Growing up as a Gujarati Indian in Australia, Ria Patel often felt like an outsider. During her studies at the New York Film Academy, she began to utilize her unique identity to inspire her work. Now, as an award-winning actress and writer, Patel is a force to be reckoned with. The films she creates commonly address taboo topics in Western and Indian culture and promote female empowerment. Patel strives to represent Australian Indians on screen and at the writer’s table.
Check out our chat with her below.
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Where did your love of acting begin?
My mom loves movies and growing up, that was the thing that we connected on. I was due in August. But while my mom was pregnant with me in July, she went to go see a movie. And then when she came back home, she wasn’t feeling so great. Her mom, my grandmom, took her to the hospital and out I came. So it’s a joke in my family that I’ve always been watching movies even in my mother’s womb.
What was it like to grow up Australian Indian, and how has your identity impacted your career?
I always felt like I didn’t fit in. Every time I went to India, people would joke that I’m a bloody Aussie. In Western countries, people would call me a FOB or curry. But I’m a blend of both and I love to proudly represent both. Sometimes I’m afraid to walk into auditions with my Aussie accent because I think they’re less likely to cast me. I don’t think I’ve seen any characters who are Australian Indian in American cinema, so I’ve just started auditioning with an American or Indian accent. I used to feel like this is not being true to myself, but at the end of the day, I want to act. If this is one way to get my foot in the door, then I’m happy to do so. It has been a little tough being an Aussie Indian within the American film industry, that’s why I’ve been writing my own roles.
I recently wrote and starred in a film called Trey Pops (2020), and that was just shot for fun. It’s a super simple story about a couple going through a break up and figuring out how to gain closure. We filmed it and just put it up towards a few festivals with no intention to win. But we actually picked up a few awards. I won Best Actress at the Virgin Spring Cinefest Film Festival, South Film and Arts Academy Festival, and Top Indie Film. It also won in the Best Short Film category and was nominated for Best Humor and Best Writing as well. I think as actors and artists, when you are creating work for yourself to get pure joy out of it, you’ll be surprised by how well it’s received.
How has it been empowering for you to write characters that we might not be able to see in mainstream cinema?
In Hollywood, diversity is slowly getting there. Characters might be Asian or South Asian, but specifically where are they from? What food are they eating? What language are they speaking? Asia is so big, and there’s so many cultures that are not being represented. That’s why I wanted to write stories specifically about my culture. One of the films I wrote, Nice (2020), is about a girl who’s engaged to a guy who follows Jainism. Within Jainism, they don’t eat root vegetables. My character is really upset because she is obsessed with fries and to be with him, she has to give them up. It’s a really cute, sweet, simple story, but it’s also reflecting on the broader topic of a woman’s place in marriage, especially in Asia. When Asian women get married, a lot of the time, it involves giving up part of their identity to become a part of the husband’s family. The bigger picture here is, does a woman give up her identity? Or in general, when you love something so much, do you let that go for someone else?
Another project you worked on is starring as the gay lead in the first ever Gujarati webseries, Varta re Varta (2018). How did you get involved in that?
It was through word of mouth and a random coincidence. The director, Jay Parikh, was looking for Gujarati actors but he wasn’t able to find any in L.A. When he was driving for Uber, one of his passengers just happened to be a student at film school. The passenger recommended the actor who plays my brother in the webseries, and he went on to recommend me. It was such a privilege and honour for me, because up until then, I’d always been playing characters who spoke Hindi, the national language of India. That’s still the first language Hollywood goes to when representing Indians.
Varta re Varta also touches lightly on the LGBTQ+ community. Within India, it is still a taboo topic, but in the state of Gujarat, where I’m from, it’s still under the rug. You might hear stories about men being being homosexual, but for women, it’s even more rare. I was a little worried about how the audience was going to react, but we had such an overwhelmingly warm response from the audience. I think it was so important and crucial to represent Gujarat because the culture is still very traditional and strict.
Are there any other taboo topics you want to explore in your work?
In my religion, Swaminaryan, we’re very strict when it comes to our periods. When I’m on my period, I can’t touch anyone for five days and I can’t go into the kitchen. If my mom accidentally touches me, she has to go take a shower. Growing up in a Western society, this was very tough for me to deal with; I’d see my friends walking freely and touching anything they wanted. So right now I’m working on a web series where I play a period fairy. Each episode I visit a girl who’s dealing with her period. The whole purpose of the story is not to just talk about religion and culture, but to also talk about periods in a positive way.
How has writing your own characters and scripts helped you as an actress?
It’s helped me understand characters a little more. When I’m writing or reading a script, I’m thinking more specifically about where she grew up, how is her relationship with her parents? Playing my own characters, I’m also able to live more fully because I’ve created that world. I love it when I see a character’s quirks on screen, like the way they eat their noodles or the way that they set up their bed. I think that’s magical. It’s human and that’s what actors are here for: to represent these human experiences.
What advice would you give to young actors?
Acting is doing and I think the best way you can learn is to just get on set. If there’s a short film you saw and really liked, reach out to the director or producer and ask them to hop on a call with you, just to get to know you a little better. The worst-case scenario is they say no. If anything, they’re ecstatic that someone wants to know more about them, that their film touched them in some way. Lastly, create your own work. Sometimes people are just waiting to get discovered. But that’s not how it is today. It’s as simple as setting up an acting page on Facebook or Instagram and just uploading a self-tape every week. I always shoot a small tape, or maybe I’ll write a scene and I’ll put it up on Instagram. I’m not doing it to necessarily get exposure, it’s more for me so I’m still working that muscle.