WION Exclusive! Richa Moorjani on ‘Never Have I Ever’, mental health and South Asian representation

Indian-American actress Richa Moorjani, best known for playing Kamala Vishwakumari on Netflix show Never Have I Ever, caught up with WION for an exclusive chat from Los Angeles. Like many other Indian Americans, Richa had a unique experience with a brown girl who was raised in the United States.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

How did you get the role of Kamala in Never Have I Ever? What were you doing before this role came to you?

I’ve been in Los Angeles for about 10 years. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting full-time. It took about seven or eight years to land a role like Kamala. Before that, I auditioned and played small roles on other projects, but that was obviously the biggest role I had to play. It was a long process with a lot of learning.

Mindy Kaling ran an ad for the role of Kamala, Devi and Nalini. It was a worldwide casting search. I basically turned in a self-recorded audition, just like Maitreyi did for Devi, and so I was called in for a callback and got the part. For me it was a dream role. There were a lot of ups and downs, but I’m glad I got through the journey before I got a chance to record ‘Never Have I Ever’.

We found out through social media that you are a trained Kathak dancer. Tell us more about your journey as a dancer

Yes, my teacher is here in USA, her name is Srimati Anuradha Nag. She is a disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaja. I started learning Kathak when I was five years old. I was also trained in India at Maharaj ji’s company and that’s been over twenty five years now.

What was it like growing up as a brown girl in the US?

I actually grew up in a very… in a community with a lot of other South Asians so I wasn’t the only brown person in my school, I actually had a lot of Desi and Indian friends growing up. My family had a large circle of South Asian family friends and a large extended family here, so I am very blessed in the sense that I never felt disconnected from my culture during my childhood. I grew up with Indian classical dance and my parents are also musicians, they also make Indian music so culture was an important part of my life growing up here. But at the same time, of course, growing up here and growing up in India as a brown person are very different, and I definitely felt the pull between the two cultures a lot growing up, and even now I’m having to navigate that. But I feel truly blessed to come from such a rich and beautiful culture. The fact that the arts are such a big part of our culture is one of the reasons I decided to become an artist, I think.

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Have you been to India often?

When I was growing up I went to India almost every year. My grandparents lived in Varanasi, this is the paternal side of my family and the maternal side of the family lives in Bangalore. So I’m half South Indian, half North Indian. I’ve spent a lot of time in India. Both summer and winter we came to India and spent a lot of time there.

Coming back to “Never have I ever,” you have a completely different accent now as we speak than you did when you were on the show.

Well I’m glad you thought it was my real accent meaning I sounded authentic and that was my goal. I know there have been many portrayals of the “Indian accent” in Hollywood and we all know as Indians that there isn’t ONE Indian accent. Everyone in India, outside of India, coming from there has a different sounding accent, we have so many different dialects depending on where you are from.
First I worked with a dialect coach and I spent many, many hours on YouTube watching people with the accent I was aiming for and practicing with my family and practicing with others. I spoke with that accent at home. I’ve done everything I can to make sure I’m authentic.

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You mentioned that you are both North Indian and South Indian. Can you explain that in more detail?

Yes you know I feel really fortunate to be from different parts of India because I’ve had a chance to celebrate my Kannada roots and also my Banaras roots and there’s a lot of overlap and a lot of similarities. Both my parents are Hindus, so many rituals and religious customs may be similar, but there are also many differences. I can celebrate the language, the food or the way we dress in different parts of India where I come from and that’s so exciting to me.

How was the celebration at home and which was your favorite?

Holi is my favorite festival and is celebrated all over India. Everyone has their own unique way of celebrating not just Holi but all holidays and I really love that my South Indian family celebrates Diwali differently than my North Indian family. Or they make different foods. But for me, Holi is the most fun.

How did your parents meet? Were they the first generation of their families in the United States?

Yes, my father moved here to California when he was in his 20’s to complete his PhD and my mother actually moved to the US from Mysore when she was 7 years old so she stayed here for most of her life. When my father moved here, he formed a Bollywood music band with his college friends and was looking for a lead singer. My mom was a singer so she auditioned for his band and became the lead singer and that’s how they met and fell in love and got married. You still have the band.

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How did you meet your husband? What drew you to him?

We met about five to six years ago through an app called Dil Mil, it was an app that was obviously started by an Indian and was for South Asians looking for other South Asians, so my husband and I met. You know I loved that he just seemed very humble he seemed like a very down to earth person not flashy and he didn’t take selfies of himself in front of the mirror or wear flashy suits as he seemed like a very simple person who seemed very attractive to me. That was before ‘Never Have I Ever’.

They have also been active in mental health. When did you realize its importance?

I don’t think it ever suddenly struck me, it’s always been important to me. I know people in my personal life who suffer from mental illness and my mother is a therapist. So mental health has always been an issue, an issue that has been very openly discussed in our family. I think that’s wonderful because we all know in our culture and around the world that mental health is still a very stigmatized topic and we don’t really talk about it. That’s why it’s always been very important to me in my work.

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