Rishi Mutalik is a junior at Bard College, majoring in political studies and theatre. On campus, he hosts a podcast called Compelling Conversations and he has interned for journalist Soledad O’Brien at her company Starfish Media Group, which aims to tell the stories of marginalized communities. Outside of Bard, he has been performing and auditioning professionally throughout his life. Recently, Mutalik gave this speech on his experience in the acting world at the Bard Leads Conference in August 2016. Here is his story:
“I’d like to start by painting a picture for you all. Imagine a 5-year-old me, sitting in a theatre for the first time. There is chatter everywhere, kind of like the chatter we heard in here before we began. The orchestra can be heard tuning. The lights go down, the room hushes. The sound of tuning turns into a symphonic melody. The curtain goes up, and people emerge from the stage. Not people—characters. As they take the stage, they begin telling a story. Through songs, dances, and monologues with the help of scenery, costumes, and lighting, they take the audience on a journey. I am enthralled.
15 years and hundreds of shows later, I still feel the same way.
This first experience propelled me to begin my life journey in performance. I wanted to be one of those characters that could take your breath away with just a note, a gesture, a line. From a young age, I started learning everything I could about the craft of performing. I took every opportunity I could to sing, act, and dance in various venues like community theatre, concerts, and talent shows. From these first performances, I had already found my passion. At the age of 9, I auditioned for an agent in NYC.
Now picture this scene – an excited me at 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 years old – receiving auditions from my agent. I excitedly click open the emails with the audition information and what do I see – one character breakdown after the other flashing the same descriptors: Nerd. Nerd. Terrorist. Nerd. Antisocial, Asexual, Scared. Think of the character tropes in ‘Big Bang Theory’. All of this is despite my agent’s insistence on recommending me for every interesting and complex role available to a person my age in film, television, and theatre. It was as if writers and other creative people in the industry looked at people like me and saw only their own ill conceived, over simplified, and blatantly offensive Indian stereotypes. As a young child it was destabilizing. I had never characterized or viewed myself as what I was seeing and had never felt such limits placed on my identity.
Was I being too sensitive? I don’t think so. When your culture or any aspect of you isn’t fairly represented or are always the butt of jokes, it erases your humanity in the eyes of others and even in yourself. Such stereotypes are pervasive in the industry for all minorities and marginalized communities.
Fortunately for me, I have encountered a few progressive individuals in the industry who offered me roles that were not defined by stereotypes or limited by strictly white casting. Roles like Tom of Warwick in the classic Broadway musical Camelot, Bruno in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo, and an immensely complex role for a South Asian actor in a new play called ‘ In Bloom’. To say that I felt liberated and exhilarated does not even begin to describe the feelings I experienced on being defined not by stereotypes of my ethnicity and my race, but rather by my talent and my humanity. These roles opened me up as an artist and gave me the same visceral feeling that I first experienced as a young child seeing my first performance.
Motivated by the majority of my experiences, I researched diversity in the entertainment industry and the facts I found were damning. There has only been one musical, Bombay Dreams, that featured South Asians prominently in the almost 100 year history of Broadway, and it ran less than three months. Only one Indian artist has ever been nominated for the prestigious Tony Award. There are countless other statistics and facts spanning all entertainment that reflect the same hopelessness and setbacks in the industry’s progress towards racial diversity.
So how do artists of color grapple with working in an industry that is not inclusive or representative of them?
Here’s how I feel. Through all of this, I am more passionate about my craft, more determined to succeed, and more optimistic about the future than ever before. Why is that? First of all, in recent years, I have noticed kernels of change. I see Aziz Ansari creating a story centered on the son of immigrants. I see the faces of Dev Patel and Suraj Sharma in films. I see Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra leading television shows. I see people of color charting paths in theatre, film, and television. It is hard to explain how visceral and emotional representation actually is. To see someone who looks like you in their full complexity, vitality, and excellence, is cathartic.
Second of all, my goals have also changed. My journey to this moment, now serves as a fuel. It has inspired me to pick up the pen and write the narratives and characters and stories that are not represented. It has inspired me to advocate for myself through articles and talks like this in which I say, “Yes we have a problem and here is what I am doing to solve it.” It also inspires me to use whatever creative freedom and choice I am given when I do get roles, to push the conversation, advocate for nuance, and combat racism, prejudice, or stereotypes in any form.
This goes beyond the arts and all that I originally dreamed of. It has inspired me to be a leader and champion for my community and to open doors that have not been opened. It has pushed me to be an inspiring image that young Indian children can look up to and feel that their dreams are valid.
As I continue to rise, I will use my power to raise hell and pull people up. And this is what I say to all of those working towards impossible dreams while trying to shatter glass ceilings. You might have started out just wanting to achieve a personal goal and you might be frustrated with the barriers you have faced, and you every right to be. But you now have the chance to be an activist, an advocate, and a representative for your community. Don’t feel a burden. Embrace it. Because as you work towards your dream, you can change the conversation, change your field, and change the images we see.”
Image by Bianka Bell