When I first watched “Work It,” I thought, great, yet another movie about a basic white girl who gets everything her heart desires. Fortunately, the movie includes a diverse cast, as they tend to nowadays. I had the privilege of sitting down to speak with dancer and actor Indiana Mehta and she allowed me to see things in a different light.
In getting to know her cheery and lighthearted self, I came to appreciate Indiana’s active involvement in the film, even though her role is relatively minor. Indiana Mehta personally showed me how brown girls like herself (and Liza Koshy — who slays her supporting role in “Work It”) frequently pioneer new paths, adding spice to things otherwise bland.
You’re from Mumbai, which is actually where my parents are from, which I love. Now that you’ve moved away from the motherland, and you are now part of the diaspora, how do those connections to South Asia and India now feel?
“It’s funny because I learned the term ‘South Asia’ after moving. [laughs] And even today, it’s such a new norm for me to call myself a South Asian, like, I don’t call myself Indian anymore. I just call myself South Asian. And when I’m talking to my friends [in India] they’re, like, “What are you talking about?” So it was a very new term for me before I moved here. I think home is still home because my parents are still there. So I still visit. I feel like it’s more open and welcoming here, at least in Toronto, I don’t know about the States or any other parts, but it’s definitely more welcoming here. And to be honest, it’s worked in my favor most of the time, being a brown person, especially when it comes down to auditioning for any jobs because they are always looking for diversity. It has definitely worked in my favor so far. Touch wood.”
I saw on your Instagram account that you were featured in Chitralekha, a Gujarati magazine in the Gujarati language. So you moved away from the motherland while then getting attention very deeply rooted to your own identity. How does that make you feel?
“Well, first of all, it was a really cool feeling. When they called me for an interview, I wasn’t expecting to be on the cover of the magazine. I thought they would just talk about my film or a little bit about my background. But I did not expect a two-page interview with a cover. That was a pretty cool feeling. It’s nice to see that we’re tapping into the Gujarati side, too, because Gujaratis are more into business. At least for Gujaratis it’s like, “What dance? You can’t take that as a profession, like who does that, who takes up dance as a profession?” But my parents have never seen it that way. My dad’s also a writer, so he writes a lot of Gujarati plays and Hindi TV shows. So I think there’s always been this creative artistic environment at home, so we never went down the stereotypical Gujarati family [path]. It’s kind of cool that we’re putting that out there now, especially my community, the Gujarati community, because it is possible to do something which is more than just Bollywood.”
[Read Related: Actress Richa Moorjani on her Unconventional Path to ‘Never Have I Ever’]
That’s the beautiful thing about art. Like you said, it’s a creation of an identity, of a universe almost. So you are Gujarati and you’re from Mumbai. But in “Work It”, your name was Priya Singh, so you’re more like Punjabi Sikh. And when it came to Liza Koshy, it was never necessarily revealed what ethnicity she really is, you know what I mean?
“Liza plays the brown girl. She’s never really played that, I feel like, from the work that I’ve seen and this was also her first film. But [my role], I think my accent kind of gives it away. With Liza, that’s not the case. She’s born and raised in Houston, whereas I moved here two years ago. So I am more Indian than she is [in the film].” [laughs]
Obviously if you talk to someone genuinely South Asian, there are distinctions between Gujaratis and Punjabis. My family’s Baluchi. But we call ourselves Sindhi-Punjabi. And so there’s a lot of distinctions that WE know. In which ways did you get into character or shapeshift to better embody Priya Singh?
“So to be honest, at the start of the script, she was only Priya. I have a scene at the start of ‘Work It’ where I say, ‘The flyers said there would be snacks.’ [laughs]. In the background I’m talking to my mom. So initially on set, I was talking in Gujarati because we hadn’t defined her last name so it was open for me to be Indian, but I could have been a South Indian or North Indian or whatever. It was open for Priya to be anybody. And I don’t think my director at the time knew in depth about all the languages that we speak in India. And when it came to the last scene in the movie where I’m like, ‘OK, Priya Singh signing off.’ That’s when we were looking for surnames. And I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, Singh. Oh, now I need to go back and change that dubbing because I need to voice over in Hindi because a Singh would not speak in Gujarati.’ So then I had to redo that voiceover to speak in Hindi. And when I did that it was right after my brother’s wedding and he’s married a Punjabi. So I had hung out with the Punjabi family for like over two weeks. So I kind of caught their way of talking and their twang. And that’s what I used for those Hindi lines. So then I spoke to my director and then we redid the lines.”
You actually read my mind for the next question. When your first line happened in the movie, I just started laughing because that is something every Priya Singh would say, like, ‘where are the fucking snacks?’ You know what I mean?
“And even me as a person. Because all the people that know me, they were like, ‘Dude, even here, like even here [in ‘Work It’] you were asking for food?!’ Because I’m a big foodie and I’m a snack addict.”
I’m wondering, what are your favorite snacks? And now, considering that you’re part of the South Asian diaspora, feel free to respond in terms of India, in terms of biscuits, in terms of Canada, in terms of whatever you want to say.
“I’ll answer both because, of course, I love my street food when I’m back home which is not the luxury here. So I think that back home, I would say definitely pani puri. [laughs] And vada pav because I’m from Bombay. And here, I would say in Canada, I don’t really snack here because I don’t like anything. So I just end up making nachos at home or fries.”
Are there any Canadian snacks that people have tried to force you to like?
“No, I’m also vegetarian, so it kind of does become difficult for my friends. But I think, is it ‘cheerio’ or ‘chorizo’ or something like that, probably I’m not saying it right, but [there’s] that and then donuts and stuff. But I just cannot understand the concept of bread and chocolate. So I’ve never had a donut in my life, nor have I tried Nutella and bread. And I was introduced to PBJ on set for the first time because [‘Work It’ main actress] Sabrina [Carpenter] loves PBJ and I’m like, ‘What is PBJ?’ And she’s like, ‘Dude, you’ve never had PBJ?’ Like I didn’t even know what it stands for. She’s like, ‘peanut butter and jam.’ And I’m like, ‘What is that?’ And then they were all like, ‘You need to try this.’ And then I got hooked onto it just on set.”
And I have to ask, I mean, chai, it’s essential. So what do you do? Do you break up your biscuits in your chai? What’s your chai situation?
“At home I do two rupees parle-G with warm water. [laughs] In England it was digestives with hot water, because if it’s cold water then it doesn’t melt. But if it’s warm then the chocolate melts. I like that. And then here, well my trainer will shoot me now if I eat biscuits.”
Let’s stop talking about food then. [laughs] Do you mind telling me more about how Priya Singh came to be? How was the audition process?
“So when I auditioned for it, I wasn’t auditioning for the role. I was auditioning to be a dancer in any of those ensemble dance teams that were competing either for the qualifying round or for the finale [at the end of “Work It”]. So I sent a couple of videos for pre-screening and then after a couple of months I got a call for an in-person with choreographer Aakoman [Jones] and Laura [Terruso] who is the director, and after that, at the audition, we got through the panel round where they teach you the choreography and you showcase it in smaller groups. So you learn it as one big group. But then when it comes to showcasing it, you turn away from the mirrors and the panel is literally sitting in front of you at the table. No expressions—nothing—and a camera. And I went for it.
I was performing with two other male dancers of color who were 6’1” and 6’2” and I’m 5’1”. So there was already that pressure in my head that no matter how big or good I do that they’re always going to out dance me because they’re so big in presence. But I was like, no matter what. Just give it your best. And then I got through the round and we were standing on the side. And Aakoman asked if anybody wanted to showcase their unique style or something that they didn’t get a chance to showcase or any flips or tricks like any acro-based movements. And I’m standing there thinking that everybody in the room—because I know the community in Toronto—is going to pop or lock. And that’s not my forte. So I said, let’s not get in that line. So I stopped myself.
And then I was like, why, what are you afraid of? Like, just go and do jazz because that’s my strength. So why aren’t you doing it? And then I was like, nah I’ll never be as good as these guys. So I was just debating in my head. And then I was like, oh, maybe I should do Bollywood because nobody here will do Bollywood and maybe they might hire you because you do Bollywood and hip hop. So I threw myself in, took my shoes off, did bhangra, garba, and jazz, funk and hip hop in my freestyle solo. And at the end I finished with garba and I got a standing ovation from the whole panel and everybody in the room so that felt good. And after that, I got called in to read for a role. And when I was reading for a role, the character was “Leah.” So there was no Indian character in the film at the time.
And then as I kept clearing rounds, after rounds, after rounds, I got a call for a final audition that was like three weeks after my previous audition. And in those weeks, I saw that I haven’t booked the job. So I get a call and I open my script again and my agent’s like, hey, there’s a new script I’m emailing it to you. And then I opened the script and the name is ‘Priya.’ They added somebody in. So that’s how it happened… This is my first big project. And of course, like you, seeing that there’s not many others like us people of color in the foreground. But I really hope it changes. And I think it has with ‘Never Have I Ever.’ I think it is slowly happening.”
My takeaway from what you just shared is you literally forged the role almost by listening to your instinct but also by silencing your instinct. I think your role was interesting because you have few lines. So the “Indianness” was not necessarily part of your character, but your Indianness was danced. I don’t know how many people caught this, but you even did the nazar na lage gesture!
“Only us people—us South Asians are going to get it—but that was the whole point— representation. And why not bring something which I can and nobody else can. And that’s why Liza messages me out of the blue being like, “Dude, you have no idea like how proud I am of you, because my entire childhood I’ve grown up watching films, but I’ve always wanted to see something that represents us in its truest form. And you’ve done this in a really good way.” Because it’s not like I can’t do hip hop or I cannot do jazz. So, yeah, it’s a good feeling.”
Also, there’s no way the director could have directed you to be more Indian, right? Like, you were already being Indian.
“There was a thing that came up with our coach when he was like, ‘I want you to play in a really thick Indian accent.’ And I was like, ‘But I’m not feeling that.’ So he was like, ‘That’s okay, of course.’ But then he said, ‘Maybe check with your director, like what she wants you to do because usually that’s what people find funny.’ And Laura was like, ‘No, I don’t want that. I want you to be you.’ She didn’t care about this mixed accent that I have. She didn’t want me to work on my accent. Neither did she want me to pull back my little American accent…I don’t even know if I sound remotely close, but in my head I do.” [laughs]
I think you did great. I’ve also seen you post quite frequently about East-meets-West artistic collaborations. When we do such a thing of joining cultures or filling the third space between cultures, it can be very political. And so I’m wondering, when you’ve done these types of collaborations, what challenges and what successes have you encountered?
“So since I was in England, of course, I wasn’t very aware of the whole diversity. And the [my] world was just Bombay or Bangalore for me when I was training until I moved to England, which was the biggest exposure. At the dance school that I went to, I was the first Indian in their history and the college has been around for now, I want to say forty four or forty five years. And so my college also was very welcoming, just really I could just see, like everybody was so happy that they have somebody from India who’s come. So that’s what I started this whole bringing people together because it was really cool to learn about their cultures.
And I was like [part of] the ‘immigration crew’ of my college then because, in my year itself, we had a few people from Belgium, New Zealand, myself, then Chile and Portugal. So that was like the first year that had so much diversity. So I was tagged the immigration crew with them, which was fine because it wasn’t in any offensive way. And on Fridays, we would have a free warm up day. So, like, college would be 9am to 5pm, like ballet, jazz, but on a Friday we would just play music after registration for 30 minutes and dance. And I would always lead that with Bollywood. People didn’t understand the music, nothing, but they just loved it. And even on graduation, when we had a dance party going on, they played our favorite song, like people know the song that I always make them dance to. And it’s always been garba because…garba, I mean it’s like, why not? And people have always loved that. And I love sharing that joy with people and that too, through dance. So it’s been a great platform.
And then since coming to Toronto, just seeing how diverse Toronto is, it’s unreal. Like when we hang out with friends, we have people from Asia. We have myself or whites or Jamaicans from all over the world. And everybody sits together, drinking together, hanging out together. It’s really cool to see that. And I’m like, why not bring that in a show? And so whenever I cast a show or any performance, like I have a company which is called BollyHeels T.O. The ‘T.O.’ stands for Toronto, so we bring fusions of dances. So our inspiration is majorly from bharatnatyam. But we also take elements of like whacking in jazz and hip hop and contemporary and ballet and whatnot. That’s why I like working with these individual and diverse artists, is because they bring their culture to the table. They bring their style.”
In “Work It,” there was a line where Michelle Buteau says, “Schools are just walls.” In actuality, I found it really powerful when we think of it, like, where do we actually learn? What is learning, you know? I’m wondering, can you connect that statement to your experience as the only person of Indian origin at Lane Theater Arts in the U.K.?
“Hundred percent. So being the only Indian one, I had to work my bum off at school because ballet and jazz was not a norm for us growing up like at the age of three or four. Like you have so many local dance studios, And girls and boys going there as hobby classes. For me, growing up it was Indian classical or Bollywood or ‘western dance’ like we called it 15 years ago. So, yes, I definitely had to work a lot harder to match their skill set.
In academics, I hated going to school. Even when I was in school, I was not in classrooms. Like I played track and field and competed in roller skating for my school and my club at state and national level in India. So I always had an excuse to not be in the classroom and my parents have supported that. I don’t know how that makes them sound, [laughs] but they’ve supported that. And even my fiance doesn’t get it. I’ve barely attended college like I’m a graduate in economics and commerce, but my attendance would be like 0.3% in the year. So I never really sat in the classroom. I always liked doing things outside of class. I was always like, when am I going to use this? I was, to be honest, never interested in books in that way.
What Michelle says, I can really resonate with that. That school is just four walls. Even when we were at Lane, yes, I was still dancing, but we were always told that once you get out of the bubble, we call it a “bubble,” that that’s when you actually start to grow more as a human and as an artist because you’re now starting to face real challenges, because until now, yes, your parents are paying your rent or you have a scholarship and everything is taken care of. But once you get out of the college, you are by yourself. There is no teacher where you can turn around to and ask for help. There is nobody who will call you for training because you need to keep your training consistent. So then it all comes down to self-motivation and your willingness to wanting to do this and achieve in this industry. And it’s taken me 11 years to get here. But it’s OK. Just as one job makes it feel like it was all worth it. [chuckles] So, yeah, I definitely feel that you grow more when you are out in the real world and actually practically experiencing it.”
With that said, one thing that I especially liked about the movie is it gives very honest critique on the schooling system, right? And while I liked that critique, I’m curious: As a professional dancer, you’ve clearly spent a lot of time building this as being you. And it’s taken time, it’s taken energy, dedication, blood, sweat, tears. But then the movie makes it sound like someone can learn dancing within the span of one school year basically. What is your take on that considering that’s not an accurate description of how long it takes, right?
“You can definitely grow. Like I feel even when I look back at my videos before graduating from that school, I’m like, oh, my God. Like back then that everybody used to think I was like one of the best dancers in college. But now I watch myself and I was like, I do not want to put this out. Because obviously you grow, you grow with life experiences, you know, even by just watching YouTube videos of other dancers, of other dancers’ performances. And so I think, yeah, you’re not going to be the best version of yourself in just a year, but I don’t think that it is not achievable.
Because I know, like I personally have done it because my first year was a struggle, like I showed up for a hip hop class in ballet tights and a leotard and jazz trainers. So I knew it was a struggle. But then I had to spend extra hours before and after school to stay back and go over everything that I learned that week. And we definitely saw a huge improvement. Like, I was basically the queen of my college in first year. But of course, I’m not saying you’d suddenly be like a Brian Friedman in a year. That requires a lot more time and energy and technique and work. But whatever Quinn [the main character of ‘Work It’] achieves in a year, I think it is possible.
And I also feel that our characters, especially my characters, like it wasn’t like she couldn’t dance, because when you see her at the start, she’s able to do her things. But for Priya, it was a struggle to do it in a group because she’s just used to dancing by herself, that coming together as a group was a struggle.”
There is another line in the film about the importance of “blowing up the box.” And it’s kind of like a funny interaction. But I’m wondering, when you apply this to your life, how would you say that you blow up the box?
“I definitely did that with myself in the audition by just taking that risk and believing because I was more nervous about it because it was a Chris Brown song playing on loop. And that’s why I didn’t want to embarrass myself by doing garba and bhangra. But I think that’s when I stepped outside the box and ‘blew up that box’, basically.”
As a former competitive dancer myself, I really appreciated the way freestyle and the concept of freestyle is depicted and expressed in “Work It.” They keep emphasizing how it’s like the way to truly liberate yourself in your body. When you think back to freestyling and you’re so happy, you’re so free and you’re so liberated. What imagery or emotions or textures or sounds or shapes or colors or even smells do you think of when you’re just in a state of freedom in that moment?
“It’s very different every time. And it has a lot to do with the music that I’m listening to in that moment. And also, like my life stories and experiences also help. So if I’m listening to something sad or, you know, something like lamenting and obviously that’s where your life, real life experiences as a grown-up come into picture and that’s what inspires your movement. And that’s what inspires your feelings. Or if I’m listening to a Bollywood song, which I can relate to so well, than any English song, not that I don’t understand the lyrics but there’s just something about the connection that I have with our music. I don’t think I have that same level of connection with any western music. It’s not like I don’t enjoy dancing to it or don’t enjoy creating to it. So I feel like life experiences, my emotions in that moment or on that day or what I’ve gone through on that day or any news that I’ve heard or anything going on in the world. That plays a deep, deep, deep role in how I move. And sometimes when it has to be out of my comfort zone, then it’s just pure nervousness.” [laughs]
I was going through your Instagram and your story, and I noticed that you have actually had several hustles and side hustles in your lifetime. I saw posts about you bartending and working at McDonalds. How have these hustles kind of shaped your desires in life?
“It has definitely made me think. Especially when I was at work, like at John Lewis or Debenhams or Harrods in England or working in McDonald’s is just that my passion was that this is not what I wanted to end up the rest of my life. And that’s what kept me going. Well, that wasn’t the only thing, but that was one of the most important things is I did not see myself working here and just getting like—no offense to people who work there—but I was only there for a part-time job just to survive off of it.
And today, yes, I’m in a position where all my income is from dance or acting, which is great because I’ve always wanted to do that. And it’s finally happening, although some days I do feel like I’m not doing enough. And time sitting at home I could be like waiting tables and making some money. But then I’m like, okay, calm down, even just you investing time on your website or like creative work is still investment.”
[Read Related: Actress Rati Gupta Shares her Passion for Dance and Advice for Anyone Breaking Into Hollywood]
I’ve taken a good hour of your time where you could’ve been waiting tables or working on your website. [laughs] Just kidding. But since we’re finishing up, is there anything that you would like to add?
“I mean, I always get asked: What advice do you have for upcoming dancers or aspiring dancers? My key has always been two things that I really believe in and stand by. One, which is my dad’s line, is that no matter what you do in life it will never be wasted, it will never be a waste. I stopped skating when I was 17 and then suddenly when I was in the audition room and just talking to Laura and happened to mention skating. And she threw that in for my character. So that’s why Priya’s kind of doing everything that I basically have done in my childhood. So that came to really good use because my parents have always been supportive. So they used to be thrashed on by their friends or society saying things like y’all are over-parenting. And my dad’s like, ‘no, because she enjoys doing all of this’. Because if I’m not happy, then you’re not happy, then there’s no point doing it.
The second thing that I’d really stress on, even to my kids that I teach here, is versatility, because otherwise you’re just boxing yourself as a hip hop dancer or a ballet dancer and then limiting your exposure and job opportunities.”
And it’s all about blowing up the box, right?
[laughs] “Do NOT stay in that damn box.” [laughs]
“Work It” is currently streaming on Netflix worldwide.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.