certain things to my mom and grandma. This is why I wear that bindi. Having curly hair, when my grandma came to our house in America, she would stitch roots of Jasmine from the vines in our house. These are all such fundamental, core parts of my identity, and they kind of… that was a given. Embracing that was a given.
Sangeeta Pillai 0:51
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.
What do I say about Avantika Vandanapu? I feel like a proud parent introducing her. She’s 18 years old, and already a well known Hollywood actor, and producer. Avantika was the first ever Indian American lead as Rhea Kumar, in the Disney Channel Original Movies spin and she was named in Variety’s Young Hollywood up next list in 2021. She’s just wrapped filming a lead role in the upcoming Sony Screen Gems feature Horoscope. She also starred opposite Rebel Wilson in the number one Netflix movie, Senior Year. Do you see what I mean? Avantika is a superstar and she’s only 18.
Avantika Vandanapu 2:34
I struggled with belonging a lot because the school I went to in California was a very hardcore academic prep school. Many kids there were struggling with the fact that their interests were not necessarily academic, but they were in this school that really emphasised academic rigour. I think a lot of their parents were aware that these kids were having this mental struggle, and frankly, did not care. So, many of these kids were forced to take up academic pathways, which there’s nothing wrong with, as long as you’re not being forced to. My parents were always very open from a young age. I took care of the academic side and did really well in school, but they also let me explore other options. As a kid, I was allowed to do things like horse riding or anything I wanted to learn. So, I think I struggled a lot in that school because people saw me as an anomaly, someone who was able to do both, or to phrase it better, someone who was given better opportunities by their parents. People were very exclusionary and mean to me in school, which is an interesting thing, right? I was given a privilege, and to be shunned because of that privilege is quite interesting. It’s a very unique concept that I’ve only experienced in that setting. After I left that school, I was homeschooled for four years. That was very helpful because I was left to my own devices, and I was allowed to grow on my own. So, I think that change was also really great for me.”
Sangeeta Pillai 4:20
Hearing Avantika speak about her school made me reminisce about my own school days. I went to school in Bombay, as Mumbai was then called. We were very poor, but somehow I managed to get into a great church school, despite being a Hindu. There were nuns and priests, and lots of singing of hymns, which I really enjoyed. There was also a lot of kneeling in churches, which I enjoyed less. I remember walking to school in my grey pinafore and white shirt, already sweaty in the early morning sun, and intentionally forgetting to take an umbrella during the monsoon so I could get soaked to the skin on the walk back home in the warm, fragrant rain. I remember jostling for space with the other 80 kids in a class, and yes, that sort of number is really normal in India given its massive population. I also remember being tongue-tied and super shy; there was a lot of trauma at home. I had a handful of friends, which was lovely, but the rest of the time, I had my head buried in books, which was the most beautiful escape for me. It’s so incredible hearing you speak. You would think that if you were among kids who were like you and came from the same background, it wouldn’t be as bad as, say, going to a school full of white kids who didn’t really understand your culture. Here, you’re surrounded by other people like you, but they have a problem with you because you’re allowed to do stuff they’re not allowed to do. I mean, that’s insane, right?
Avantika Vandanapu 6:11
I have a lot of sympathy for those people. I see them now, still on those career paths that their parents put them on when they were 9 or 10. So, I understand where the disdain for me comes from but I think the best thing for me, instead of sitting there disliking my environment, was to just leave, which is what I did.
Sangeeta Pillai 6:36
That’s right. So you began your career in Telugu films. How old were you when you moved back to India to pursue that career? Do you remember what it felt like when you arrived from America into that world?
Avantika Vandanapu 6:53
Yeah, it felt kind of… I think when I landed in it, up until that point, I was visiting every year. So it wasn’t like India was this foreign place for me but I remember when I first went to India, the first film that I was set to do, tentatively, was a film where I was with two other kids. We were shooting in a rural village with this very big-named actor. I kind of wasn’t exposed to a film set directly. This was a very lonely experience of rehearsing in a village and doing a lot of workshopping and bonding with these kids. So I feel that I was personally eased into it. It wasn’t thrown at me. I didn’t end up doing the film for complicated reasons but I had done these workshops for almost close to a month. So that was, I guess, kind of my introduction into how the film business works.
After that, I transitioned to a movie, which was very glamorous, very high budget, lots of glitz and glamour. That, I think, was my big shock, like, ‘Oh, whoa, this is actually kind of insane.’ I remember Shahrukh Khan had visited that set. So it was really crazy to see him in person within my first few months in India. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I like it here.’ It was very, very cool to also get… not to say that the first film was an indie, but the director really shot it like an indie and he prepped us all like it was an indie movie. So in my first few months, to get a glimpse into what it was like to be in a more indie, artistic environment versus a more commercial, blockbuster environment was very… It was a lot for me, and I loved it. I love taking in a lot and processing a lot. It made me really happy and it kind of cemented the fact that I would like to spend a long time in this industry.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:48
And then a couple of years down the line, you moved back into Hollywood, right? You kind of decided to do that. How did that happen?
Avantika Vandanapu 8:54
So, when I was in India, the original reason why I decided to pursue a career there was because, at the time, there weren’t very many opportunities for Indian people in America. It just wasn’t realistic to ask my parents to move to LA for something I had just taken up. I didn’t really see much chance for me to succeed. But when I was living in India, Disney sent out an audition for this movie called ‘Spin.’ It’s crazy because back then, they did a whole worldwide search. Whereas now, realistically, they would only search within the US because there are actually so many more actors for them to pick from. But at the time, which was about four years ago, there weren’t very many people. They were even open to people with an Indian accent and willing to put them through dialect training. So, I received an audition for this, and this was my first American audition ever. I watched that audition back now, and it’s genuinely like, ‘Oh, it’s like a Colgate commercial.’ I’m cheesing the entire time. It’s kind of crazy that they had actually been like, ‘Okay, great, we’ll give you a call back.’ They had also added a note, ‘But she requires some coaching, so we’ll put her through the process.’ They asked for me to come to LA. I was like, ‘Oh my god, absolutely! It’s my dream to be in a Disney movie, I’ll come to LA.’ So, I came to LA. Right at that point in time, my roles in India had started fizzling out. Until that point, for those four years, I was hired to play the childhood version of whichever hero was being cast in a movie. So, I was getting a lot of job opportunities, but it was very limited to a certain age category. I sensed that maybe I would have to come back to India in a few years when I was a bit more mature and could audition for those hero roles, but now was not the time.
When I came to LA, I think it really struck me that I love it here. Hollywood was a place that, at the time, again, India has now improved very much in evolving from just a glamorous kind of industry. But Hollywood, to me, seemed like a place where I could do character work. The fact that they put me through coaching was something that I loved. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can learn.’ It was crazy to me, and I loved it. So, my parents and I contemplated moving to LA for a year. They gave me a year to prove myself. If not, they said they’d send me back to San Francisco, and then I could pursue whatever I wanted after I turned 18. But, you know, things went surprisingly well. I wrapped up my roles in India. That was kind of ‘Spin’s’ audition, which ended up with the film being shelved. It came out a few years later. Again, that was kind of my trigger to be like, ‘Let me pursue a career.’
Sangeeta Pillai 11:47
So, between moving from India back to Hollywood and starting this career, I’m guessing there were a few years when you were looking for roles or jobs. I think my question is, what was it like? Did you find any barriers as a young brown woman trying to find work in Hollywood at that time?
Avantika Vandanapu 12:06
So, within those two and a half years, it was before the public saw any of my work, not before I had been in any work. When my parents said, ‘You get a year to prove yourself, give it your best shot,’ even though in that year, there was nothing the public saw, I was doing better than my agent had expected. Originally, I was screen testing for a lot of big shows like High School Musical and The Walking Dead. There were a lot of projects that I was screen testing for, and I was in the top two or top three, four. For me, that was encouragement enough, regardless, because whoever booked it, there was a valid reason why they booked it. It was very encouraging to me to be like, ‘Okay, people are actually giving me a shot.’ You know what I mean? Once you make it that far, it’s really not about your ethnicity, I don’t think so personally. Obviously, everything’s hypothetical. But yeah, to me, it felt like the industry was changing, and it was changing for the better. I definitely see so many more opportunities now than I did back then, but I would say I came at a time when the industry was pivoting and changing. I was seeing those barriers crumble, and I was seeing Mindy Kaling and other amazing South Asian pioneers breaking down these barriers. I wasn’t really seeing them in action, which I think I’m incredibly privileged and grateful to say. But personally, that was my experience.
Sangeeta Pillai 13:39
That’s wonderful. It’s so, so good to hear. Like you’re saying, I guess a lot of others paved the way for you to then come in and get these roles, which makes me really, really happy to hear.
So let’s talk about ‘Spin.’ You were the first-ever Indian American lead in a Disney original film. Wow. How did that change your life? I’m sure it did. How did that come about? How did that change your life?
Avantika Vandanapu 14:07
So the audition came back two years later, and I was in the room again, which was very, very exciting for me. To re-audition for this film that had kind of propelled my journey in LA. I then ended up being told in the room that I had booked it. It was very exciting for me. It was my first big role, and it was the first role where they said, ‘You’re going to prep, you’re going to learn how to DJ.’ It was very, very exciting for me. I think it’s crazy. An experience like that is just… I’m really glad to have had it so early on in my life, and it set off so many things for my career. It cemented the fact that I could act in a film and that I could shoulder a movie. So, I think many other films have trusted me on the basis of that film. So, you know, even though ‘Spin’ is just about this normal thing, it isn’t this hardcore Oscar-winning drama, it was enough for me, and it was enough for people to see that I could do this. I think for that I’m really, really grateful to ‘Spin.’ The movie introduced me to a whole community of South Asian artists in this industry that I had not known before. So, I’m really grateful for that as well. It’s given me a sense of community. It’s given me kind of a home in Disney, which, again, comes to relevance a little bit down the line in my career. It truly was such a magical experience to have when you’re so young. I’m very grateful for it, absolutely.
Sangeeta Pillai 15:34
And then you went on to do the Netflix film with Rebel Wilson, Senior Year, playing this cheerleading captain. Now with both of these roles, right, whether it was with spin where you’re this DJ, and with senior year, you’re this kind of Chilean captain, that they’re unusual roles for brown girls. I think you made this point in an interview, and I thought that as well, when I was looking at your work, that it’s so important for South Asian girls to see these, let’s say unusual paths, rather than the usual stem Doctor engineer lawyer trope, right?
Avantika Vandanapu 16:14
Yeah, it absolutely is. Because, like I was saying back in my childhood, it was this very abnormal thing for someone who’s brown to have the freedom to explore all these different facets of their personality. I think it’s important for parents to see these kinds of movies and for kids to see these kinds of movies, so they can tell their parents, and I think it’s important for families to consume these kinds of movies. So, subconsciously, they kind of understand that we’re not limited to just this, this, and this as an ethnic group. The thing is, this isn’t really personally… I see so many people in India who pursue singing and arts as a career. But the reason why Indian Americans, specifically as a niche, or Indian immigrants, for that matter, I’m sure it’s the same in the UK… it comes from a need for survival, a need for survival of the fittest. So it’s like, STEM is reliable. Let’s do it. But now that opportunities are opening up, other fields are becoming more reliable and stable as well. So I think it’s important for parents to watch films like this and understand that it’s not as risky anymore. It is still risky, but not as risky. So I have consciously tried to do roles like this personally, but I’m not at a stage where I can just, you know, take my pick of the litter and pick and choose. But I’m really grateful that people have given me these opportunities. For example, for ‘Senior Year,’ the casting call was put out for any ethnicity character. So most of the roles that are coming up in the future for me are any ethnicity parts that I’ve ended up booking, and they’ve altered them to kind of align a little bit more with my culture. So I’m so happy that the industry is willing to do that and willing to make that change. I think it’s really, really inspiring.
Sangeeta Pillai 18:11
That is like music to listen to you say that, that you kind of apply for a role that’s like any ethnicity and then that is tweaked to fit you. I think that’s amazing. Gosh, I had no idea it was that progressive. It makes me really, really happy. Actually, I’m guessing from the little that you’ve told me about your family and the way you know, they were in school, that I guess you never had that kind of pressure to be the traditional STEM girl. Did you ever have that? From either your family or your extended family?
Avantika Vandanapu 18:41
Yeah, so never from my nuclear family. I would say, never from my mom and my dad, because I think they had that trust in me. But that being said, like extended families, obviously, they don’t live with me, they don’t know who I am to the level that my parents do and they’ve always had opinions on the fact that my parents sent me into this industry. So no one ever explicitly said, ‘Do you have to be good at academics?’ You know, but the repeated questions to my parents like, ‘Is she still doing well?’ and such, every concern with the way that they let me kind of explore this was enough to like, pressure me into thinking, ‘You should never let this side of you die. You should never let this side of you completely crumble,’ which I respect now. Like, I’m really happy being in this industry. I see that an academic background is also very, very helpful. It kind of maps out your way intellectually. And now that I’m kind of really interested in the business side of the industry as well, it’s helpful to have this background. But was there pressure? 100%. I think there’s always going to be pressure, but I don’t think that pressure is bad. As long as the pressure is not debilitating, I don’t think it’s bad to like, push someone to be better, push someone to kind of fulfil their potential all the way.
Sangeeta Pillai 20:04
“Only beautiful blondes got to fall in love.” That’s what I remember thinking when I was a little girl. Because any Hollywood movies we saw in 1980s Mumbai had beautiful blonde women as the stars. There definitely weren’t any brown leading ladies in Hollywood. Even in the many Bollywood films we saw, the heroines never looked like me. They were very fair-skinned, which I wasn’t. They were very coy and domesticated. Both things that I didn’t want to be. As a young girl, I didn’t really see many women who were role models; women having big adventures, women with big powerful jobs, women who talked about changing the world. So that’s the message we all got as young girls: “Do not expect to do anything big or amazing with your life.” My parents nudged me towards careers like teaching or banking—nice, safe, respectable jobs; jobs that weren’t too big; jobs that wouldn’t overshadow your husband’s job. Because ultimately, that’s what our big purpose was: marriage and kids.
Something I loved about your pictures and all your Instagram pictures from the last—I’ve been kind of stalking your Instagram. I love it. Your sari, so you wore this absolutely beautiful golden black sari, I think a couple of weeks ago, and I love it. I think there are a couple of other pictures where you’re wearing the sari and you wear the bindi all the time. I love that. Now, what I wanted to talk to you about is like, I love saris, right? I’ve got like 20 odd saris. I love wearing them. I did a podcast live where I wore a sari and everybody was like, ‘Oh, you wear a sari? That’s, yeah, that’s cool.’ And you know, the subtext is like, ‘Yeah, exactly.’ So my point is, isn’t it sad that there’s some sort of weird racism towards ourselves, that we don’t even allow ourselves to enjoy our own culture?
Avantika Vandanapu 22:25
Oh, yeah. I agree. Like 100%. I think society’s judgments regarding this thing deprives us. I don’t think any kid prefers, like, I personally will refuse to believe any kid enjoys eating chicken that’s more than, like, hot roti. Like, you’re telling me you enjoy, like, the bland chicken nuggets from the school cafeteria? Boring. Like, I really, I really strongly believe that. It’s just this reinforcement that it’s weird, it’s just so messed up. I think certain people have, like, kind of almost decided that it’s empowering in a way and I think that’s our way of coping with the fact that we are not allowed to bring this part of my heritage. But regardless of, like, you know, people’s way of coping with that deprivation, it’s, like, really messed up that society and, like, countries where diversity is so large, like, in America, there’s people from everywhere. So, it’s crazy to me that melting pots like this are the first country to be like, ‘That’s kind of weird. Like, that’s interesting.’ It is very sad.
Sangeeta Pillai 23:37
I feel like that’s such a loss to ourselves, right? Yeah. When we’re saying, ‘I can’t eat this roti, I’d rather eat the chicken nuggets.’ Or I’m saying, ‘Oh, I can’t wear the sari. Like, I’ve got to go to this cool event and look really kind of, you know, on trend, and this is not on trend.’ So what am I saying? I’m saying that this part of me isn’t okay, because I am that, you know? I, and generations and you and your, you know, forefathers and foremothers have all come from this place. I find that intensely sad and I hope like you’re doing, it’s such a joy to be on your Instagram page and see you with your little bindi wherever you are, and it suits you. You look amazing with it, and your hair. And you’re like this proper South Indian girl, like, you know, you look at you, you’ve got this absolute look and you’re owning it and I think it’s absolutely gorgeous. So it makes me very happy and sounds like you’re proud of it.
Avantika Vandanapu 24:36
Yeah, and I honestly think like, whatever the reasons may be, I think people are embracing it so much more. Like, I’m seeing on TikTok all these girls who are going to their prom in like a sari or like an Indian outfit. It makes me so happy to see that. I think we will come to a place where that involvement of our culture even graduates past aesthetics and just looks and like, people will start opting to take Hindi or whatever their native tongue is as their additional language instead of French or Spanish. And not that it’s bad in any way, but it’s such an important way to connect to these cultures because if enough people don’t do it, they die out and you don’t want that to happen. So I think it’s really great to see this kind of progression and I think people are starting to understand that you can be both. You don’t have to pick. You can be Indian American, or you can be… I think people are understanding that you don’t have to pick one or the other, which is, I think, really, really beautiful.
Sangeeta Pillai 25:43
Saris. How do you feel about them? Would you wear one to a fancy black-tie event? I didn’t for many years. When I first moved to the UK 18 years ago, I moved all my gorgeous saris to the back of the wardrobe. I felt like they weren’t appropriate for my new life in the Western world. If I got invited to a formal do, I’d always wear a dress, never a sari. I was thinking to myself, when did I start to believe that a peacock-cute silk sari was any less formal than a boring black gown? I guess at some point, I was made to feel like saris were… I don’t know, too ethnic, or too different. On the rare occasion when I did wear a sari, I’d be told by other South Asians that I was brave to wear one. Well, I have become braver in the past few years. I’ve started to reclaim my saris. I wear them everywhere now. I wear saris to big award shows, where I stand out like an exotic bird among a sea of ordinary grey birds. I wear them very intentionally when I host my live podcast shows. I want everyone to see that I’m proud to wear my saris from my culture, and here’s a little secret that I want to share with you: nothing makes me feel as sexy, and female, and powerful as wearing a sari.
Even with some people, I think it’s the parents who choose this kind of idea of like, okay, now we live in America or the UK, and so we must fit in. Because it’s, again, the survival response, right? It’s like I’ve got to fit in and be part of this place; otherwise, you know, I’m not going to survive, right? I think they then enforce this on their kids to say, okay, you don’t speak Telugu, Malayalam, or whatever at home, and you speak in English, and you do this. And that’s… I find it doubly sad as well, you know?
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 email@example.com 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 29:25
Another thing that occurred to me when we were speaking is like, it’s this weird co-opting of Indian culture like bindis, you know? The last couple of years, loads of girls at festivals were wearing bindis, right? Without even acknowledging, “Hey, it’s an Indian thing that I’ve now got on my forehead.” Right, you know, or Chai lattes everywhere. I don’t know what it’s like in the States, but it’s everywhere you go. There’s coconut oil and chai latte and it just really annoys me. Like, yeah, please enjoy my culture. But hey, you might want to acknowledge that it comes from somewhere else, you know? So this is weird co-opting and then we’ve now gotten kind of, I don’t know, whatever first second-generation South Asians say, “Hey, now we’re being cool and drinking the chai latte and eating the, you know, putting coconut oil in our food.” Is this a weird kind of circle? I don’t know if I’m making any sense, but…
Avantika Vandanapu 30:18
No, no, no, you are. You are. You are. And I think it’s just like… My take on cultural appropriation is very much so that I give a little bit more leniency in the sense of like, I think not everybody who can wander around can outwardly state that they know the backstory and know what the history of appropriation is. I think that a lot of people from the South Asian community also really don’t know, like, what the background is of anything. So I think we can afford, you know, other people if they’re able to do it respectfully, the same kind of, you know… I think a lot of things can be considered cultural appropriation. That being said, Chai lattes are horrendous. I’m like they’re not good, you’re not doing it right. I’m like, if you do it right, it’s a different question. You don’t, I mean, you can do it right and show appreciation. If you don’t do it right, it’s not… it’s like it’s gotten past appropriation. It’s like butchering, butchering Chai, and I think the same thing applies to bindis at festivals. I think the reason people were so agitated by it was because it was being done in loads and loads. And you know, there’s no way this many people gave attention to what the bindi actually is and what it actually means. And like, so many people, like if I knew girls who wore bindis to school and stopped wearing it after two days because of the fact that people were making fun of them… like, I went to a public school for a certain point in time, and it was not okay. So I think people get triggered by stuff like that, which I think is completely valid, but I think brown people going and drinking these Chai lattes and it’s called like Holly dude, golden milk, like, doing things like this is like our way of reclaiming this almost Americanised take on our culture and being like, ‘Hey, we’re like the actual people who came up with this, you know, this is ours. And so we’re allowed to participate in this and you don’t get to hate on us for it.’
Sangeeta Pillai 32:07
Yeah, I guess what you’re saying is to be a little bit gentler with it. Right?
Avantika Vandanapu 32:12
Right. Right. Right. Yeah, gentler with the people who, you know, gentler with the brown people who are buying a chai latte when, you know, I think somebody would be like, “Why can’t you just, like, you should know how to make it on your own. And you shouldn’t be involved in all of this.” And to be a little bit gentler on even the white people who might be drinking a chai latte, you know what I mean? Like, to be a little bit kinder, a little bit more lenient with everyone.
Sangeeta Pillai 32:37
I like that. Avantika, you seem very connected to your culture. You clearly speak Telugu and you can live in India, and you’re, I mean, it sounds so cliche, but with your saris and your bindis and your kind of way of being, you’re very, very connected. What does it mean to you to be South Asian? Like, what is this connection for you? What does it feel like? Smell like? Taste like?
Avantika Vandanapu 33:03
I think being South Asian has given me this really cool sense of community. For a person who struggled with her identity and who they were for so long, being South Asian was like a baseline for that, you know what I mean? Like speaking Telugu, wearing a bindi, and knowing that this bindi meant certain things to my mom and my grandma. Having curly hair, my grandma, when she came to our house in America, would stitch roots of Jasmine from Jasmine vines in our house. Those are all such fundamental, core parts of my identity. Embracing that was a given. So, it gave me this sense of belonging when I was struggling to find any.
Now, every aspect of my identity has been able to build off of that, because I already walk with a confidence of like, ‘I know who I am, to an extent, and I’m figuring out the rest of it as I go.’ It’s redirected this sense of being lost that I felt when I was really young. Learning Kuchipudi and learning cooking—these are things I learned as I was growing up along with ballet and jazz, but it all kind of cemented a very good foundation for me. Being South Asian is carrying centuries of really amazing culture and really amazing traditions. Being South Asian in the modern world is about making those your own and taking the cultures and traditions you want, because there’s no way you can uphold all of them in the current day. Well, some of them just don’t fit, but a lot of them are so moldable. That’s what’s really beautiful about a culture like this. It’s timeless if you give it the space to be.
Sangeeta Pillai 34:58
Speaking to Avantika has really made me reflect on my own life journey. When I was her age, it felt like a hard but simple choice. I could either follow all the rules of my culture as a young South Asian woman, and I’d be allowed to enjoy the love of family and society. Or I could choose to forge my own path, to make my own choices, to become the independent woman that I wanted to be. But I would lose the love and connection of family, culture, and society. I made that second choice, and I have no regrets. But there’s also been a lot of angst and a sense of loss in the process of finding my own voice, of becoming the woman that I’ve become. Now that I’m older, and making a conscious journey back to my own culture, to discover my own roots, I’m starting to celebrate the food from Kerala that I grew up eating and starting to enjoy speaking the language that I spoke as a child, the words feeling so achingly familiar as they roll off my tongue, but this journey of coming back to my roots has been a long journey, and often a painful one. So when I hear Avantika speak with such ease about celebrating her culture and wearing her saris, her effortless integration of all these various parts of her identity, it fills me with such joy.
Avantika Vandanapu 36:54
I give that credit a lot to my parents because, you know, this is like a constant thing, right? Like, where do you draw the line of what you conform to traditionally? And when do you say, “This is not going to work for me,” right? And your parents are obviously going to have different opinions on what you should culturally conform to, and you’re going to have different opinions about what works for you. My parents always kept the discussion open-ended. I’m not saying that they just let me do whatever I want, but even yesterday, my mom and I were having a discussion about me being like, “You know, this is what I think it means to raise my kid culturally Hindu or culturally Indian.” And she was like, “No, I think this also needs to be a part of it.” And I was like, “I don’t believe that.” The fact that she kept the discussion open-ended and let me work through that with her created a very healthy environment for me to not grow resentment towards my culture, and not completely hate it, and to see that I can pick things that I like, and that I love, and keep those in my life without having to take everything.
Sangeeta Pillai 37:57
No, no, absolutely. Just to give you context, for someone like me, I grew up in India in the 80s, in a very, very traditional family. So I was the first girl in my family to go to university and have a job. They were trying to get me married off when I was about 19. So I was like, “I’m not having any of that.” It was literally walking away from my heritage. I was like, “I reject all of this because you’re not letting me be the person I am.” It’s only now that I’m much, much older that I’ve been able to go back to it and say, “Hey, hang on a minute. Not all of this is evil, right? Yeah. Like, you know, I love this bit and I love this other bit. I’m choosing this and choosing that.” I agree.
Avantika Vandanapu 38:36
I think it’s people like you who have gone through both sides of the equation. You’ve seen the beauty and have been able to pick everything you love, and you understand that you don’t need to take everything. I think it’s people like you who will raise kids who are able to appreciate and see the beauty in certain aspects of their culture without hating all of it.
Sangeeta Pillai 38:56
Thank you for that. Thank you. You’re gonna be a star and the star and producer of A Crown of Wishes, which is the fantastic new Disney film by Roshani Chokshi. Is that right?
Avantika Vandanapu 39:07
She’s the author of the book that we…you’re correct.
Sangeeta Pillai 39:12
And you are, remind me, how old again?
Avantika Vandanapu 39:15
When I opted for it, I was 16.
Sangeeta Pillai 39:18
So you’re 16, and you’re going to produce a film? I mean, how cool is that? And this new princess, she’s a different sort of Disney princess. Can you tell us a little bit more?
Avantika Vandanapu 39:29
So I was 16. It’s been two years now, so I’ve had like two years of time with these books. Rashmi Thakker did a phenomenal job of developing this universe in which this trilogy of books takes place. She’s a really cool princess in the sense that she’s very in touch with her strength and power, and she’s not afraid to be unlikable. But she’s not unlikable, which I love. I enjoy characters who aren’t afraid to be unlikable but still somehow connect with you as an audience, because, yes, we do need to see unlikable characters, but it’s very hard to watch them. So it’s very important to me to have a character that young girls are going to watch and love, not hate. I want them to enjoy her presence and see her as their big sister. She’s fearless, incredibly strong, and uplifting of other women. She’s just this really amazing character in this world of ancient India, which, again, reinforces the idea that progressive ideals can exist in this seemingly traditional world. Personally, I prefer the pre-colonial rule, pre-British invasion India. This series is meant to bring back what India was like in its prime, in its ideal situation, and how women were really allowed to explore themselves. There are many other characters besides her. There’s a character named Asha, who’s this amazing queer, beautiful Misha Kanya, and she’s an assassin come dancer. She’s really, really cool. So I think this show is filled with a lot of amazing female characters, one for everyone. If you don’t particularly relate to Gari, I’m sure there’s someone you’re bound to find yourself within.
Sangeeta Pillai 41:37
I love that. First of all, a Disney princess who is Brown, who is South Asian. I mean, that in itself is like a revolution, you know, because we’ve all grown up with blond, blue-eyed Disney princesses. So that is amazing, and to me, it makes me so happy that this whole generation of young brown girls are gonna grow up and watch someone like that on screen and that’s going to be their idol. I think that’s super, super exciting. I think the other thing you touched on, which is, as women, our first role is to be likeable, is to kind of please other people, to be pliant, and to be smiling and to be pretty and to be all of these things and young girls growing up, all of us internalise these ideas, that we exist in the world as a girl, I have to be all of these things, have to get people to like me most of all, and to challenge that assumption for a young girl, I think is super, super important. And quite again, revolutionary, I think, because I don’t think I’ve seen any characters like that.
Avantika Vandanapu 42:39
And I think there’s something that needs to be broken with young girls understanding that there’s a difference between what society teaches us are characteristics of women who are liked, versus women who are loved. Because I have so many female friends that I adore, and that I love, who don’t comply with these characteristics that we think of when we think of a likeable woman, because it’s simply not true. We as humans are just not that, or at least let me say women, because I can’t speak to men and I would hope that this talk is like, aimed to target young girls. So we as women, see past somebody for just being demure and being…, or whatever, you know, like societally established characteristics are. We love them for so much more. I think girls understanding that they can be themselves and still be loved, which is where that fear of being unlikable…it doesn’t come from, like, ‘Oh, let me just be mean because I think I can get away with it.’ It’s more like, ‘Let me not limit myself to this and understand that I can still be loved.’ There’s so much more people who love you for more than you just being these like three or four characteristics – pretty, not taking up space, smiling when somebody says something mean to you. Like you can be loved for so much more than just you holding back and I think that’s the beauty of Gauri and the beauty of her, because you fall in love with her, despite her breaking all of these kinds of traditions.
Sangeeta Pillai 44:13
Now, that is super, super powerful. There’s so much, I think if we dig deep into how the world socialises young girls to be a particular way, the problem with that is it’s not just young girls. The girls grow up into women and women, you know, become older women, and we’re carrying those things into our lives, and it affects everything from the choice of job to career to whether you speak up in a meeting or the value you ascribe to looks more than anything else, because that’s what you’ve been taught as a young child, you know. So I think it’s super, super, super important. I love the sound of Gauri, and I love the sound of this film, and I cannot wait for it to come out. Let’s talk about Mean Girls. Yeah, let’s talk about it. You’re gonna be one of the leading stars in this production. It was a Broadway show, wasn’t it? And now it’s going to be a film. So tell me about Mean Girls.
Avantika Vandanapu 45:08
I just got back. So like, when I was in New York for it, I’d just wrapped up like a week ago. It’s been insane. I think the past three projects that I’ve done, it was basically, I was shooting a horror film for Sony, and that was really dark and intense. And after that, I ended up shooting a Drama Series for Amazon. So to get off of both of those, and come on to like a musical that’s so fun and eccentric, and colourful and vivid, was like a really big change for me mentally, but my directors were amazing. They were so, so good, and I think people are really scared of this movie, because, you know, they’re like, everyone’s quoting Mean Girls and they’re like, “We don’t want it to turn out like Mean Girls 2.” But I think what people are forgetting is that Tina was not involved in Mean Girls 2, and she was there every day on set for this film. She really guided this project and put her heart into it, and our choreographer, Kyle, and our directors Mark and Sam, everyone was just so involved. So amazing. People poured their heart into this movie, and I could feel that every day on set. It was such an amazing experience to sing for the first time in a movie, because I had only been a shower singer up until that point. So to sing for the first time in a movie was really amazing. To dance, I had grown up being a dancer. So this was my first musical film, back from Bollywood. So that was really, really amazing. And to dive into this character, which is just so iconic and so funny, she’s ditzy, but she’s kind and I love Karen. I love Karen. She’s always been my favourite character from Mean Girls. So to be able to play her now is kind of surreal. I hope people like my take on her. I’m very nervous about this, but I hope people are happy with what I’ve done.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:04
Tell me this, when other young South Asian girls, brown girls sitting in the US in India, in the UK, see on the TV screen, what do you think it does for them?
Avantika Vandanapu 47:15
I hope it does for them what it does for me when I watch shows. Like, I just went and watched Polite Society in theatres, and it was amazing. Like, I loved it. I think it was like, I don’t think a film like that has ever been done before and I am going back today to take my parents and watch it with them. But I hope that seeing me on TV does what that did for me, which is fill me with a sense of hope and a renewed love for cinema and storytellers, particularly because I think when we stop seeing people that we relate to, and we stop seeing people that feel like us, we can get bored and fall into this very monotonous pace. But my goal is to renew people with a sense of like, ‘Oh my god, like this is something we can do.’ Or like, ‘Maybe this inspires me to watch more cinema and watch more movies and get back into that.’ But to be entertained and to feel seen and heard, I think that’s what my goal is, hopefully.
Sangeeta Pillai 48:19
So let’s think for a moment, we’ve got Avantika sitting here who’s like…, and we’ve got Avantika sitting here, who’s 18, what would you say to her? Maybe when you were in that school? You know, the one you were telling me about?
Avantika Vandanapu 48:35
A struggle, like, I think that was like my peak of imposter syndrome. And so I think that was like the biggest thing that was plaguing me. It was like, I don’t feel like I’m worthy or talented enough to be successful in the film industry. I don’t feel like I’m smart enough to succeed in STEM. Yeah, I was succeeding in school, but I didn’t think that made me qualified enough to be a neurosurgeon. So, I think what I would tell that Avantika is to be confident in the fact that you’ll find your own intersection of both of those, and you don’t need to be like 200% good in either of them. You need to find your niche and if you feel like an imposter in the room that you’re currently in, leave. Like, find your own room, make your own room. I think that I’ve forgotten to do that, and I would tell her that like, you’re on the path of doing that. So, like, trust in that and trust in the fact that there are people around you who will guide you into finding your own space. But focus more on that rather than fitting into whatever space the world has decided to force you into. That’s beautiful.
Sangeeta Pillai 49:39
You’ve spoken a little bit about imposter syndrome, right? And I know every single creative person that I know has it. Like it’s just such a part of this dialogue, right? What do we do or what do we say to ourselves? What have you found that useful when that voice kicks in?
Avantika Vandanapu 49:58
I think that with imposter syndrome, it’s not the complex or the syndrome itself that’s the issue. It’s the pain that comes with it. I’ve always reminded myself that, as stupid as it sounds, there’s been so much trauma that this is the only way to cope with it — to remind yourself that it’s so human to feel these things, and that that’s a blessing in and of itself. It’s like, ‘Oh, I feel like an imposter.’ But I’m feeling something. I’ve been in states of depression where I felt nothing, and it was numb. So feeling something, even if it’s a complicated feeling, has been really beneficial to me because I’m like, okay, at least I’m feeling something and at least I’m processing this emotion in a healthy way. So that’s what I tell myself when I feel like an imposter. I’m like, ‘You’re in the thick of being human. And that’s really, really cool. And this is just an experience. And this is something that you’ll grow out of.’ Because I’ve grown out of everything that I’ve badly experienced, even though at the time I thought that I would never be able to. So I know that I’ll grow out of this. And it’ll happen at some point for me, and until that point, I’m enjoying being complicated and enjoying having weird feelings and complicated feelings. Until that point.
Sangeeta Pillai 51:19
I love that. Thank you for sharing. What else has been complicated? I mean, like, if someone looks at your Instagram or looks at your various credits for films, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, you know, amazing life, and it’s all going so well.’ Have there been any challenges along the way?
Avantika Vandanapu 51:37
I mean, there’s been a lot of challenges and I think it has to do mostly with my battle with my culture and my family versus the career that I’m into. Like, even down to the things that I wear in my films are a topic of discussion. It’s like, ‘Oh, is this appropriate?’ And I have to speak on the fact that this is my career, this is my job. And, you know, like, certain things are suitable for a character that I may not wear in real life but I can’t face judgement for choosing to wear that because that’s me doing a good job as an actor, that’s me doing my job as an actor, is to, you know, if a certain clothing type fits a character, to wear that. And so there’s been so much of, you know, even when it comes down to producing, like, are my ideas worth it? Am I bringing enough to the table? Because at the end of the day, I’m adapting something from a book that’s already been written. So finding value in my take and finding value in my spin that I put on, it has been like an ongoing battle as well, like finding value in my own voice and not just feeling like, I’m this person who’s doing a job, which is what I’m doing. But I also need to understand that I bring something to it and I still don’t think I fully comprehended that even though I’m saying it out loud. So that has been an ongoing battle. And you know, it doesn’t help when like, extended family doesn’t really see it as a job. Like when everyone asks, like, ‘What are your future plans?’ Like, ‘Oh, you want to continue, but you want to do this?’ And I’m like, ‘What’s the job like?’ You know, I make good money, I’m very successful, I work really hard. And like, I may not be like a superstar, but like, I’m a working actor, I would hope that there’s this level of respect given to it. So you know, fighting with that, hoping that my parents are still proud of me throughout all of that. There’s just been a lot, so I think, and I think that applies to anybody, I think successful or unsuccessful. There’s just always a lot going on behind the scenes and that’s what’s fueling us to keep going on in life. I think.
Sangeeta Pillai 53:37
I guess that’s it, being human, isn’t it?
Avantika Vandanapu 53:38
Yeah, it is.
Sangeeta Pillai 53:41
There’s always stuff to navigate and kind of go through. You mentioned depression, is that something that you suffered from in the past?
Avantika Vandanapu 53:50
I was very young, like, during my period in India, where I was, you know, the first year was actually really great. But I think after that, I started to feel like, I have no friends. Like, I work with adults every day and I don’t go to school, I don’t have friends. And when I’m not working I’m just sitting at home because I don’t have friends and I feel like no one really understands me. I was going through things about identity and I was going through all these questions and left to nothing but my own devices, and there were a lot of things happening within my surroundings as well that propelled that. But you know, I got out of it. I think that’s all that really matters. I know now how to keep myself away from that which, I also think, matters very much. You need to learn from experiences like that. But you know, I sympathise with anybody who’s experienced that because it’s tough, like not wanting to get out of your bed and like taking a shower. And I think nobody takes it seriously when a 13 year old has depression. They’re like, ‘You think you’re depressed?’ But like, even now as an 18 year old I know I’ve never been that sad and been that numb in my life. So if anything, like, I hope my 13 year old self knows that, like, older Avantika understands that it’s painful and that it will be over very soon.
Sangeeta Pillai 55:13
Yeah, yeah. And in many ways actually, it’s harder when you’re that age because you haven’t got the tools…18 year old Avantika will have a lot more tools at her disposal than 13 year old Avantika, right? So it’s, in many ways, it’s hard. So, well done for finding your way out of it. It sounds like you did and you’ve got this, I think incredibly successful career. I’m like, so impressed with you. It’s insane. I can’t stop saying it. I don’t know you, but I feel really proud of you, of the women you are. I think it’s amazing for me to hear and watch you. So before we leave, have you got any words or advice for listeners of masala podcast?
Avantika Vandanapu 55:52
So I’m gonna say that, you know, while it may feel that our culture is against us, as women, there’s a lot of things that it has to offer and to use those to your benefit and to use those to fuel whatever path you want to be on for the future because you have a lot to offer. Your narrative fused with this narrative of like, centuries and centuries of history and culture is really powerful, and to like never forget that and always use it to pave your way in whatever field that you choose to be in.
Sangeeta Pillai 56:24
That’s wonderful. That is very, very wise. Thank you. Thank you Avantika. Thank you for being on the Masala Podcast, it has been an absolute joy!
Avantika Vandanapu 56:35
To you too as well. Thank you.
Sangeeta Pillai 56:41
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.