Can’t expect an accurate representation of Indians from non-Indian writers in Hollywood: Divyansh Sharma
Meet the talented Divyansh Sharma whose first directorial venture “Graffiti” has won more than 30+ awards across the world at various film festivals and had its world premiere at the Chinese Theatres in March 2019 for the Golden State film festival. He wrote, directed, acted and edited the short film, which is about a grieving spoken word artist trying to come to terms with a loss of a loved one. Sharma hails from Delhi, is a graduate from AMDA college of performing Arts, Hollywood, Los Angeles. When he turned 16, he toured all over India performing street plays on various social issues. And recently, he was cast as Elvis Presley in an Apple commercial. The commercial was directed by Dougal Wilson— recipient of the Cannes Golden, Silver and Bronze Lions Awards. Academy Award winner Linus Sandgren was the director of photography for the commercial. The commercial aired across the world and has over 9.5 Million views on Youtube. We got in touch with Divyansh, who shares his thoughts on his attempt to rebrand Indians in Hollywood and break the status quo.
How has the journey been so far?
It’s been wonderful so far. My parents always encouraged me to take part in any extracurricular activity be it debate, poetry or acting. So I got comfortable on stage early in my life. And when watching films, I was always fascinated by how movies could communicate and impact people irrespective of where one was from and how one viewed that film. I’d watch a film and think I’d go into the profession that the film revolved around till I realised that I wanted to be the person telling these stories.
I auditioned for acting colleges in the US because I was attracted to Western cinema growing up. I got accepted at the AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in LA. Since, I wanted to tell stories through the medium of films, what better place to be than Hollywood.
‘Graffiti’ has won more than 30 awards across the world at various film festivals. What was the idea behind it?
As actors we are always asked to dig deep into our personal memories to channel emotions. That being said some experiences our joyous and some heartbreaking but they are always shared with someone else. And to put these memories on display to me always seemed selfish because those memories are just as much as the person we shared them with. And I thought Spoken Word would be a great medium to explore this idea. So I birthed Michael Dawson, a spoken word artist who could only write about the woman he loved who had passed away. As the cast got involved and the project evolved, the film just ended up tackling much universal themes in the process along the way like loss, moving on and forgiveness. Specially forgiving not just others but ourselves and living life for the greater good.
The perception of Indians and Indian actors in the acting community seems to be a fixed one. Why is that the case and what can be done to break the stereotype?
I think the sentiment of this question goes way beyond just Indian community. There’s a whole movement going on with African American storytelling in Hollywood right now with a simple ideal— we cannot expect a white man to tell a story about the African-American experience and similarly, we cannot expect an accurate representation of Indians from non-Indian writers in Hollywood. And unless we have more Indian/Indian-American writers telling their stories, Indians will always be pigeonholed into Appu from the Simpsons and the Indian cultural richness to the far reaches of Slumdog Millionaire. If there are more Indian writers writing three dimensional Indian characters, actors will have a better chance to tell these stories of very real people with very real emotions and Indians will be seen in a different light. It’s like the quote from Gandhi “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. Therefore, answer is pretty simple; we need more storytellers from the minority communities for an accurate representation. And this idea goes a step further when we tackle gender, which is why we also need more female directors to tell stories from a female perspective.
What are the challenges you’ve faced so far?
The biggest challenge so far has been to be seen as a choice for more than just an Indian character which for the most part if you do the work and walk into the room knowing you are the right choice translates in your performance.
Your opinion on the concept of social justice and the rise of political correctness in movies.
I feel like people are inherently smart and we are open to ideas as long as we communicate them with respect and care. That’s really what it comes down to respect for other person’s ideals and choices without sacrificing belief and faith in yours. The beauty of art is it is always open to interpretation and as times change art changes and ages with it. As an artist my duty is simply to express my truth and reflect on the world to the best of my ability and as long as it speaks to even a single person my duty is fulfilled because change always begins with a single person.
How was the experience working with director Douglas Wilson?
Douglas is a brilliant creative mind to have on set. He is extremely communicative and super easy to work with. He had a vision and had a great team to create it. It was a relaxed set where ideas were welcome and I can’t wait to work with him on a project again.
What plans for Bollywood? Enlighten us about your favourite actor and movies in Bollywood.
I love to tell stories and if there is a story I am right for I would gladly offer my services to it. I love Amir Khan’s work and his films. Dangal was amazing and Indian cinematic storytelling has found a completely new voice on streaming services as well. Sacred games was one of my favourite TV series. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s and Saif Ali Khan’s work was nothing short of brilliant.
Your favourite Indian food and chef?
Like every other Indian man, my favourite chef has to be my mom. Nothing beats mom’s cooking. I love Chhole Bhature, Tandoori Chicken and my mom makes the best Rajma Chawal.
Your advice for fellow Indians who want to make it big in Hollywood?
Create quality content. If you cannot find the kinds of roles you want see yourself in; write it. As we create opportunity for our self, we create work opportunities for others as well. Then instead of being this single person you become a part of this big team all working towards creating this piece of art that started with you and suddenly new doors open up.
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