Crossovers is a series of interviews with film and media professionals in British Columbia and India whose experiences demonstrate the already strong crossovers and community ties between the two industries.
Our Third Crossovers interview is with Munish Sharma, Producer, Actor, Writer, and Dancer. Based in Vancouver, Munish works in the film and television industry and has performed in such theatre performances like Bollywood Wedding. Munish Sharma also writes poetry and short stories on his blog, The Ranting Poet.
My name is Munish Sharma and I guess I’m and actor first. I went to theatre school at the University of Regina where I did a BFA. Since then I have taken on many other roles than a performer such as producing, writing, poetry, and dancing.
What has your experience been in the industry so far?
It has been quite good. There have always been ups and downs which are normal in life, but things have progressively gotten better since I finished theatre school about six years ago.
I’ve started doing a steady amount of television, commercials and I also do one or two theater shows a year. I’m in a comedy troupe called “I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter Chicken” and a smaller group called “Bollywood Shenanigans” which Butter Chicken was created from. So yes, things have been quite fruitful since I moved to Vancouver 6 years ago.
Tell me about I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter Chicken
Bollywood Shenanigans technically came first, which was simply being up to no good, joking around and combining that with our enjoyment of Bollywood.
I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter Chicken is a small sketch comedy group that myself and my business partner Leena Manro co-created, in 2008. Essentially both her and I have a similar comedic taste and we grew up in the 1980’s watching a lot of Bollywood films. So what we started doing was making fun of certain things we started to notice in Bollywood movies. We do love to dance and sing, so that also came from watching a lot of Bollywood growing up. So we wanted to take that love of Bollywood and show it through comedy, and combine it with growing up as a first-generation Canadian. Still, some stuff is just jokes and jokes and jokes.
It’s live theatre sketch comedy our shows tend to be between 75-90 min. We also had a sketch variety show on the radio station RJ1200 for a while.
What kind of an audience do you have?
It’s about 60% South Asian and 40% other. Since we started doing shows in the CBC here in Vancouver over the past couple years our demographic has definitely increased in the multi-ethnic area.
What sort of things do you talk about in your show?
Well honestly the topics are very universal and aren’t only about South Asian people or India. A big example may be: you have parents who want you to get the best, highest paying job so you can succeed in life (whatever their idea of succeeding is) or to just make a lot of money so you can have everything you want in life. Certain jobs are above the rest like becoming a doctor, or engineer, or anything to do with computers… Being an actor is typically seen as having a lot of uncertainty so it’s not very high on the list. We address this in our comedy show. We also talk about ideas of marriage, arranged marriage, and the even deeper specifics within Indian arranged marriage like religion, caste, family, background, and of course Bollywood… The story lines, character types in the movies, the songs and dancing are commonly featured topics in the show.
What challenges do you face as an actor of Indian descent in Canada?
Well since I finished theatre school I have had a multitude of people telling me I should try out in Bollywood just because of the fact that it’s had a huge influence on how I act. However, it’s never really been a personal goal of mine, but you never know what could happen in the future.
A common challenge may be finding your type. I’ve been told I can play more mult-ethnic characters. Also, this might sound incorrect and I have not intention of offending anyone, but there is a very strong difference in projects where you will have either a lot of people of one race or background or a lot of Caucasian people. There aren’t many shows out there yet where there is a proper diversity, what ever that may mean to you. I find it very unattractive sometimes when I go to a show or watch a show and it’s not diversely cast. Even with our own sketch show I have tried my best to have the show apply and related to all walks of life. I find that there’s a lot of talented people around the world who are of different race, creed, and color and I think it needs to start being portrayed a bit more in things like television and live theatre. So we can properly see, what we see when we step outside our doors everyday. Luckily I have felt in the last few years that we are starting to become more unified in our desire to create something great.
Aside from that, there are the usual challenges of an actor. You have chosen this life for a reason and your creativity is important to you and it will pay off if you work hard and work smart.
You were recently visiting India. Did you see anything you really loved about the Indian film industry that you don’t see here in Vancouver?
I’m a bit backwards when it comes to Bollywood film. I was a very huge fan growing up until about 18 or 19 years old. Since I’ve become older the formula just hasn’t sat well with me. However, from what I have learned I have realized that it is changing. Now I see there is an independent scene going on, and multi-media-wise they are growing and progressing. I do think that the Bollywood Industry could be more open-minded because it’s a family-run industry and that is something they can work on changing.
But the biggest thing is that Bollywood is developing… most definitely. And there is more opportunity growing.
When I was in India I met a number of producers who were doing their own thing. I had never heard of them before but they were making their own films. Although the quality could have been better, they were still doing it!
Where do you see the most potential for BC and India’s film industries to crossover?
BC and Vancouver have been used by Bollywood as a location in the past. There is also a large South Asian community here. BC and Vancouver are great places to shoot a Bollywood film and you would find a bunch of people here who would also want to work too. There are a good number of very talented South Asian actors who may not be directly from India but there is a strong community here and great to make a cultural crossover film.
If there was a film that wanted to do something new and break industry barriers, they could do it in BC for sure. It has the production ability and the talent.
There is also a difference in markets. My Indian cousins tell me that there are North American Bollywood Stars and then there are Indian Bollywood Stars. There is a difference. In North American, the tops stars could be, for example, Sharukh Khan and Hritik Roshan. In India there are many more big stars who may be more popular then them. From what I remember, Salman Khan is huge in India right now and his films speak to the average Indian, he’s had like 5 or 6 hits in a row! But if you hear Sharukh Khan’s name anywhere else in the world (Or Amitabh Bacchan, although everything he does anywhere is great) people go crazy. So learning that difference was very interesting to me.
So you think that newer types of Indian films could be marketed more outside India?
I think that if Bollywood took the initiative, they could make successful border-crossing films that can be huge in the rest of the world rather than waiting for Hollywood to come and do something. There’s movies like Gandhi, Bend it Like Beckham, or Slumdog Millionaire which were funded by the West and were for a Western audience and people of non-Indian heritage. I have no idea if those films did well in India. Bend it like Beckham is the only film I have seen that seems to have done the crossover properly. There is an avenue and an audience. It can be done. Instead of a film like this happening once every three or four years, it could be happening a few times a year even. It just has to be done correctly.
So do you consider yourself Indo-Canadian or just Canadian?
I am one of those people who likes to believe they are Canadian with South Asian or Indian heritage. Because I was born here in Canada I would call myself a Canadian first since the idea of Canada is multi-culturalism and we are supposed to pride ourselves on that. I believe saying Indo-Canadian or Chinese-Canadian shouldn’t be important. Europeans who first came to this country don’t say Polish-Canadian or English-Canadian. However, you can call yourself what ever you want.
What’s happening next for you?
I’m working on writing my first one act play called, Mrs. Singh and Me and also currently underway on creating a web series.
Click here for the entire Crossovers Series
– Interview by Paula McGlynn