Q. You were one of the first Indian actresses to venture into Hollywood and find success. How did that come about?
A. Thank you for saying that. Here people think that you can find instant success just by looking pretty. But in Hollywood, everyone wants to be an actor; Los Angeles has the most beautiful women from all over the world. I wanted to be an actor since I was a little girl. I come from a very conservative household in south India where a hero’s daughter is not accepted into the film industry. I had to find my way out and I ran the farthest I could go to the US where I did my undergrad. I majored in theatre. In LA, I started out like everyone else, as an extra, and I really hustled and turned every “No” into a step closer to a “Yes”. When I auditioned for Las Vegas in 2004, it was just one line, but they were so impressed that they offered me the role. The rest is history. I then booked Desperate Housewives, Boston Legal and numerous independent films.
Q. As an Indian actor were you also stereotyped into a Latina character, for instance?
A. Absolutely! They’re going to give you a character that you look like. How often do we get actresses from Mumbai for Telugu films and dub their voices? We have no right to be prejudiced against what we do— Hollywood is a world market. It was clear from my communication that I could play a person of Indian ethnicity from America, but I can’t play a Caucasian—I still had to play my colour. I played Latina and other ethnicities because of the way I looked, and they were open to that. I had to play a woman of colour and I was very proud of it.
Q. What were the kind of challenges you faced there when you were trying to make your debut?
A. When you go in for an audition, you’ll find there are 300 girls who fit the role and are there to audition. And LA having so many beautiful women, you feel like you’ve already failed the audition even before you go for it. You’re just another number for them.
Q. Is it easier in India to get a break?
A. Yes, I think so. You can be slightly talented and pretty-looking and can get a break. Very few people here go to acting school, but in Hollywood, they first look at which acting school you went to, who you’re training with, who your agent is and so on. The kind of bar set for even a newcomer in LA is very high.
Q. You made your debut in Indian cinema in 2011. Have you been able to find your niche here?
A. No [laughs]. I’m still struggling. People here really don’t know where to categorise me. Most of the actresses quit here when they are in their late 20s or early 30s, but there I am, an actress who came into the industry in her 30s after marriage. They don’t know where to categorise me. Am I a leading lady? Am I a character actor? Am I a woman-centric actress? I have done such a wide range of characters and I don’t know what people look at me as here. I know what I can be but it’s the people who cast me that need to know how they look at me.
Q. You come from a well-known Telugu film family—your father, Mohn Babu, has done more than 500 films, and both your brothers, Manchu Vishnu and Manchu Manoj, are actors. Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut spoke about nepotism a while back. Did you have it easy?
A. No freaking way! Being Mohan Babu’s daughter is great in my personal life, but being his daughter in the industry is such a big iron wall for people to come and approach me. Fathers wants their kids to get into their same field. I don’t know why nepotism is being so highly debated here. Being Mohan Babu’s daughter gives me the first step to be seen right away, but if I’m not talented, the audience isn’t going to come back to see me. I can give you a hundred examples of where actors’ kids have not made it for whatever reason. You can’t just throw “nepotism” around. What nepotism did Vidya Balan or Kangana have? I love Kangana for being so open, wild and vocal, but you can’t generalise all the time. And of course, you feel safer going to a third-generation doctor for instance. With an actor, there’s a certain aura with an actor’s son or daughter but that’s just for one film. You must really hustle and show your worth to be in the industry long-term.
“Very few people here go to acting school, but in Hollywood, they first look at which acting school you went to, who you’re training with, who your agent is and so on. The kind of bar set for even a newcomer in LA is very high.”
A. Absolutely, and I’m glad you said as good if not better. I think we have some incredible films and we’re only now learning from and opening up to a market other than India. Aamir Khan’s Dangal was a bigger hit in China than in India. They have female foeticide like in India and it was a big cultural movement there. We should focus on the story. Like Dangal could be a story about women not getting into wrestling in Timbuktu; it wasn’t culturally rooted. I definitely think we need to tell stories better.
Q. Why do you think there are so few women in the film industry here?
A. We need to encourage more women to come into the industry and change the mindset. When I’m producing, it’s important for me to have more women on set. In Hyderabad, the union has a rule that women can’t be make-up artists and I’m fighting this right now. You cannot deny a woman work.
Q. What more can be done to empower women in our society?
A. We’re in 2017 and I think women just need to stand up for themselves. Even in the cities, women get an education and start saying, “I want to get married now”. We need to change this herd mentality. Indians are so bothered about what society thinks than what is your truth and the life you want to live. Empowerment has been happening since they’ve been calling us “witches” and burning us alive. You, as a woman, need to stand up for yourself and make the change. You can’t ask what someone else is doing. What are you doing about it?
Q. Your Hollywood film Basmati Blues with Brie Larson is up for release. Would you like to go back to Hollywood?
A. Absolutely! This movie was shot in India and I’m hoping that it gets a huge release and that they’ll fall in love with my character and buy me a one-way ticket to LA. That’s my dream [laughs].