Get ready to hear the name Shalini Bathina a lot more. The dancer, producer, co-artistic director of MKM Bollystars, mental health advocate, and actress is a revelation on the new Apple+ series Little Voice. Produced by J.J. Abrams and Sara Bareilles, the music-centred, “love letter to New York” show is a beacon of hope (and right when we need it most). I had the pleasure to chat with the multi-talented Shalini Bathina recently on the phone and the following is a condensed and edited version of our fun talk. *Major spoilers for Little Voice ahead*
Brief Take: Hi Shalini! You give such a heartfelt and honest portrayal of Prisha, thank you for sharing that with the world.
Shalini Bathina: Aww, thank you! I really appreciate that.
BT: So let’s start at the very beginning. How did you get involved with Little Voice?
SB: I was auditioning, just like everyone else. I sent a self tape in, because I live in Los Angeles, so I sent the self tape in in December and I went and got married [laughs], came back from India, and then went straight into pilot season so I was hoping to audition as much as possible and get a job or something. But yeah, you really learn to just go with the flow and audition. So I went through the whole process, like what we’re doing right now but a year ago. [laughs] Yeah, I went to the call backs and the producer session, they flew me out to New York for the tests, and then I met Sara (Bareilles) and Jessie (Nelson) and I freaked out completely. [laughs] And then after the audition, I waited actually for awhile. I just moved on with my life. Then finally a couple of months later I booked it, but it was a crazy long and nerve wracking experience. I was thrilled though, to say the least, I definitely cried, there’s a video somewhere. You don’t expect something like this to happen – for a first series regular role in a very special project. So I’m beyond grateful and thankful to Sara and Jessie and everyone involved for trusting me to be a part of the show.
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Meet the badass, beautiful, sweet PRISHA. 🌈💜🌈 Little Voice is out TODAY! First three episodes and then one a week every Friday! This show was made with a tremendous amount of love and kindness, by the incomparable Jessie Nelson and Sara Bareilles, with a STELLAR cast and crew. I hope it provides some sense of comfort and joy to you all 😍💜😍 @sarabareilles #jessienelson @jjabramsofficial @appletv @bad_robot
BT: Speaking of Sara and Jessie, what was the collaboration process like with them?
SB: I mean it was amazing, they’re both such powerhouses. It was amazing just to watch them work. Sara was this incredibly calming presence on the show. I was a huge fan of hers since high school, genuinely a huge fan, so I was very nervous. I thought I’d be completely intimidated meeting her but she’s so warm and light. When you’re around her, you feel comfortable. Jessie is the sweetest, kindest person you’ll ever meet and a very lovely director. I always felt very taken care of and trusted that she knew what she was doing. She pushed us when she wanted us to go further but was also very encouraging and created a very safe space for us. I got really lucky having incredible female leaders on my first big project.
BT: Family is a big theme in the show in terms of the family that you’re born into and then the family that you choose. Near the end of the show, you call Brittany O’Grady‘s character, Bess, your sister, after your crushing scene with Prisha’s biological sister. Throughout the show, you do feel the sisterly bond between Bess and Prisha so how did you craft that bond with Brittany?
SB: Brittany is amazing. The woman literally carries the entire show, she’s incredible in it. We actually didn’t get to meet until a few days before we filmed but we were very eager to meet each other. The first day of filming was our first scene together and the first scene for the whole show, so it was a big moment. So the Sunday night before filming, I went over to her hotel to go over that scene and to just talk about it and get to know each other, but we ended up just talking for hours and getting to know each other! [laughs] We found out that we have a lot in common. We got along really well and were just really honest with each other. Working with her was so easy. I felt very comfortable and collaborative with her. We always ran lines with each other, talked about the characters, it was a real relationship – we were never fake with each other from the get go. I think we knew that going into the project, that we needed to establish that bond, so it was helpful. I actually learned a lot about how to work on a tv/film set, because it was my first time being a series regular for a long period of time, I’ve done smaller stuff, but watching the way she worked – I just found it so interesting. She’s very experienced but she’s also dedicated and passionate about what she does, and she brings depth and kindness to her work and the people around her. She literally cares about everyone around her, she’s amazing.
BT: And speaking of family, I loved your interplay with Sakina Jaffrey because it was through those interactions that you came to understand Prisha’s dedication and loyalty to her family and their traditional values. What was it like collaborating with Sakina?
SB: I think some of those are my favourite moments, genuinely, because Sakina is so experienced and such a good actor, so when you’re with her, you feed off of that. She’s a firecracker – witty, sharp, unapologetic, I love it! I knew her from her previous work so considering how long she’s been in the industry, I was so excited to meet her. She so graciously took me under her wing and gave me advice and encouragement, she treated me like a peer. I ate up everything that she said, I wanted that. We talked a lot about being South Asian in the industry and what she’s been through and her experience on different projects over the years. I mean she’s been doing this since her twenties! And for the story, we talked about her own experience with her South Asian family, which is also very different. I mean everyone is different – there’s always some underlying similarities but it depends on the individual family and their story. We got to know each other and it became very easy to create the relationship and find our rhythm and figure out the dynamic between Prisha and her character. She’s also so sweet! She’d run scenes with me, even if she wasn’t in them. She’d go over them with me and give me notes, and it made me feel prepared going to set the next day. I got really lucky to work with her and Samrat Chakrabarti, who plays my Dad. He’s a walking one man show, basically. He’s amazing. [laughs]
BT: I think the show is exceptional for many reasons but one of the main reasons is that it’s one of the rare shows to have South Asian representation and LGBTQ South Asian representation at that. How did it feel to bring this character to life?
SB: Absolutely. There’s a lot that I feel about that and it is very rare to see these stories and characters on screen. Honestly, you just wait and hope to be given the opportunity and it’s starting to happen, but I think there are some South Asian actors who have paved the way for all of us. To be a part of this change and movement is incredible. I didn’t think this would happen and so soon for me, but there’s still a long way to go. The same goes for LGBTQ representation, it’s starting to become more prominent, but the South Asian LGBTQ representation is even more rare. So I’m beyond excited and honoured to be part of a show that includes this specifically and helps normalize it. But we haven’t even scratched the surface. There have been a couple of roles that have touched on it, but not as a full fledged, fleshed out character. I just hope that this kind of narrative is echoed in future productions and more South Asians are able to tell these stories, because it is so damn important. I truly hope it resonates with a lot of people that are struggling with this journey. With Prisha, it was actually pretty challenging for me, I haven’t personally walked in those shoes. As a queer ally, I knew it was important to understand the responsibility and ask questions and read other people’s stories and lean on my co-stars and directors for guidance, do my best to put myself in those shoes so that I could embody the character. But I also leaned on the writing as well. The writers, which comprised of a lot of South Asian writers, which was huge, and they did an exceptional job of crafting characters that are messy, that struggle just how we struggle, and not one-dimensional. These are characters dealing with real life issues that people, when they’re watching, can relate to and find hope. The whole show is really about humanity and it’s not just about Prisha’s relationships and finding her identity, but also her girlfriend, her family, her best friend. So as an actor, you can only dream of getting a part like her, so when the opportunity came, I felt like I was trained and ready for it. But it pushed me to also learn what I could to portray her as authentically as possible because her relationship with her identity is very complex because of the South Asian element to it. Being a first generation Indian American, something that is so inherent is the experience of navigating the cultural and generational divide, not knowing how to be a part of your family when so much change is happening. There are and are not values that are accepted, that’s just a part of our world. But for a lot of South Asians, family always comes first and foremost. Trying to bridge that individual journey and self acceptance, and your cultural and familial relationships, that becomes very complicated. And this was all a part of creating Prisha for me, and working with Jessie through that, and understanding it from a non-biased point of view. To see that represented accurately in the show is very important to me and I really hope that’s what it does.
BT: Do you have a favourite memory from set?
SB: I really loved being on Governors Island, we filmed the fifth episode there. We were there for three days during the summer and the cast really bonded. It was actually our first time meeting, all of us together, because we shot it out of order and this was one of the earlier days. We kind of got very personal but also goofed around. I got to drive one of those carts and be outdoors and I saw the Statue of Liberty up close for the first time! It didn’t feel like work. Those few days we were just outdoors and not in a studio, just having a good time.
BT: I watched that episode and felt such a longing to be outdoors enjoying the summer with friends.
SB: I know! It’s pre-COVID era so you’re like “wow, I miss the outdoors. I miss being around people!”.
BT: Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
SB: Yeah! I have a few. I think my go-to karaoke song would be ‘The Elephant Love Medley’ from Moulin Rouge. [laughs] It’s like ten songs in one so it’s kind of cheating but my sister and I love singing that song and we sing it very loudly, very poorly. I usually sing Ewan McGregor’s part [laughs], she’s my Satine. It’s a fun song to sing loudly at a karaoke bar or even at home, we would do it at home, to be honest. It’s just such a good song, I love it.
BT: Who are some people that you’d like to work with again?
SB: Oh there’s so many! With dance, I’m working with a few people right now that I love like Shivani Thakkar and Richa Shukla, I’ve been working with them for years and we’re still doing work together and I’m excited about that. In terms of acting and directors, one friend, Eshaana Sheth, she’s an incredible writer and actress, she wrote a short film that we both produced, she directed and I starred in called The Butter Knife. We did that a couple of years ago and it went to festivals and won a bunch of awards, it was just an incredible experience. Beyond acting, I wanted to put something out there for myself and create something, so I needed a writer and she’s just brilliant. She’s so damn intelligent, she has a very unique voice and it works very well with my voice in the stories I like to tell. But she’s just a great writer and her work really breaks down stereotypes in a subtle but very witty way, and she also really hits on some poignant topics. She’s just one of those unicorns in my life, you know? [laughs] I love her, she’s great.
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Annual family photo! Say QUEENS!! 🖤❤️💗💜💛💙💚Video link in bio, GO. . . . . . Celebrating the feminine warrior in ALL her glory, Malhari Style…In a salon, of course. For more Updates, follow us on IG @labollywood Twitter @labollywoodent FB @labollywoodent Director | Choreographer | Concept SHANNON D’SOUZA as ‘60s Bollywood Actress @shannondso In collaboration with ANISHA KURUKULASURIYA as Vogue India Model @anishakula KUMARI SURAJ as Salon Mistress Bappi | Guest Choreographer @kumarisuraj MALINDER TOORAY as DJ Phumman @m2ray_ MANMEET KAUR as Saddhu Makeup Artist @manmeet_kaur SHALINI BATHINA as Macchiwali SHAYAN CHALAN as Chaiwali | Guest Choreographer @shayanchalan Videographer | Editor ALEX LAYA @a.l.visuals Colorist BEN CHICHOWSKI *We do not own the copyrights of the songs used in this Video* Song: Malhari from ‘Bajirao Mastani’ Singer: Vishal Dadlani Music: Sanjay Leela Bhansali Lyrics: Prashant Ingole Label: Eros Now
BT: Would you like to do more producing and directing in the future?
SB: I think producing, for sure, and directing, for sure too. It’s not something I have too much experience at but I’ve always loved working with actors, it’s so fun. But producing for sure because I think there’s a fulfillment in putting something together and collaborating with other people, I think that’s what I’d like to do – bringing different minds and different creative energies and people with different backgrounds and perspectives, I’d like to be a part of that, give them a place that they can share their story and use their voice. I feel like producing would be a cool avenue to go on in my future, for sure.
BT: Tell me about your work with Dil to Dil.
SB: Mental health has always been important to me, but over the past few years it’s come to the forefront of my mind in many ways. I found Dil to Dil this past year through a friend, it was like “oh my God, I want to be part of this organization!”. I would describe the organization like Humans of New York with the narrative of people of South Asian descent who want to share their mental health stories or people who live with mental health conditions or people who live with people with mental health conditions, through Instagram Live takeovers or other social media. They’re trying to create a community where talking about something that’s been so heavily stigmatized, especially in our community, but they want to give a platform and provide that community where people can have those heart to hearts and be heard and have that unconditional love and support, which can be so healing and restorative. But they consider themselves a storytelling platform and not an advice giving platform, but they do work with other mental health organizations and are able to connect people with other culturally competent resources. But my work is a volunteer behind the scenes, it’s just something I wanted to do. I work as a guide and a source of support for those who are sharing, because it can be a very vulnerable experience to do that. But it’s been really great so far and I’ve met some incredibly wonderful people, but I really hope to do more in that space, I really do.
BT: Will there be a second season of Little Voice?
SB: Well I hope so! [laughs] I mean only time will tell. I probably know as much as anyone else, so I’m praying yes.
Little Voice episodes 1-3 are now available on Apple+. New episodes will be available every Friday.