FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: ANNET MAHENDRU
“I don’t look like Hollywood’s idea of an Indian woman”
Note: This interview of Annet Mahendru was taken by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) over Skype for The Sunday Guardian. Here’s the external link: http://goo.gl/AZrJsM
At some point in the middle of an hour-and-a-half-long Skype interview with Afghanistan born Indo-Russian actress Annet Mahendru, talk steers towards storytelling; in particular the stories she wants to tell the world. Annet, who is the star of American cable TV FX’s hit spy series, The Americans (that airs in India on Star World Premiere), takes a long, deep pause, and then says, “I think human beings are capable of anything and I would like to show that through my work, in my storytelling.
“I want to tell transformative stories. I want to access things inside of me that turn me upside down, twist me inside out, stories in which I’m a princess and in which I’m also a dragon. Stories about the darkest dungeons that are also my home. Stories like that of Gia, from Angelia Jolie’s Gia, or of Lisbeth Salander, from Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or of superheroes – but not like the ones in films – of authentic superheroes, superheroes of the underground, who are real, free and genuine.”
Over the course of the conversation, Annet comes across as a genuinely likeable twenty-something who giggles at the end of just about every sentence and whose eyes twinkle each time she talks about her two homes, India and Russia, or her years growing up all over the world. But you would be anything but prudent in pegging her as merely girlish, because, like the aforementioned example, whenever she is faced with a question about the craft of acting, her role as Russian double agent Nina Sergeevna or filmmaking and cinema, she is a smart, evocative, measured and deep-thinking woman, who takes her time in coming up with a response that emanates as much from her heart as it does from her head.
And when Annet speaks about her craft, she is subliminally speaking about herself as well; her answers are not just a reflection of how she thinks, it is of who she is. So if Annet is interested in transformative stories, it is in essence because she has spent a lifetime embodying one herself. As a child born in war-ravaged Aghanistan to a Russian artist mother and an Indian professor and journalist father, she grew up a self-confessed nerd, with interests ranging from chess and karate to Bharatnatyam.
“It would seem like I had an identity crisis,” she laughs, “but the truth is, somewhere deep inside of me I knew that I’d be a storyteller. You never know what you can be asked to transform into to tell your stories effectively, and subconsciously, I wanted to be prepared for everything.
“Of course, another part of it is because I have had an affinity to all sorts of cultures and passions inherently,” she says, citing her ‘gypsy’ childhood , much of which was spent traveling between Germany and Russia, after moving from Afghanistan, before she finally moved to USA during her teenage years.
Her memories of growing up are distinct and striking, and she remembers fractured instances of life as a kid who had a malleable concept of home. “Of Aghanistan, I remember hiding in the bathtub thinking there were fireworks going on outside the apartment for New Years, when we were actually in the midst of war,” she recalls.
“And when we shifted to Russia, Russians would be fascinated with me. They didn’t have much interaction with the outside world at that time and they would literally touch me and call me ‘gypsy girl’ because I was this weird looking foreigner.”
The first legible concept of home that Annet ever had was staying in Germany where most of her father’s seven siblings lived with their respective families. “It was there that I picked up my love for performance by watching reruns of Bollywood movies,” she smiles. “When I was five years old, each time guests would come over to our house, I would come out in my Indian dress and put up a dance performance for them on ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai.’”
After she moved to New York and eventually LA, and her love for the arts took a life of its own, Annet’s ethnic ambiguity helped her realise that as an actor, she could both blend in and stand out. “I have always auditioned for parts of all background – from European to Afghan to Hispanic to American and Indian – because I wanted to move beyond ethnicity. I have also worn lose, baggy clothes to auditions because I didn’t want to be seen as a ‘hot girl’. I want to tell all kind of stories and not be limited by the colour of my skin or hair. I’m not just this or just that; like everyone, there are so many sides to me.”
The multi-faceted and culturally diverse identity she epitomizes helped her land her career-defining role in The Americans too. She was auditioned on Skype by the show’s creator, ex-CIA operative Joe Weisberg, and won the part because after learning of her eclectic background, Weisberg jokingly concluded that either her parents must be spies or she is one herself. “I think he was interviewing me as a potential agent and I passed the test on a human level,” she laughs.
Her role in The Americans was at first a guest arc that was soon converted into a series regular after the audience couldn’t get enough of Annet’s character, the enigmatic Nina. Apart from the professional success that came from playing a Russian double agent on a hit TV show, The Americans in many ways helped her come even closer to her mother and her Russian roots.
“When I put on my makeup for the first time on the show and looked at myself as Nina, from ‘80s Russia, I saw my mom looking back at me and it was beautiful,” she glows. “Through Nina, I was able to connect with my Russian ancestry and access the truth of what it meant to be a Russian at the time my mother was my age, as well as explore it physically.”
It was also this ability to seek the truth that helped Annet comprehend and rationalise the partial nudity that was required of her character, Nina. “My body is sacred to me and I was fearful about approaching these scenes at first,” she says. “But I realised that when I’m Nina, I can’t continue being Annet. Nina doesn’t have guns so if she needs to survive, she has to use her intuition and her truth. And the only way you could be truthful as a woman spy at that time was to bare yourself physically and mentally.
“The writers were very careful in the story to ensure that Nina doesn’t just take her clothes off for frivolous reasons. When Nina is unclothed, she is a woman to her utmost and fullest degree and she owns everything in that moment. And for me, as an Indian woman, embracing the femininity and expressing my sexuality through that character was, in a way, empowering too.”
Annet is currently filming the third season of The Americans, has done guest parts in high profile shows like Grey’s Anatomy, stars in the upcoming animated film, Penguins of Madagascar, besides a couple of independent movies, in which she plays the all-American lead (Bridge and Tunnel and Sally Pacholok), she is now “thirsty” to find a role to express the Indian side of her genes and complete her transformation into the woman who can break out of the stereotypes and boxes the world tries to put her into, and achieve everything she wants. An offer by a big Indian film studio couldn’t work out because of scheduling conflicts, but Annet knows it’s only a matter of time.
“I have never been able to get the role of an Indian so far because I don’t look like Hollywood’s idea of an Indian woman, which is a brown-skinned exotic princess,” she says. “But I can’t wait for it to happen. When you tap into one part of yourself, you understand more about the other part too. Even the dynamic that I bring to Nina comes from this personal ability to shift perspectives and find truth in both worlds inside of me. I have all these perspectives within me, and I feel at home in different places because of that. That’s why I am never truly home at just one place… and yet, the world is my home.”
Note: If you haven’t seen The Americans, you *must* watch it since it is one of the best shows on TV today. Here’s what I had written about it in another article: http://goo.gl/aCMfGO
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Note: An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian in the November 9, 2014 issue.
Picture courtesy: Brian Sunday. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
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