A passage
to India

Words by Mark White
Photos by Tim Bauer

Work is sparse in Australia for aspiring Indian actors. Why try your luck and your vocal cords locally when Bollywood beckons? Every year, dozens line up for a national talent quest in the hope of a ticket to Mumbai and fame.

On a humid summer Sunday, a handful of Australian women of Indian heritage are introducing themselves. They are sat in a Sydney photo studio with whitewashed walls and wooden beams. Two electric fans are trying to make conditions bearable.

The space belongs to Raj Suri, an Indian-born photographer/director who runs the “Miss India Australia by Raj Suri” competition (MIA). Four of the women are auditioning for the MIA 2016 final, though the day's workshop also covers tips on building self-esteem and breaking into India's vast entertainment industry.

Raj Suri runs the Miss India Australia contest.

Raj Suri runs the Miss India Australia contest.

The fifth woman, a professional attending only for the workshop’s self-empowerment component, speaks first. She has asked not to be identified. Her mum suggested she come.

“She's just trying to make me more Indian,” the woman says, to laughter. “I think I'm pretty Indian!”

Cheerful 20-year-old model Aradhana Sud has flown in from Melbourne, the only attendee from outside Sydney. She loves the fashion industry, “especially Indian fashion”.

Aspiring journalist Simran Gill is also present, a determined 18-year-old: “I've got the Bollywood fever – for acting.”

The slim 22-year-old with silver ankle bracelets, who smiles a lot and has a passion for Indian music, is provisional psychologist Nikitha Thampy. “I don't get many opportunities to perform [in Australia], to be honest,” she says.

Corporate lawyer Neha Kullar is 25, making her the oldest applicant. “I'm interested in the glamour aspect and the cinematography side,” she says. “The production.”

Top: Raj Suri directs Simran Gill. Middle (L-R): Neha Kullar; Nikki Thampy; Raj Suri's camera. Bottom (L-R): Aradhana Sud; workshop feet.

They will be taught how to pose for pictures, perform on camera and stage a three-minute “talent round”. If lucky, they will progress to the final, where the outright winner has the chance to move to the land of opportunity: Mumbai, India, the centre of Bollywood – the world's biggest film industry.

Despite the size of the Indian diaspora in Australia (the 2011 census recorded 295,352 Indians and 390,894 responses for Indian ancestry), their opportunities in the local culture industry are limited.

That can manifest in surprising ways. Gill applied to be an extra in a Bollywood production which filmed here, but wasn't allowed to audition because she “wasn't blonde”. The archetypal Australian being sought apparently didn't have brown skin.

She says the lack of representation is only just being addressed, naming TV presenter Waleed Aly and journalist Anjali Rao as examples. The professional agrees: “You just see Australian white people [on commercial TV]. The majority of immigrants, from China and India, aren't represented.”

Anousha Zarkesh, a Sydney casting director of 25 years with Persian heritage, echoes them: “When I was growing up, you never saw people who looked like me. I never saw myself on the screen unless in foreign films.”

She recalls past excuses from creative executives: “They would say there are no good ethnic actors around. Acting is pretty much experience – if they have the instinct, then each actor gets more confident the more they work.”

MIA 2011 winner Ankita Ghazan, 24, tells SBS she was cautious about entering the pageant. It wasn’t that entertainment industry work was frowned upon at home – her parents had never even considered it. She had planned to follow family members into medicine.

The entertainment industry’s barriers to reflecting the makeup of modern Australia are like a snake eating its tail. Lack of visibility means this kind of work is not seen as a career. If it's not a career, why bother training? And if people aren't trained – or considered for roles – they won't be picked, leading again to lack of visibility.

“I've gone for extras roles or tried to apply for them through online agencies,” Gill tells SBS. “They said you had to be blonde or Caucasian. It's difficult to break in. Even for Bollywood pub singers, they want blonde-haired girls.”

Nullar, among others, doesn't think there's outright racism involved – more an ignorance of an ethnic group outside the experience of those who traditionally control entertainment. Zarkesh characterises them, without malice, as “white men in suits”.

It exasperates Bali Padda, co-chairman of the diversity community at Actors' Equity: “Why do I have to explain this issue? Why do I have to explain institutional racism and bias, that that's a good idea?

“I go to Bondi. I host barbecues! I go to the beach!”

“It's important, because we live in a society of a lot of different people with different backgrounds and abilities. We need to acknowledge that these people exist.”

Just because he's a Sikh, doesn't mean he's not Australian, he adds.

“I go to Bondi. I host barbecues! I go to the beach!”

But there's more to Miss India Australia than funnelling the talent that can't find work here into the Indian culture industry, explains talent quest organiser Suri.

“I didn't want a young girl to be growing up with complexes in a country their parents decided to move to,” he says.

Suri’s owlish expression recalls Doctor Who actor David Tennant. He wears chunky, black-rimmed glasses and talks in intimate, sincere tones.

“I don't want them to feel they're less Australian by following Indian culture, because that enriches them,” he says. “If she gets out of the car and she's in a beautiful Indian outfit, she shouldn't be embarrassed to go to a 7-Eleven to buy a choccy or something.”

In other words, Suri sees no need for either assimilation into the dominant culture, or the ghetto-isation that rejects it. Who knew that an experiment in multiculturalism would be taking place in the guise of a talent contest?

Aradhana Sud learns posing techniques.

Aradhana Sud learns posing techniques.

The most recent of Suri's protégés – Nibedita Pal, 21, from Brisbane – moved indefinitely to Mumbai in January, after visiting last year as Miss India Australia 2015. Suri’s brother runs a movie production company there.

The visit “solidified my dreams”, she tells SBS via Skype, a few days before her move. She has a big, confident smile.

“I was comfortable with it. I fit into the environment and the people.”

Pal won the contest with a Bollywood dance. It was a way of showing her connection with her roots, she says. She was born in Mumbai, where she still has family, before a move to New Zealand at the age of five. Now she hopes to work in TV and film.

“I'm more excited and eager than nervous,” says Pal.

In Australia, she says, there's only so far you can go. Local audiences generally aren't receptive.

“Indian culture can be quite overwhelming and dramatic sometimes. It's very bold, very vibrant. They're used to more subtlety and calmness [in Australia].”

“You get there, you think, 'This is my mother country', but it's not. It's as much a foreign country as some other country.”

Suri was concerned that Pal may be undercooked professionally. He wished she had travelled with photos and a showreel – anything to help her stand out. But the competition isn't the only challenge facing someone who has spent most of their life away from their cultural background, where they will lack familiar experiences and a support network.

“You can't just land in India,” he tells SBS. “The irony is, I feel you're kind of trapped initially. You get there, you think, 'This is my mother country', but it's not. It's as much a foreign country as some other country.”

Despite almost 11 years in India, MIA 2004 winner Vimala Raman still suffers occasional culture shock – most recently when learning how to drive a manual car. Her instructor was becoming agitated at her waiting to give way to oncoming traffic.

“Basically, there's no rules,” she tells SBS. “He was saying, 'Madam, don't give way, you give way all day, you give way to yourself! Just go!'”

Raman, who hasn't lost her Aussie twang, has played the lead in almost 40 Indian movies, making her the most successful Australian ever in its film industry.

Growing up, the only Indian face she could recall seeing on TV was SBS newsreader Indira Naidoo.

She always loved performing on stage and had long been told she would be an actor, but took an IT degree at the University of New South Wales first. “Education!” she says, in a suddenly pronounced Indian accent. “We are Indians! Education first!”

When she entered MIA, she was a database analyst for the Australian Financial Markets Association. Growing up, the only Indian face she could recall seeing on TV was SBS newsreader Indira Naidoo.

“There was such a lack of opportunity in Australia,” she says. “It was more Australian white people – but that wasn't just Australia, you see that globally, even in Hollywood.

“It's only in the last four or five years there's been bigger opportunities for ethnic actors, especially Indians. After Slumdog Millionnaire, it's globally changed.”

“You've made the first step if you're there, you've got potential.”

Ahead of the talent round, Aradhana Sud tops up her lipstick in front of an archetypal dressing-room mirror with a strip of light bulbs, one of which isn't working. She sings, enjoying herself after a self-conscious start.

“Move to Mumbai?” she tells SBS. “Definitely! That's the land of opportunity! You've made the first step if you're there; you've got potential.”

Suri repeatedly warns his charges not to expect overnight success. This has resonated with Sud, who expects at least a year will pass before she achieves anything. She has been watching India's Next Top Model for tips.

Nikitha Thampy croons a song in Tamil and Hindi, which reminds her of her childhood in Kerala. She has a delicate voice and closes her eyes when she mouths the words.

Would she move back to India? “Definitely not! I would enjoy flying in and out, but at heart I'm a Sydney girl.”

Thampy hopes to harness the opportunities here. She points out there's criticism of lack of diversity, but no action.

“You need to cause the change,” she tells SBS. “No-one wants to do it, but no-one else is going to do it.”

Neha Kullar will audition at the end of the day with Gill, who has blown her dance routine, twice forgetting the choreography. She decides to revert to her original plan of a monologue.

Few of the women Suri sends to Mumbai know what to expect, he says.

“You love Bollywood, this fantasy, you want to see yourself on screen, but in reality you have no clue. You go as a newcomer and this director says, 'Honey! You're not giving me this, get lost!' And you're going to take it personally and be scared.”

Past Miss India Australia winners confirm how tough the city's culture industry is, as befitting the centre of the world's biggest film industry (with its ancillary fashion, TV and advertising industries).

Neha Kullar gets ready to pose in Indian dress.

Neha Kullar gets ready to pose in Indian dress.

In 2012, there were 1602 films released there, more than triple Hollywood's 476. More people went to see Bollywood films, too, with 2.6 billion tickets sold, compared with Hollywood's 1.36 billion. The second wealthiest actor in the world is also Indian: Forbes magazine estimated Shah Rukh Khan's fortune at $840m in 2014.

Ankita Ghazan was aged just 1 when she immigrated to Australia from the Punjab.

“I have a large extended family here; my dad's side is quite big, so I had a very secure, protective upbringing,” she says at a Sydney CBD cafe. Her clothes are simple but elegant.

It took her six months to settle in and consider auditioning. It was another four months before she was hired for anything.

“Going overseas alone was a massive step.” She was just 19. It took her six months to settle in and even consider auditioning. It was another four months before she was hired for anything. Her mum was with her for the first month, but then she was on her own. “I had literally no idea what I was doing,” she says.

Ghazan had to become “very thick-skinned” to deal with the rejection.

“It was scary. Especially in Bollywood, where they produce so many films and so many people want to be part of the industry. There's so much competition – you don't realise this until you get there and go to castings and auditions … it's such a driven society.”

She stayed for nearly four years, by which time she was cracking modelling roles and a few films. But she wanted to return to university (she's now studying business and singing in local Bollywood gigs) and had made enough connections to be able to fly to India for auditions.

MIA 2013 winner Zenia Starr, 26, also moved to Australia when she was just 1. She entered MIA because she wanted to establish her own relationship with the land of her parents, having visited her mother's side of her family in Delhi for holidays.

“You get welcomed with overwhelming hospitality, hit all the tourist locations, meet the family,” she says.

“The lack of electricity and the traffic is a novelty. It's completely different from when you live there and experience it, in an environment where maybe you don't have a social or family network to plug into.

“Mumbai's a very, very fast city, it was quite overwhelming at times and the competition for acting work is quite steep. There are girls who come from all over Europe, as well as two billion almost in India.”

In Australia, she would have to hope that an audition would be open to ethnically diverse talent.

“In India,” she says, “you are going to get those roles; there's just an overwhelmingly larger number of people going up for it.”

She fell sick in India, but found out while recovering in Australia that an audition had paid off with a two-movie deal. She returned for four months and shot the film. The only way to form a professional network is to be there, she says: “You have to be in it to win it.”

Swetha Raj, 24, won MIA 2014 after moving with her family from India to Australia in 2008.

“I would have loved to stay and do something here,” she says, “but in Australia, Indian-Australian models don't have so many opportunities to begin with. I wanted to know if modelling was for me, so I thought it best to go a place where there will be lots of opportunities.”

She spent periods of six months and four months in Mumbai during 2014-15, as a model.

“People there are absolutely brutal,” she says. “They'll tell you to your face whatever they think.”

Auditioning was beginning to pay off by the end of her second stint, but she wanted to complete her education. Raj is about to graduate as an aeronautical engineer.

Click. “Yes,” he murmurs. Click.

Suri aims his camera. Click. “Yes,” he murmurs. Click.

The workshop has moved on to the art of posing. The women have changed into show-stopping saris, in great blooms of golds, reds and blues. Suri directs Aradhana Sud's posture, telling her there has to be a “spark in the eyes”.

His wife Ruchi, who's filming sections of the day on a smartphone for his website, says while he shoots that she's noticed MIA applicants know how to be part of either the dominant culture or their heritage – but not both.

“Indian is more modest and Australian is… not! For me, to go to the beach and wear a bikini took a long, long time.”

“I think you're stuck between them,” agrees Sud. “Indian is more modest and Australian is… not! For me, to go to the beach and wear a bikini took a long, long time. It was seeing other Aussies – I'm an Aussie too, I was born here – made me go, ‘I can do that’.”

She calls herself a “typical” Indian girl: she loves her Bollywood, her glamour, is “modest to an extent”, usually quite shy and reserved, rather than outgoing, and academically oriented.

MIA 2004 winner Vimala Raman had the best of both cultural worlds as a child. Her parents sent her to classes in dance, classical Indian music and Hindu religion from a young age. At school she relished singing in the choir and playing sports like netball and softball.

“From childhood, you learn to balance both sides of the thinking,” she says. But her parents let her embrace both her Indian and Australian sides.

“You should be backed up by your cultural roots, but you should think in a Western way,” says Raman. “It works hand in hand.”

There are many stories within that tension. Bali Padda is producing an upcoming Griffin Theatre Company play, Lighten Up, about an Anglo-Indian Australian actor trapped between his two cultures. It's based on co-writer Nicholas Brown's struggle to find work here after graduating from NIDA. Brown now splits his time between Australia and India, where he has appeared in Bollywood films.

There are some signs of a shift in the local industry.

“In the last six months, it's changing pretty rapidly. I'm on a Tooheys beer ad!” says Zenia Starr, sitting back at a café on Sydney’s northern beaches and throwing her hands up.

“That's pretty Australian, you know what I mean? There's a brown girl on a Tooheys beer ad, because that's the changing face of Australia.”

Padda agrees that momentum is building. He tells of a recent commercial he was cast in. During one scene on a bus, he heard the comment: “Can you change out of some of the people behind the main guy? We need some cultural diversity.”

Raj Suri offers posing tips to Simran Gill.

Raj Suri offers posing tips to Simran Gill.

Casting director Anousha Zarkesh says a push for diversity has come from within the acting community, aided by the likes of Padda. She adds that the success of movies like The Sapphires – encouraging greater commissioning variety – makes this an exciting time.

She credits the ABC and SBS with encouraging colourblind casting: if a character is a detective, say, do they need to be a specific ethnicity?

The push for more diverse talent could encourage snowballing participation. It has gained impetus with the announcement of an inquiry by Screen Australia into diversity, which will include analysis of Australian TV drama from 2011-15.

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason said: "We are fortunate enough to live in one of the most diverse countries in the world and our TV drama should reflect the energy of all those stories."

“When a child says they want to be an actor, their Asian mother and father say, 'Are there really job opportunities for you?'”

“When a child says to a parent they want to be an actor,” says MIA 2013 winner Starr, “their south-east Asian mother and father say, 'Are there really job opportunities for you?' – and fairly so.”

“Perhaps if we saw more people on screen, there wouldn't be a hesitancy for a mentor to support someone to throw themselves into the deep end.”

But diversity isn't just skin colour. MIA contestant Neha Kullar ponders if it's even if possible to represent India in a single person.

“I think the beauty of India is the diversity and richness within our culture,” she says. “It's not homogeneous.”

Starr recently flew to India to audition for a BBC-backed film, Viceroy's House, starring Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville. It was the first British Raj film made by a British Indian. Starr wasn't cast, but her first film, My Birthday Song, is released this year. She's auditioning for US sitcoms.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” she says, mentioning Channel Nine's Here Come the Habibs and SBS's The Family Law, both stories from ethnic Australians.

“They're stepping up. They're creating good work. It's not come from a sense of entitlement.”

From left: Neha Kullar, Simran Gill and Nikki Thampy.

Raj Suri ends the workshop with some warnings: keep your ego in check if you do have success; it's up to you to get work. He gives a talk about Bollywood and provides feedback about the day. It's okay to be silly, he says – you can lose your inhibitions, find your purpose, spark the fire. They may be generalisations, but that's all that's needed for now.

Before the contest moves on to Melbourne and contenders from other capital cities take part via Skype (followed by the final in winter), it’s time for the final two auditions. Kullar improvises a talk to an ex-lover who has broken her heart, but is gently chastised for not speaking for her allotted three minutes.

She may have been unnerved by Gill's preceding monologue as Joan of Arc, which saw the teenager roar and shake with emotion.

“Well, that's good,” says Suri, in the suddenly quiet room.

“That's your talent.”