(August 28, 2021) Who could have possibly thought that in between the perfectly whitewashed Disney channel films like High School Musical, Camp Rock and Descendants, one would find Spin? But it’s 2021, and Hollywood seems to finally be warming up to South Asian representation on the big screen in its most authentic form. And amid this is the first South Asian lead for a Disney Channel film – Avantika Vandanapu.
The Indian-American, who began her career in Tollywood, is now making heads turn with her Hollywood debut. Such has been the response to her act in Spin that she has found herself on Variety’s 2021 Power of Young Hollywood List. Here’s the story of the girl who gave the world it’s first South Asian lead in a Disney film.
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Dancing dream that took her to Mumbai
Born in San Francisco to an accountant mother and a software engineer father, Vandanapu was trained in Kuchipudi, Kathak, Ballet, Jazz, Contemporary and Bollywood since the age of 5. It was dance that really made Vandanapu feel at home. Such was the passion for dancing that a 9-year-old Vandanapu applied for Zee TV dance reality show Dance India Dance Lil Masters and came to Mumbai after her selection. The adventure of having a first-hand experience of the world of Hindi TV and film in Mumbai, Vandanapu fell in love with the industry. It was then she made up her mind that she would pursue acting as a profession.
Her wish was granted when a Telugu director saw her on the show and cast her in a film. It was with Mahesh Babu‘s 2016 film Brahmotsavam that Vandanapu made her Tollywood debut as a child artist. She instantly shot to fame and ended up working in Manamantha, Premam, Balakrishnudu and Agnyathavaasi.
Bullied for skin tone
After trying her hands in acting in India, Vandanapu wanted to up her game and improve her craft. This drive to better her art brought her back to the US where she trained intensively in acting and dancing. From taking drama classes at school to going for open-call auditions, Vandanapu was ready to make it big in Hollywood.
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But things weren’t easy for this teenager as she found herself being mocked at for her skin tone.
In a conversation with Mid-Day, she opened up on facing racism in America. She said,
“I have dealt with the occasional comments like, ‘Go back to your country!’ But I know people in the mid-west have it worse. It’s also that lingering feeling of being left out, and that you don’t have the same opportunities as others because of your skin colour. The Caucasian community assumes that as an Indian, you don’t relate to the American experience.”
However, Vandanapu wasn’t ready to bow down to racial discrimination, and kept following her passion. The first opportunity that came knocking on her door was Disney Channel’s Spin in 2017, which turned out to be Vandanapu’s first audition for a Hollywood film. However, the makers wanted to work a little more on the script and develop the characters fully before starting the project. So for three years Spin was put on hold. But in between, Vandanapu’s auditions got her a role in Mira, Royal Detective, an Indian-American-Canadian animated mystery series and an American comedy-drama series Diary of A Future President.
Smashing stereotypes with her Hollywood debut
In 2020, Vandanapu found herself yet again at the audition of Spin, Disney’s first film with a South-Asian lead. For the longest time, Disney films have been whitewashed but with South Asian representation trickling on the big screen in a big way, Spin came with an authentic take on Indian American experience.
The 16-year-old has scripted history by becoming the first South Asian lead for a Disney Channel film. But it’s still surreal for her because Vandanapu. “What teenager does not dream of being on Disney channel? I have always thought about it. But it was tough for me as a young Indian girl to think one day I would be on that screen. But as we see representation coming to Hollywood, it was like, ‘Oh may be this is something I could finally get to do’. And then Spin was here, and it was just so unreal. It was a crazy experience, and I have to constantly pinch myself to be able to live out my dream like this,” she told PinkVilla.
Spin has smashed the glass ceiling in more than one way. The Manjari Makijany-directed film has not just given Disney a South Asian lead but the film also shattered the age-old stereotypes that plague the Indian diaspora. “We have lacked representation for so long. With Never Have I Ever and Spin, I am glad we can see ourselves on screen. It’s so hard being an Indian in the US; to see people going through similar struggles like ours can be empowering,” she added.
Vandanapu has become an overnight star in America and India. The Indian American has not only caught the fancy of the people across the globe with her role in Spin, but she has also featured on Variety’s 2021 Power of Young Hollywood List.
After making her Hollywood debut with Spin, Vandanapu has now signed her second flick Senior Year that’s produced by Rebel Wilson, Todd Garner and Chris Bender.
At 16, Vandanapu has become a global name, thanks to Spin. The girl, who fell in love with acting in India many years ago, has put South Asians on the global stage. Her story is an inspiration for any teenager who plans to make it big.