“I came back to Australia to break down the barriers to diversity,” Pallavi Sharda

By Neeru Saluja

Melbourne raised actress Pallavi Sharda is on a roll as she takes leading roles in two new television series – Beecham House and Retrograde, screening on Channel 10 and ABC.

Though Pallavi has made it big in Bollywood with lead roles in Dus Tola, Besharam, Hawaizaada, Begum Jaan and cameos in international films like Lion and UnIndian, she came back home to play the lead role in ABC Australia’s medical drama Pulse. Pallavi is currently starring in Beecham House, ITV’s historical drama series directed by Gurinder Chadha and ABC comedy Retrograde.

We talked to her just before both the shows were about to air on Australian television. It’s always an intelligent conversation with the beautiful actress, who is a strong voice and face in representing diversity on Australian television.

The last time we talked was for Begum Jaan in 2017. You have come a long way since then with non-stop acting commitments.

Begum Jaan was my last Bollywood release and I was shooting for Pulse at the same time. Then it was non-stop after that ”“ I was in US shooting for a pilot series, then Beecham House happened in 2018 and 2019. It’s been a new phase in my acting career and being in India to shoot this project not as part of Bollywood but as part of an international project was incredible. I then got back to Australia and shot Les Norton, Tom and Jerry and a Netflix show just before COVID. And now it’s Retrograde!

I binge watched Beecham House on 10Play and found Chandrika as the most enigmatic and strongest character of the series. How would you describe her in your words and what’s her significance to the plot?

Chandrika is an exceptionally strong woman and what I love about her is that she is a Rajput princess and unapologetic about her standing in the house. She is the only South Asian woman who is in the upstairs of the house which Gurinder has beautifully depicted by intermingling the colonials and the Indians. Chandrika represents India in this saga, she is a woman who is not able to take the seat of ”˜Raj’ from her father but is very patriotic in her duties and a paramount in how she leads her life. For me, she was a metaphor of India in a geo-political state before it succumbed to the British rule.

How was it working with Gurinder Chaddha?

I love Gurinder so much, she is an inspiration. When I was studying at Melbourne University, one of my dissertations in my media and communications degree was about crossover cinema in the Australian context and the need for first and second generations Australians of Indian and South Asian background to find their authentic voice in cinema. As an artist, I chose her as she has been a role model for South Asian woman. When I worked with her, we shared a special connection as there were so many relatable connections. She is a first generation Indian migrant, comes from two cultures (rather three) and there was a Punjabi connection as when I met her mother she reminded me of my ”˜dadi’. On set, I loved the power she executed. She is a stalwart and as a woman of colour she would have jumped over so many hurdles, obstacles and faced challenges in her career and that shows in her work. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her.

Though Beecham House is set in 1795, there is something about the characters that you can still relate to, specially the relationship between the Britishers and Indians.

The aim was to make the characters very real. It elucidates the politics of the time and the interpersonal relationships that often get overlooked when we talk about colonial history. There are accounts of Britishers falling in love with Indians and calling India home. It also depicts a beautiful mix of human emotions. We are talking about 1795 when it was not clear what Britain was going to do to India. That is why people are non-judgemental about Beecham and they judge him as a person not for the colour of his skin. That’s what great about this story, it’s more personal than political.

You are also acting in ABC’s Retrograde, Australia’s first narrative comedy filmed in isolation. How was it filming in lockdown?

It’s been a crazy ride and lots of Zoom calls! It is set in lockdown and I play the main character Maddie. It starts where Scott Morrison has locked down the country on the eve of her leaving for Korea where she is meant to start work. It speaks for everyone in this country and how life changed immediately. It’s about these friends who navigate this new world and how young people behaved in the initial lockdown weeks. It’s really funny!

Beecham House and Retrograde both on Australian television, you are on a roll!

Beecham House – Tom Bateman. Copyright: ITV, FREMANTLE

Personally, for my journey as an actor, my work is so linked to my geo-heritage and I’m very vocal about my passion for my Australian Indian identity and the promotion of that cultural communication. For me, it is extremely important to play the role of a young woman in 2020 as an Australian and a woman who existed in India before colonisation occurred, which is a pre-cursor to what we are today. I’m so grateful that Australian audiences will be able to see that gamut of work that I have been working on since the past couple of years.

You have always been a strong voice and face in representing diversity on Australian television. Though we are getting better at it, what future do you foresee and challenges that you come across?

Pictured:Pallavi Sharda as Chandrika. Pic. Patrick.smith@itv.com

It’s a really important question and something that I think about every day. It’s my life of work now and that’s how I look at my career. Getting on set and performing is valuable but the reason I do it today is because the need for representation on screen and what contribution I can make to that dialogue. I think the language of diversity is still very new in Australia. It happened in 2016 when we actually started thinking about diversity on Australian screens. Now we are in stage 2 where filmmakers have realised that it’s not only important to see ethnic faces but also hear them. I’m very lucky that I have come aboard as script consultant for Retrograde and I’m writing my own material and working with creators in a meaningful way. This is the reason why I wanted to come back to Australia. My goal is to contribute to break down the barriers.

You were also named as one of the most influential Asia Australians under 40 by the Asian Australian Leadership Summit.

It came as a great surprise last year. I was shooting in London and I got an email from them saying that I have been elected by the board. Advocacy and cultural communication would have been the areas I would have been focussed on if I had stayed in Australia after my law degree. It was nice to be given that recognition and the ability for me to voice my beliefs at such forums.

Bollywood is coming under a lot of limelight with Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise and the struggle of outsiders in the film industry. As a newcomer to the industry back then, what would you like to say?

Sushant’s death really hit me. I have experienced a lot of suicide from friends in Mumbai. Jiah Khan, while I didn’t know her personally – she was my neighbour. A very close friend of mine in Mumbai committed suicide six years ago. Mumbai is a city which can really encroach upon you. The questions around insider versus outsider dynamics in Bollywood is long overdue. I was there at a time where we were not at a stage of open communication in 2015 and 2016 maybe because social media was not so big. I was also a very private person. The conversations then were not yet robust. I had struggled at a time prior to that where they definitely didn’t want to talk about the flaws in the system. It was a system designed to make outsiders fail. At the end of the day, I did break through. From many angles, mine is a success story and I had to be careful and introspective to what it represented if I had to really buy in to Bollywood appetite. Ultimately, I did not agree with mechanism of the industry which was the catalyst for me to concentrate on my career in the west. Having said that, I miss working in India. I still get offers all the time but I made a personal decision to be a brown girl in Australia as opposed to being a woman in India. Because being a woman in India with a brain, a voice and thoughts was stifling.




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