Manjari Makijany’s Spin, which released on Disney+Hostar in August, stars Avantika Vandanapu, who is now Disney’s first Indian-American lead. The movie also stars Abhay Deol and Meers Syal in prominent roles.
Spin shatters the stereotype that Indians can only thrive in STEM. We should not forget that our culture and heritage are very art-centric. We flourish not only in academics, but also in artistic fields. I hope that portrayals like in Spin will break myths about Indian families for international audiences. And more importantly, that they open doors for other actors of colour in Hollywood,” Indian-American actor Avantika Vandanapu tells The Professional Times.
The 16-year-old was cast as the first ever Indian-American lead of a Disney movie, Spin, that was released on Disney+Hotstar on 13 August this year.
Directed by Manjari Makijany, the movie revolves around an Indian-American teen Rhea (Avantika), who wants to make a career in DJing. She lives with her father Arvind (Abhay Deol), maternal grandmother (Meers Syal), and brother Rohan (Aruan Simhadri). The family runs an Indian restaurant.
The storyline comes as a breath of fresh air for its accurate and real characters. It attempts to break away from outdated depictions of the Indian diaspora that increasingly finds itself caught in the crossfire of cultural appropriation.
“Rhea’s passion and kindness drew me to her character and I could resonate well with her experiences. The aspects of family, love, and friendships piqued my interest in the character as well. I wanted to bring Rhea to life the moment I laid eyes on the script,” Avantika says.
Tollywood to Hollywood
It would be safe to draw parallels between Rhea’s love for art and Avantika’s passion for acting. Growing up in the United States as a second-generation immigrant, she was not expected to take the conventional route of pursuing a career in medicine, law or engineering.
When she first expressed her desire to act in movies, her parents supported her dream on the condition that she first finish her education. She marked her entry in the art industry by learning various dance forms such as kuchipudi, kathak and ballet. She won second place in Dance India Dance Lil Masters (North America Edition) in 2014.
Alongside, she started giving auditions for Hollywood and Tollywood productions. At the age of 12, she gave her first Hollywood audition for Spin while she was working in India.
“I got a call back from Spin makers and that was my ticket to Los Angeles. However, soon after, the film went on hold for further development for authenticity reasons. But it came back again at the beginning of last year and I re-auditioned for it. Disney told me I booked it [got the part] in the audition room, which is a bit unorthodox, but I was so excited!” she says.
In 2015, Avantika shot her first Telugu film, Brahmotsavam (2016) and went on to appear in movies like Manamanthan (2016) and Premam (2016) as a child artist.
But bagging movies was not as easy as it sounds.
In India, there are girls who may fit the part of an Indian girl more than Avantika and in Hollywood, the roles for Indians are limited. The thought of being neither here nor there did cross her mind, but didn’t stay for long.
“I can speak my mother tongue fluently so I’ve never felt out of place in India. When it came to Hollywood, my confidence was low when I was starting out. But with all the progress the industry is making, I feel much better about pursuing a career here,” she adds.
When asked how one makes a name for oneself in a country that still sees people of colour as outsiders, Avantika says, “You stay strong and carry yourself with the pride of your culture and heritage. There truly is no point in attempting to blend in – so why not embrace everything that makes you different? I am trying to make the best of both worlds and I think that’s what makes our family’s experiences special and unique. Bringing that into a performance is what separates one entertainer from another.”
Director’s take on redefining norms
Disney movies are said to hold a legacy of being purveyors of popular culture, teen dramas and family entertainment. However some of its classic movies have been condemned or deemed inappropriate in today’s times. Whether it is Snow White (1937) or The Jungle Book (1967), some of its movies have ‘cultural warnings’ as well.
That said, by releasing movies like Moana (2016), Raya and The Last Dragon (2021), and Soul (2020), Disney has made efforts to break away from the western and male-dominated narratives.
With Spin, Disney has gone a step ahead.
Sure, there is teen romance between Rhea and aspiring DJ, Max (Michael Bishop) but it’s not the central theme. Spin is about a girl who is saving her own day instead of waiting for a guy to do it for her.
She is never put in a situation where she has to make a choice between family honour and passion, something filmmakers often use for conflict.
With a supportive grandmother and a father who is willing to understand his teenage daughter, this film certainly redefines what a traditional Indian family looks like.
This is what drew director Manjari to the script written by Carley Steiner and Josh Cagan. Manjari had just wrapped up Skater Girl (2021) when the script reached her.
She says, “My agent sent me a few scripts to read and Spin was the one I connected with. It’s Disney channel’s first Indian American story but more importantly, it was refreshing to have Indian characters represented in a contemporary way. I was excited at the opportunity to introduce our culture to a mainstream American audience. Projects like this allow me to bring the best of my two worlds together. The challenge was to steer away from stereotypes and present a different take that teens can relate to in today’s time. I prepared a detailed presentation for what my take was going to be on the story and pitched it to the studio and as luck would have it, they got behind that vision.”
Manjari shouldered the responsibility of staying away from stereotypes like a controlling father, conservative grandmother and a teenager who finds herself at crossroads with her family. Manjari sought inspiration for characters from her friends and family. She focussed on a relatable multi-generational family.
She made Rhea a confident lead with flaws on screen and embracing her heritage so that young girls around the world do not have unrealistic or fantasised notions of how a teenager is.
“Our casting was global too. Instead of getting an Indian American to play an immigrant and speak in a forced Indian accent – which is complex and nuanced to master – we opened up casting to India. That’s how Abhay Deol came on board. He spoke in his natural accent and it looked so much more real,” she adds.
Avantika and Manjari say their social media DMs have been full of heartening messages from people who wish they had a movie like this while growing up.
“Some of the best messages came from young Indian American girls who said they resonated with Rhea, felt seen and heard. That really moved me. It was a bonus when the desi DJ community sent their love and was thrilled to have a film about DJ-ing on Disney,” says Manjari.
Making Spin was a cathartic experience, she says. Disney’s approval meant a lot for Manjari, who is Mac Mohan’s daughter. For the last 13 years, she has been working non-stop to enter the Hollywood industry.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes to let it sink in. It doesn’t feel any different though, you think there will be this different feeling when you make your first feature or second, but it’s really just a new day at work, a new film with its new set of challenges to overcome as a filmmaker and I love every bit of it. I’m in a unique position of advantage, to be honest. It informs my work in a meaningful way and I bring a unique perspective to the table. The only challenge in shifting base to LA was having to start from scratch again. I moved here with no game plan on how to navigate the industry. It was one baby step at a time. I had to go back to assisting while building a foundation as a director here. I was doing the AFI DWW programme, assisting and also writing my feature as a director. It’s part of the exciting American hustle I guess,” she adds.