In the last 18 months, actress Pallavi Sharda has barely lived life outside of a TV or film set.
Darting from the opulent sets of 18th century colonial India in Beecham House to grungy night shoots in Kings Cross recreating the gritty 1980s noir kingdom of underground crime lords in Les Norton, to getting messed up in the Bermuda Triangle set in New Zealand, and back to London again with Tom and Jerry, Sharda is definitely in forward motion.
As an Australia-born performer of Indian heritage, defining her place in the world and on screen has been at the core of Sharda’s career from its inception. It also informs much of her cultural advocacy work that she has passionately maintained throughout her hectic international filming schedules.
Sharda hasn’t baulked from calling out the limitations of the screen industry on representation and gender, both here and in Bollywood. Earlier this month, Sharda was invited to Google’s LA digs to keynote at an internal conference on diversity and discovery. At the closed forum she spoke on her views and personal experiences regarding cultural duality, adaptability and diversity.
“I grew up with a vehement passion for my heritage and culture, but I am as Aussie as you can get. It’s not just lip service and I am dedicated to ensuring we keep evolving in our pursuit in getting cultural representation right on screens and across the arts,” Sharda tells IF.
Sharda speaks to IF days after wrapping the big budget Warner Bros live-action hybrid Tom and Jerry in London. Directed by Tim Story, the cast also includes Ken Jeong, Chloe Grace Moretz and Michael Pena.
“In Tom and Jerry, I got the opportunity to work with fantastic actors on a film with diverse representation. It is really a global cast and it was special to work on a brand that has been so universal for so long and resonates across cultural boundaries,” she says.
The shoot was reminiscent of her work in Bollywood: “where there is that sense of larger-than-life and escapism.”
“Working in that family genre allows such wide audience connection on universal themes and it’s a heart-warming story. It is great to be part of something so global.”
Sharda went to Bollywood at the age of 20 after feeling defeated in her quest to get work in Australia as an actress. “One Australian agency said ‘We already have someone of colour on our books.’ Thankfully now that awareness has been raised,” she notes.
While she enjoyed a spirited career rise exploring her cultural heritage on screen, the pull was strong to return to her home base.
“It goes without saying why I felt I had to leave Australia to work in India as an actress given my heritage. The opportunities on screen simply were not there for a young Indian woman as recently as a few years ago. The challenges of being an outsider in India is, of course, another story entirely.”
Sharda detected a shift in the Australian stance on screen representation about three years ago, around the same time Screen Australia’s report into cultural diversity in Australia TV drama was released. While appalled at the findings, Sharda saw the report as the breakthrough point to turn the tide.
“The findings of the report were quite abysmal, but signalled that the industry was putting thought into this and it just so happened that my gut was telling me that I should come back as an artist and give expression to other side of my identity.”
On return she was cast in ABC TV medical drama Pulse, created by Kris Wyld and starring an ensemble cast which reflected the ethnic diversity of life in Western Sydney.
“Pallavi shone in her audition so much so that we all felt she was perfect for the role of the medical family princess. The character was inspired by the many diverse doctors in the hospital system, some of whom have endured family pressure to excel. Pallavi understood this character and played her perfectly,” Wyld tells IF.
“We would have loved a second season to really push the character further once we were across Pallavi’s great emotional range. She has mastered both comedic timing and emotional depth a rare combination. She’s fun to work with has great integrity and intelligence.”
Sharda was impressed with Pulse/ABC’s commitment to authentic storytelling with inclusivity in its execution. “To do Pulse was a really a great start but Les Norton took it one step forward.”
Produced by Roadshow Rough Diamond, Les Norton is the ABC’s frisky adaptation of Australian author Robert G. Barrett’s serialised books on the Kings Cross underworld of the 1980s. Sharda plays spunky, pragmatic casino manager Georgie. “We had a character that was clearly of Indian origin but whose identity didn’t need to be linked to her heritage and yet it didn’t deny it,” she says.
In the original text her character was a white male but the showrunners had only set out to change gender. “They didn’t set out to cast a particular ethnicity and I’d like to think that I was the best person for the job; a true colour-blind casting.”
Earlier this month Sharda was named one of the 40 most Influential Asia-Australians Under 40 by the Asian Australian Leadership Summit. “That recognition for the kind of work I have been doing since I was very young and is part of my identity is an honour and a privilege. It means that I can keep pushing the agenda forward in proactive and expansive ways.”
Her activism also allows her to open the door to the next waves of cultures that need to be reflected on our screens. “I have a constant dual experience. I can’t be one without the other and I’ve learnt the code switching that happens that allows me to survive. It’s empowering to me as a performing artist to know that I can be bi-cultural and not have to marginalise one identity at the expense of the other.
“But I hope that that the next generation of multicultural actors will not have to face the trauma of exclusion and to never feel marginalised for not looking Anglo-Saxon.”
Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) cast Sharda as the lead femme fatale in ITV drama Beecham House. The sumptuous six-part period drama was written, directed and produced by Chadha and her company BendIt TV and is set at the turn of the 18th century in Delhi following the trade wars in colonial era India. Sharda was drawn to her character as she was written in a way that subverted the traditional historical narrative of colonisation.
Coincidentally, Sharda had written her university dissertation on Chadha and cross-cultural representation. She regards the director as pioneering Asian representation on screen over the last 25 years.
“Gurinder has been very bold in shedding light on the authentic stories around the time of the British East India pillaging of India. It has been a privilege to work with her and on that project and see how she worked to reverse the cultural gaze. She is a force and wherever she goes she does things with purpose and intensity.”
Sharda is optimistic about Australia’s moves to authentic storytelling and on screen cultural representation. “I would think our evolution will be quite fast and already the drivers of the local industry understand that to survive in the sector you need to be part of the global playing field, and that means access to talent coming from every corner of the earth. I have definitely seen the change and now have fantastic agents and great respect for the casting directors of Australia who do understand that diversity of our communities and their representation on screen are of paramount importance.”
Anticipating that she may get a space between projects, Sharda aims to return to Melbourne and work on some of her own TV projects and ultimately be the showrunner. She is also writing a book on her cross-cultural experiences, slated to be released in 2020 with Harper Collins, ABC Books.
“It is the artist’s role to be subversive and critical of mainstream establishment and there is no excuse for taking that lightly.”