(September 18, 2021) Mira Nair launched a new girl, one who worked with the great Italian director Federico Fellini, opposite Denzel Washington in the 1991 romantic drama Mississippi Masala. But little did this girl know that she would soon be going to wow the entertainment industry with her sheer talent. When Sarita Choudhury erupted on the big screen with her debut film, critics across the globe couldn’t stop raving about this new talent. And now three decades later, the 55-year-old is still making the right noise with her choice of work.
It was in college that Choudhury fell in love with acting, and knew that this was the course to be followed. While the journey wasn’t all sunshine and rainbow for her, she kept delivering her best. Here’s the story of this Global Indian who wowed the West with her stunning performances.
College resurrected the dream of acting
Born in London to an Indian father and an English mother, Choudhury was raised in Jamaica, Mexico and Italy as her dad was a scientist and had a moving job. Living her initial life literally out of the suitcase, Choudhary made a stop over in Canada for a while to complete her graduation in economics from Queen’s University in Ontario. When Choudhury arrived on the campus in the fall of 1986, she had plans of becoming an economist. But Queen’s helped her live her childhood dream of being an actress. It was here that she became interested in film studies and began experimenting with acting by making appearances in the films made her by her classmates. This exposure was enough for Choudhury to feverishly pursue a career in acting, and it was one of her professors at Queen’s who played the perfect catalyst in bringing her closer to her dream.
“Prof. Frank Burke from Film Studies had written a book about Federico Fellini, the great Italian film director, and he gave me a letter of introduction. When I told my mother this, she said, ‘Well, let’s get in the car and go see him.’ I thought she was crazy, but away we went. The address Frank Burke had given me was at Cinecittà Studios, in Rome. When I knocked on Fellini’s door, not only did he see me, he gave me a job translating scripts,” she told Queen’s Alumni Review.
The big break with Mira Nair
This opened up a sea of opportunities for a young Choudhury who made connections in the industry that led her to auditioning for film roles. One such audition helped her land her first big role in Mira Nair‘s Mississippi Masala alongside Denzel Washington. The film on interracial romance between a South African American man and an Indian woman became an art house hit and got Choudhury some rave reviews for her performance. Despite a grand start, Choudhury didn’t find the landing she was looking for in Hollywood. So the 55-year-old focused on finding diversity through her work across theatre, television and films.
If she played a Pakistani singer in Wild West (1992), she essayed the role of a Chilean maid in Bille August’s adaptation of The House of the Spirits. After five years, Nair once again collaborated with Choudhury for Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. The film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Seashell award at the 1996 San Sebastián International Film Festival. It was by the late 90s that Choudhury added a touch of Hollywood to her repertoire with films like A Perfect Murder (1998) and Gloria (1999). Simultaneously, Choudhury found interesting scripts on the small screen. Be it NBC drama Kings or Homicide: Life on the Street, the actress pulled off each character with elan.
Diversity in Hollywood
Choudhury kept going strong at a time when diversity was something that Hollywood completely ignored. It was her faith in herself and her hard work that worked in her stride. “How the business perceives us is something I’ve never concerned myself with. I just try to beat the odds of rejection by preparing a lot for auditions, and hopefully changing someone’s mind. Minds and the gate keepers have to change. It’s an exciting time, it’s still slow, but we’re all part of this change,” she told Hindustan Times in an interview.
This same grit got her roles in films like Lady in the Water, Midnight’s Children, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and The Last Photograph. But it’s her film A Hologram for the King with Tom Hanks that she is most proud of. “It took me to another level,” she told Mint Lounge.
Choudhury, who paved the way for many South Asians in Hollywood, is truly a global icon. She has worked with the best talent in the industry and has some very powerful roles to her credit. But for her, being a global actor has never been her intention. In an interview with WION, she said, “As actors we don’t really have any intent to be perceived globally in a certain way. But if that is the result of following your dream no matter what the obstacles that is amazing. My dad had seen Satyajit Ray’s films in India when he was young, my mum had seen the same films in England, I saw them in Canada when I was at university. That’s global! And (that) makes me proud.”
Despite two decades of good work to her credit, Choudhury is unstoppable in her 50s. After making heads turn with her performance in fantasy film The Green Knight, the actress has now grabbed a plum role in Sex and the City reboot.
Indian at heart
Choudhury is a popular actress in the West but her heart is still in India. ” I feel like if I don’t go to India once a year, I lose my sense of roots. I have an Indian father, and when you grow up in a house with an Indian father, culturally that’s what becomes dominant in the house. So that’s the tradition we grew up with. And it’s not a coincidence that my dad retired and moved back home to Calcutta. So, no matter which country my brother and I grew up in, we would come home to my father. And that stayed with me, that’s my heart,” she told Times of India.
Choudhury is one of those rare South Asian actresses who made a mark in the West at a time when diversity wasn’t the focus point of Hollywood. However, with her determination and grit, she kept breaking the stereotypes and wowing the global audience with her stellar performances.