Purva Bedi is running against time these days. Stuffing her duffel bag with essen-tials and a chaotic travel itinerary, she has been cutting through the belly of U.S., promoting her latest film Green Card Fever on the east and west coasts. If she could, she would hold the clock that always runs ahead of her schedules, but Bedi is snug that her passion for films and theater did not remain a hasty signature in the wannabe roster. The neon signs of her latest film flicker against the New York skyline and Bedi makes a spirited pitch for Green Card saying it is not just an American Desi clone dealing with culture clash, it is an exploration of every immigrant’s dream of acquiring a green card.
The film that opened in August in theaters worldwide revolves around a young Indian immigrant who overstays his visa in an effort to get the green card. Still wet behind his ears, the protagonist gets caught in the muddle of naïve suggestions and unscrupulous taxi drivers and lawyers. Hilarious on the surface, the film explores love, lies, and the law through the eyes of an immigrant.
These days Bedi is sitting pretty, elated at hitting a resplendent milestone in her career. Not that she has forgotten her faltering steps into the professional world of acting. Having majored in economics and theater, Bedi did not take the plunge into acting immediately. Instead, she walked the beaten path, pursuing a career in the corporate world that paid for her bread and butter and that extra dollop of her favorite ice-cream. “It was very scary when I decided to leave the corporate world and follow my dreams of being a professional actor. I knew I was going from a great salary to an abyss of no salary, but I took the risk and went ahead with it,” she reminisces.
Her first major breakthrough was Vasarma’s Lovers, a short film about reincarnation that was directed and written by Madhurika Sona Jain. Bedi plays two characters—a young Indian bride in 1750 and a modern yoga teacher searching for her soulmate in a melee called New York. The film that earned rave reviews in films festivals in New York, London, St. Petersburg, Philadelphia, and Japan opened the doors for brighter arclights and enormous applauds. Bedi had arrived on the scene.
Adulation was waiting in the wings when Bedi accepted the role of Neena Shah in the romantic comedy, American Desi from writer director Piyush Dinker Pandya. Bedi and the film became poster material for the new wave of Indian-American movies that spawned an industry feeding on the culture clash between Indian parents and their U.S.-born children. The film that played to packed houses from London to New York to Singapore also brought an Ammy nomination for Bedi in which she was pitched against Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu, and Zhang Ziyi in the Best Actress in a Feature Film category.
American Desi was just the beginning; several other films followed in its wake—Wings of Hope, Green Card Fever, Eastern Son, The Arrangement, and Emperor’s Club.
With great ease Bedi moved from films into prime-time television doing stints with The West Wing, ER, Saturday Night Live, The Guiding Light and Strong Medicine. But Bedi is also angry because most Indian-Americans end up with blink-and-you-will-miss-me kind of roles. Why? “Because Hollywood never writes with an Indian-American character in mind. If they need color they would throw in a Black or a Latino character but not an Indian.” However, she does admit that there has been a little change in the attitude of the producers after Sept. 11. “They suddenly seem interested in Middle Eastern characters. That is how I got the meaty role of the guest lead Yasmin Fayed on Lifetime Television’s Strong Medicine.”
But if Latinos can create a splash on primetime television why can’t Indian-Americans? “Because they are not angry enough.” Angry? “Yes, because they are not angry enough,” reiterates Bedi. “The Black and the Latino actors and writers mustered their talent and strength, walked up to Hollywood and screamed ‘Dammit! Give us a role’ and they did. Even if we are angry, our anger is so scattered that it does not create a dent in the noisy world,” she adds.
With the sole purpose of getting heard in the hullabaloo did Bedi start Disha, New York’s first South Asian theater group. “The mission is to create theatrical voice that is very South Asian in idiom and inflexions,” says Bedi who wants to take Disha to the West Coast also. She tries to convince me that there is immense hunger for South Asian theater in New York and the audience is large, but regrets that “of late it has all been quiet on the Disha front, though I do plan to rev it up soon.”
But there is a lot of chatter for her on stage. Flitting between New York and Los Angeles, Bedi has prestigious productions under her belt—as Meenah Khan, the teenaged tomboy in off-Broadway hit East is East, as a dreamy servant of the Chandy household in Rice Boy, and as the lead role in the two-woman play Clothes, a stage adaptation of a short story by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Trained at Williams College, The British American Drama Academy, and The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare Lab, Bedi has done a number of shows with David Herskovits and Target Margin Theatre including The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem, The Seagull, King Lear, and A Family Affair.
Born in India and having spent her childhood in Brussels, Bedi moved to U.S. when her parents migrated. “That way even I am a first generation immigrant,” she says, identifying with the plight of Indian-American immigrants in the U.S. That is why she played safe when choosing her career. “I was always fascinated by acting but I double majored in economics and theater just to make sure that the bread remains buttered on at least one side.” Confessing that there was parental pressure to choose a more conventional path, Bedi adds: “My parents were very worried, but they also encouraged me to follow my heart.”
Perhaps that support made Bedi’s journey into the world of celluloid easier, smoother. She is basking in the glory of the arclights and waiting for her new releases Cosmopolitan, written by Sabrina Dhawan and directed by Nisha Ganatra of Chutney Popcorn fame, and Keshni Kashyap’s Good Stuff in which she plays the role of a former beauty pageant queen who’s life and marriage have gone steadily downhill.
The chirpy Purva Bedi however has a pet peeve. Placidity. She prays for a little more anger within the South Asian community. That, she thinks, is the only way to ensure a handprint on Hollywood’s hall of fame.
Preeti Verma Lal writes from New Delhi, and runs her own website: www.deepblueink.com.
PURVA BEDI: VERBATIM
On her latest release Green Card Fever: Green Card Fever is an exploration of an issue that affects every immigrant that steps into America. The film is different from other Indian-American movies because the focus is not the battle between generations; instead it deals with the plight of legal and illegal immigrants.
On American Desi clones: I don’t think the films that deal with culture clash are repetitive, they tell real stories about real people. And I think it is important to tell the story of these immigrants.
On why Indian-Americans end up with blink-and-you-will-miss roles in prime-time American television: Because writers of prime-time shows do not write roles for Indian-Americans. If they need color they would throw in a black or a Latino character, though things have changed a little after Sept. 11.
On reasons why Indian-American actors are sidelined: Because the South Asian community is not an angry community. The Blacks and the Latinos got together and coaxed Hollywood into writing specific roles for them. Though there are associations of South Asian artists and writers, but they are scattered and their collective anger is not enough to push them to prime-time.
On films, television and theater: I like all the three media for their uniqueness. I have done a lot of theater and the relationship with the audience in a theater is very fulfilling. Plus, you have control over the end-product which is not there when you are working in a movie. Being in a movie has its own charm, while the reach of television is tremendous.
On Disha, the first South Asian theater group in New York: You won’t believe how hungry the South Asian community is for good theater. Disha wants to foster a unique theatrical voice for writers, artists and actors from the South Asian community. Though it is quiet on the Disha front these days but I do plan to bring it to the West Coast. We are looking at plays being written today by writers of the South-Asian diaspora or that deal with South Asian issues.
On why no Bend it Like Beckham has been made in the U.S.: Think of the centuries that Indians have lived in the U.K., the Indian immigrant population in the U.S. in that context is much younger. But the second wave of Indian-American independent films is heading in the right direction.
On why she chose acting: I have been acting at school and in front the camera since I was 5. Perhaps it runs in the family too. My grandmother had acted in more than 70 Bollywood movies and did a lot of theater in India. My mother, a writer, has dabbled in acting too. However, playing safe, I double majored in economics and theater. Soon after college I did work in the corporate sector but I gave it up to take up acting.
On her foray into acting: It was very scary. I knew I was going from huge salary into the abyss of no salary, but I wanted to get into films and theater full-time and I did.
On her parents: I know I chose an unconventional path but my parents always encouraged me to do what I was passionate about. I must admit that were very worried in the beginning but they also taught me to be very careful. Perhaps that is the reason I majored both in theater and economics.
On remuneration: My 15-minute screen presence on prime-time television is worth much more than a playing the lead in an Indian-American feature film. Prime-time television always pays you more. But remember that all these new wave movies are made by independent film makers without the backing of a huge distribution house. As such they are always strapped for cash and it is not surprising that our payments get delayed invariably.
East is East
The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem
A Family Affair
The Quadroon Ball
The Winter’s Tale
Old Heads and Young Hearts
Wings of Hope
Green Card Fever
The West Wing
Saturday Night Live
The Guiding Light