The former lawyer is the first actor of Indian origin to score a key role on a mainstream Australian TV drama. She tells her story to SBS News.
‘My Australia’ is a special SBS News series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2018.
When Sharon Johal was growing up, she didn’t see any kids who looked like her on TV. But that didn’t stop the third-generation Indian-Australian from dreaming of a life on screen.
Her mum and dad though, had other ideas.
“My parents literally gave me a list of things I could be,” she told SBS News laughing. “A doctor, a pharmacist, a lawyer, or a dentist. It was ‘that’s what you’re going to do, we’re working so hard for you so you can have this opportunity.’”
Johal, 31, grew up in Berri, in South Australia’s beautiful, isolated Riverland, but her family's ties to the country stretched back further.
Johal’s Punjabi grandparents first came to Queensland cutting sugar cane. They took their earnings and returned to India. Her mother spent the first 12 years of her childhood in India before the family returned. They were among the first Indian families to settle in South Australia.
It was not an easy adjustment; Johal's mother told her their brown skin was so unfamiliar to her classmates at the time that she was often mistaken for an Indigenous person.
As her mother grew up and had her own family, like many migrants, Johal’s parents saw better opportunities for their children if they made sacrifices to stay in Australia. It meant Johal, her older sister and younger brother, were keenly aware of parental expectations.
“There’s a massive cultural expectation being of Indian heritage,” Johal said. “You’ve got that added expectation – we’re very privileged people, I should say – but because our parents came out to give us a better life, for us kids, it’s like we lived their journey of what they wanted us to be and do.
“It was difficult because I always had that creative side, I always wanted to do acting. When I was really little I was always putting on shows, trying to get everyone to watch. It might be a middle child thing, ‘look at me, I want to be the centre of attention!’”
Now based in Melbourne, (Neighbours is filmed in the suburb of Vermont) Johal’s solution was to work hard and follow both dreams; her parents’ and her own. She got the marks at school in dentistry and law, choosing to pursue law at Adelaide University “because I thought it was the closest thing to acting”.
She spent years working as a commercial and litigation lawyer, doing acting classes and auditions on weekends. Opportunities for ethnically diverse actors were few and far between.
Her fiancé Ankura Dogra, an accountant, told SBS News “the fact that there wasn’t those main feature roles for her being of Indian background in Australia, that was the most difficult part.”
After a while, Johal says, “We weren’t seeing (ethnically diverse actors) on TV in Australia, so ... doing the due diligence we thought about where I could get work.” She considered Bollywood.
Johal applied for SBS reality TV show Bollywood Star where entrants competed in Mumbai to star in a Bollywood film. Against her expectations, she made it through to the final round, coming runner-up. But she didn’t want to move to India, so she came home to Australia.
She kept auditioning, kept missing out. “There’s so many ethnic actors and only a few roles so you’d get really close then miss out ... I thought, 'it’s not going to happen.'”
She went back to law, ready to give up on her dream, when the call came in 2016 that Neighbours was casting Indian actors. Now Johal plays Dipi Rebecchi on Australia’s most successful and longest-running soap.
Rebecchi is one half of an interracial couple with two kids. While that might sound unremarkable in real life, the once exclusively Anglo-Celtic soap has been slow to reflect Australia’s multicultural diversity. Johal sees her personal story as evidence of a much greater shift in Australian society.
“There’s a want and need for that cultural change and I’m really excited to be a part of it,” she said. “If people see themselves on TV it makes them feel safer, there’s people like me, that’s like my family.”
If people see themselves on TV it makes them feel safer.
Her fiance too is pleased that diversity has finally entered Australian TV casting in recent years.
“TV should be a true reflection of what’s happening in society and in the community,” he said. “It means different people can have role models of different ethnic backgrounds, that’s why (it’s important).”
Johal’s co-star Alan Fletcher, who has played Dr Karl Kennedy on the show for 23 years, admits mainstream TV has had a slow start in representing the real Australia.
“I think a lot of the resistance to culturally diverse television was because of an aversion to risk. TV producers and the networks tend to say, ‘hey we’ll make what we know works’, so they’re reluctant to change,” he told SBS News. “But what’s happened is very quickly they’ve discovered that ... increasing cultural diversity in comedy and drama has been massively successful … so I think the producers are saying … 'we need it because it’s what people want.'”
Johal says the fact she had the opportunity to pursue her dream, despite challenges along the way, is something she loves about Australia.
“I didn't set out to be a role model but if I could say anything, it’s don’t be afraid to speak about what you want to achieve and what you do want to do.
“Don’t listen to the naysayers, don’t listen to people who tell you it's impossible ... I’m an everyday Australian and I struggled and went through ups and downs like everyone else. Be kind, keep trying, you will get there.”