Janina Gavankar: “Indian women—we have a fight in us and we will not stop”

B BSHAHNAZ SIGANPORIA

13 JANUARY 2021

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When Janina Gavankar signed onto BAFTA winner Michael Pearce’s upcoming sci-fi thriller Invasion, starring Octavia Spencer and Riz Ahmed, the first thing she did was text the latter: Do you want to name our babies together? “Riz and I play exes in the movie and we have two sons, Jack and Bobby. We had a long chat about our characters and decided to keep Bobby (because it works as a desi name) but change Jack to Jay. It is my job to go in and represent where I come from, in all its nuance and beauty. You’re only helping a project by bringing to the table every aspect of you,” Gavankar tells me from her home in Hollywood, Los Angeles, as her sphynx cat prances across the piano (she is a trained pianist, vocalist and orchestral percussionist) that frames the background of her Zoom window, beside a wall trellised with her sketches and drawings (she’s also an artist). 

Over numerous Zoom calls through the second half of last year, I have gotten to know Gavankar and the various corners of her home (which also serves as the set of her much-buzzed-about, Oscar-qualifying horror short Stucco, which she co-wrote, directed and starred in). First, as Gavankar planned everything from the lighting to the lilt in her voice when she hosted the special virtual edition of Vogue India’s Women Of The Year Awards 2020 from her backyard. And more recently, for the shoot of her first digital cover and interview for Vogue India. Conversation after conversation, be it midnight or the break of dawn, the one thing that sticks is Gavankar’s ability to always show up in full form as a consummate creative collaborator who brings all of herself into everything she does and knows exactly who she is. 

A DIFFERENT VOICE 

The 40-year-old triple- (more like quadruple, times a few) threat actor, musician, producer and filmmaker has worked in Hollywood for 15 years, but claims her space hasn’t been an easy ride. Gavankar arrived in Hollywood pre-The Mindy Project, Tan France and his signature French Tuck, Priyanka Chopra Jonas crossing over for Quantico, and even the early years of Hasan Minhaj’s The Daily Show days. One of her first auditions was for a pilot called Mindy And Brenda. “You know, Mindy [Kaling] was so kind to me when I first moved to LA. I didn’t even realise this then, but I auditioned against Mindy to play Mindy! Neither of us got the call, but she wrote a character for herself and she was made to audition, only for it to be given to someone else. I wasn’t wise to what was going on in Hollywood then, but the fury I feel for her now is overwhelming.” 

Between auditioning and waiting in the wings for work, Gavankar wound her way into becoming one of the first few actors of South Asian origin to become a ‘series regular’ way back in 2005, as lesbian lothario Papi in The L Word. “It was the first premium cable show that served gay women, and it gave me perspective by giving me early access to women in Hollywood over 40. It made me zoom out and look at the entirety of what I wanted to do.” And she did. Gavankar refused to settle and quit roles that didn’t promise character development. She says of Grey’s Anatomy, where she played intern Lisa in two episodes in 2008 before walking out: “They hired a lot of overqualified actors to come on set, say zero words and just stand around. Every day I was there, I wasn’t auditioning for something that would lead to something else.” She decided early on that she was not there to play the token brown girl as part of the required multicultural background scenery. Her conviction has paid off. Gavankar has recently shared screen space with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon on The Morning Show (she’s currently shooting for season two) and Ben Affleck in The Way Back (2020). She explains, “Being a brown woman in Hollywood is not just about you, it’s about everybody you represent and everyone who benefits from you winning. Each of us here do that, and I take my small part very seriously. My role is that of a truth teller in rooms where people are afraid to speak.” 

FEMININE MYSTIQUE 

But Gavankar hasn’t just been part of the evolving narrative of South Asians in Hollywood. If Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles are rewriting the rules of modern masculinity, Gavankar is part of the rising tide of women artistes who have been upending the conformist gaze into something diverse, feminist and actively subversive. She sees her art as self-expression, a way to exorcise her demons, be it on screen, in the writers room or even in her fashion choices that she defines as ‘Tom-boy glam’—where she’s most likely to take something from the boys, cinch it at the waist and call it fashion. Gavankar is all about the subtext. “I love it when someone walks up and goes, ‘I love your jumpsuit. Where did you get that?’ And I say, ‘The army’. Most think of the 4,000-dollar high-fashion version, but it’s nice to remember where that came from,” she says. 

Gavankar’s star power is in her vision and ability to use every form of art, be it fashion or film, to Trojan-horse her convictions and beliefs. “I feel like I’m part of a special-ops SEAL team, trained to infiltrate and change culture,” she says. Her next step is establishing herself as a filmmaker and getting closer to India. She has already signed on with 108 Media for a feminist monster film that’s currently in the scripting phase. “I’m writing a movie not just for North America but for India to see itself. My job is to communicate what’s happening in this cultural moment. India is looking at the patriarchy and it is the perfect time to carry on that dialogue,” she says. The film is based on the various legends of the rakshasas, and will be a culmination of all the ideas and goals that she has spent the last decade and a half honing. “My motherland doesn’t really know me because I’ve been on the other side of the globe trying to forge a path for girls like me. There were many of us and we all did it together—and it happened. Lilly Singh is the first queer woman of colour to get her own late-night talk show, Kamala Harris is the first female vice president and Gitanjali Rao is Time’s first kid of the year. It’s not arbitrary; Indian women, I’m telling you, we have a fight in us and we will not stop.”

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