I was intrinsically artistic from a young age. I’ve always been very, very passionate about performing and visual arts in my life. Drawing and painting were definitely hobbies when I was a kid. I was the lead violinist, the first chair, in my high school orchestra during my junior and senior years of high school. Fun fact: My orchestra teacher used to be baffled by how I could memorize pages of concertos and play by ear while the rest of the class would have to wait and read the notes. I do have a knack for music, mimicry, and things like that. I’m told those are great skills to have.
Since childhood, I was brought up with the family value of appreciating and absorbing the best of both the American and Indian cultures. I’ve always thought of myself as Indo-American. Since a young age, I saw a lot of my Indian friends shy away from speaking our mother tongue (Bengali), but I’ve always spoken Bengali and English with comfort and confidence. I’ve also been visiting India since I was five years old. My parents always taught me to take the country as-is and not compare it to anywhere else in the world. For this reason, I always found myself clarifying doubts and stereotypical misconceptions to people from both cultures and countries.
GOING TO INDIA TO ACT WAS LIKE A SABBATICAL FROM COLLEGE
For college, I attended Michigan State University — which is the better Michigan school! During my time there, I was exploring dietetics and nutrition as the field that I wanted to pursue. By the time I got to my sophomore year, I had decided to take a little break from studying so I could explore acting in India. It was just around the time that I’d won the Miss India USA title in 2007. Miss India USA is the oldest and most respected Indo-American pageant in the states for nonresident Indians. (They have a slang term for us — NRIs.) Just like any other Indian-American kid, I had grown up with Indian films, or what Westerners would call Bollywood films. Winning the national title of Miss India USA opened up opportunities in that realm for me.
I participated in theater during middle and high school, but I never got the lead roles. In fact, I was always a “sidey.” I was just happy to be on stage and loved the excitement of performing on stage. During my teenage years, I was also actively learning and choreographing Indian classical and Bollywood dances. When I went into Indian films, it was more of a matter of unleashing the inner artist in me. I’ve always believed in pushing myself outside my comfort zone. I really wanted to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime venture by living in another country and trying to excel in a field where I never really had any training or experience before.
So going to India to act was more of a sabbatical for me at the time, because I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wasn’t digging human nutrition and dietetics for a long-term career pursuit. Naturally, when it comes to these Indian pageants, going into the entertainment field is a natural next step. A lot of people try it, but not everyone makes it. You either need to have a godfather in the industry or be a star’s kid or have some amazing edge that sets you apart from the rest. It’s an incredibly competitive field. For me, having the edge of winning a national pageant title really helped.
THE FIRST STEP: ACTING SCHOOL
I was 21 years old. No one, not even myself, knew that I had any acting talent whatsoever. It was a complete shot in the dark. I had this urge to explore it. Everyone thought I was crazy. My friends and family were definitely skeptical. When it came to Indian cinema, there are 22 languages spoken in India and there are several big regional industries within the country. At the end of the day, I think my parents saw how determined I was about pursuing it, so they allowed me to give it a shot.
I’d taken a trip to Mumbai during one of our family trips to visit relatives. During that time, I was able to meet with some top producers and directors. It was really encouraging because they all said I had potential, but I had no acting experience. So I would definitely need an acting primer! They suggested that I audition for Actor Prepares, which is a premier acting institution in India. I sent over a video audition from Michigan and got selected.
That’s when I took the leap of faith and moved to Mumbai, but it goes without saying that there were several conditions that I needed to meet before my parents would let their only daughter travel across the ocean to explore new territory. It wasn’t like, “Hey, mom and dad! I have these film offers in line. Let me just move across the world to pursue them!”
PARENTS SET THE BAR HIGH FOR A MOVE TO INDIA
My parents set it up so that it would be very, very difficult for me to actually make it work out. The first thing was, they didn’t want me to stay alone in Mumbai, which is kind of the Los Angeles of India. That’s where the film industry hub is. They wanted one of my cousins to come and live with me in Mumbai. That meant that she would leave a job in the city where she was living to come and support me. My parents thought that was just a far-out idea. As luck would have it, my younger cousin left her job in Kolkata and took it as an opportunity to further her own career. So she moved to Mumbai just for me and promised my mom that she would be my guardian and would make sure that I would not fall into any kind of trouble.
That other thing was, my parents said, “OK, you’re going to have acting school for three months. Within the year, you either need to get a gig or you’re coming right back.” By gig, she meant a big commercial film in a lead role! Once again, she was assuming that it would never happen. Here’s the funny part: I finished my three months of acting school. Within a month, I started flying cross-country doing modeling for various top fashion and beauty brands like Pepé Jeans, Malabar Gold, and Peter England People. I was going on four or five flights a week to go to shoots.
My parents helped financially support my cousin and I for the first year, thinking that I would probably be coming back within the first year of my acting pursuit. But then, to everyone’s surprise, I was able to financially support myself. As a thank-you to my parents, I sent them on vacation!