Patrons of the Bay Area arts might remember Sunkrish Bala for his breakout role in a stage production of the Mahabharata, where he played the pivotal role of Narada. Then again, you might not, seeing as the production, which took place at “the Hindu equivalent of Sunday school,” Sandeepany in San Jose, Calif., happened in 1990, when Bala was six years old. Nonetheless, the performance triggered his life-long love of acting. “That’s where it started,” Bala says. “I just loved the feeling of being up there.”
Bala, most recently seen as a cast member on the ABC series Notes From the Underbelly, has been acting ever since his first stage performance. In addition to Underbelly, he has also appeared on TV shows like Will andGrace, Grey’s Anatomy, and CSI:NY. Born in India and brought up in San Jose, the actor now lives in Los Angeles, where he spoke with me via cell-phone, en route to a benefit dinner. Bala claimed to be grateful for the absence of a face-to-face meeting on account of his “extreme shyness,” but he had the kind of self-effacing humor and easy familiarity which made me doubt the existence of said shyness. “Seriously,” he said, “if we were in person right now I’d be blushing. Well, I’m too dark to blush, but my ears would be blushing.”
Maybe the familiarity comes from the fact that Bala is a Bay Area boy. Before his big move to Hollywood, for college at UCLA and then for his career, he was one of the founding members of A’Shore, a theater group by and for the South Asian community in the Silicon Valley. “It was an eclectic group of people—software engineers from India on their H-1 visas, older people who were retired but had done theater in their youth, and then young people like me.” Many of the shows were written by people in the group in order to communicate the specific experiences of Indians in the diaspora. “These were perspectives that hadn’t been given voice until then, and we really felt like the audiences who came to our shows were hungry for those kinds of stories.” A’Shore had a good run, but couldn’t sustain the loss of its key members, like Bala, who went off to college, and the company ran its course.
“Acting was never supposed to be a viable career option for me,” says Bala, “I’m a good south Indian boy, and I had originally applied to colleges as an engineering major—so I just did it because I liked performing. I never did it to be famous.” After a couple years of school, he started auditioning professionally and landed a major role pretty early on in his career, becoming a cast member on Notes From the Underbelly (the show was cancelled in March). Though he has appeared in more serious roles on shows like CSI:NY, Bala prefers comedy: “I think comedy’s hard because as an actor, you’re not trying to be funny. You have to reveal the ugliest parts of yourself in order to get otherpeople to see the comedy. You have to be a little more honest, I think, and be open to revealing that.”
As a TV-watching Indian-American, I think Bala’s presence in the media marks an unmistakable shift in the racial landscape of the small screen. Shows likeThe Office, Heroes, Lost, and ER all have ethnically diverse casts which feature South Asian actors. It’s getting easier to turn on the television and feel that quiet pang of recognition when you see a face that resembles your own. “When I got into this industry, it was unique that I was an Indian-American actor, because we were so rare,” Bala remembers. “But there are a lot of us now—and I think now we’re judged on our work and our vision.” The question of why there are now more South Asians working in the media than ever before is a complicated one; similarly complicated is Hollywood’s treatment of race on the small screen. There still seem to be an overabundance of terrorist roles (for example, Kal Penn’s controversial part in season 6 of 24), but, with increasing frequency, South Asian American performers are being considered for parts that a few years ago would have only been given to white actors. It is in this previously uncharted territory that Bala finds himself taking on roles like that of Eric onNotes from the Underbelly, roles that make no mention of ethnicity whatsoever.
While Bala says that his choice to become an actor had nothing to do with the portrayals of South Asians in the media that existed when he was growing up, I feel compelled to point out that it I grew up around the same time, and that I was deeply affected by those images. More than that, though, I was deeply affected by the lack of images of people who looked like me. On some level, it’s important and exciting that there are more brown faces on television today. But the demand we place on these faces to represent their cultures, ethnicity, and background—the burden of representation—is far more complicated. Did Eric, the neurotic American father Bala played on Underbelly, represent a victory of craft over skin color, or a compromised representation of identity? And is someone who hasn’t struggled to find work in Hollywood even in a position to ask questions like that? Bala makes it clear that his first priority is to be an actor: “If in the process of acting, I can be a representative of the South Asian community, that’s awesome, but I am so grateful to be an actor first. I had the privilege of having people come before me who had a harder time, and I have already had the luxury of saying no to things that I didn’t want to do.”
In terms of his own background, Bala is weary of positioning himself as too much of an outsider. “I’m very Indian. I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, and my family is very Indian. It was the Indian-American experience, or whatever everybody had decided that would be, that I didn’t feel was my experience. And I think that’s helped me a lot—feeling like an outsider has helped me understand both. Although,” he adds, “I always thought that these feelings were unique to me, but right now I’m reading [Jhumpa Lahiri’s]Unaccustomed Earth, and I’m realizing that everyone feels a little bit like they don’t belong.”
Bala does his best to illuminate the work of acting, which is, at its least vague, an extremely mysterious process. “It’s all about getting your body to do stuff that your head wants your body to do,” he says, and then moves into more abstract territory. “The work of an actor is having an awareness of the society you’re in, having an awareness of the people who are in it. Going in, I thought I had it all figured out, because I could act happy or sad or angry, but as I did it for real, I realized that it’s more complicated than that. The work behind acting is more imperceptible. I have trouble explaining to my parents and my aunts and uncles what I do all the time when I’m not shooting. I promise you, it’s hard work.”
And so is being a star. “It’s hard talking about yourself,” he says, after changing the subject away from himself yet again. “I guess I’m getting used to it now that I’ve done a few of these interviews, but you know, I grew up humble and South Indian—‘Don’t extol your own virtues! That’s terrible!’”
But however modest he tries to be about his acting successes, the enthusiasm in his voice is unmistakable. “I just really believe in what this medium can do, what this work can do,” Bala says. “I’m not saving lives, but if I get to do the kind of work I want to do, then I’ll be affecting people in way that’s really powerful.”
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|