Meet Tina Desai, the only Indian protagonist on the Wachowski’s Netflix series - Sense8 (Hint: The Wachowskis made The Matrix series, so it’s a big deal)
Imagine eight individuals across different cultures: a police officer and a transgender blogger from America, a taxi driver from Nairobi, a South Korean boxer, a German theif, an Indian pharmacist, an Icelandic DJ, and a Mexican actor. As these characters go about their daily lives, suddenly they collectively see a vision: a woman is being murdered violently, and they are the next targets. Driven by fear, these eight individuals embark on a telepathic journey that will take them through the horrors of their lives, their newly-found powers, as they encounter a psychotic villain.
Such is the premise of Sense8, an original Netflix sci-fi series, and actor Tina Desai (29) is the only Indian protagonist on the show. “I love being the only Indian on set. I get to understand the Indian culture from an international stand point with each episode,” says Desai. The series is created by Lilly (formerly called Andy, till the revelation of being transgender) and Lana Wachowski, the creative geniuses behind the cult classic franchise, The Matrix.
We are in a café in Andheri, where Desai, dressed in a denim skirt and a white blouse, is meeting us just a few days before she flies to Berlin to start shooting for Sense8’s second season. “I have a lot of homework left to do before I leave. I need to revise my character’s arc and predict what is going to happen to her this season,” she says in all seriousness.
An unexpected journey
Desai, who grew up in Bengaluru, describes her 13-year-old self as a “shy, scrawny kid who did not have the confidence to become an actor”. But it was a Bollywood film — Shah Rukh Khan’s 1997 action film, Koyla — that got her hooked to cinema. Desai admits that, though the film wasn’t all that inspiring, it transported her to a bubble and dissolved her sense of reality. “I wanted the film to go on so I could escape from the real world. In hindsight, that was my eureka moment,” says the 29-year-old.
Subsequently, Desai made her debut with a Fastrack advertisement in 2007. By 2011, she had a Bollywood film to her name: Yeh Fasley opposite Anupam Kher. In 2013, she starred in Table No 21, a thriller that brought to light the adversities of ragging in educational institutions. “I like playing fierce, gritty woman who have a dark streak to their personalities,” says the actor who is a fan of thrillers.
In 2011, Desai also debuted in Hollywood with the British romantic comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Ask her how it was working alongside veterans such as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Richard Gere, and Desai promptly replies, “It felt like home. Everybody was so encouraging.”
So much so that during a dance rehearsal for its 2015 sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Gere filmed Desai’s rehearsal on his camera phone. “It was sunset and he shot the whole session in silhouette. John [Madden], the director, was so impressed by it that he shot the actual sequence in the same way and added it to the final cut,” Desai recalls.
The Wachowski spell
It was during the production of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel when the Wachowskis approached Desai for their TV venture and interviewed her over a Skype call before confirming her as a cast member. “They wanted to understand my take on Kala Dandekar (Desai’s character in Sense8), who is a rational scientist, yet believes in spirituality and religion,” says Desai.
For her, working on a Wachowski set has been the toughest yet most exciting experience. “Our unit travels to eight countries as part of the production. And since all the characters in the series are connected through telepathy, a single continuous conversation between two characters, on screen, spans three different locations. Imagine recreating a single sequence, with seamless continuity across three countries,” adds Desai.
For instance, the scenes with Kala and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) are divided between Mumbai and Berlin. “We shoot one part of the dialogue here in Mumbai, and its continuation in Berlin five months later. We have to enact the exact emotions after that big a gap. It’s challenging for us as actors, but Lilly and Lana bring it out in us. In fact, they are so good, they make us feel unbelievably dumb at times,” says Desai.