Indian American artists should not be limited with thoughts of stereotypes and racism, says actor and musician Seirah Royin.
Actor and producer Seirah Royin, who is known for her role in SOLD, a powerful film about human trafficking in South Asia, is back with a new project. The Indian American actress and musician recently released a short music video, ONBV, in collaboration with many talented young artists in Hollywood, including music producer Hari Bhatt, co-director and Director of Photography Raeshib Aggerwhil, and hip hop artist Thailr. Royin, who wrote the lyrics, sang the melody, co-directed and co-produced the music video, acted in it as well. ONBV, a project that Royin describes as extremely close to her heart, has something that strikes the chord with every youngster in America. The inspiring video is all about following your dreams, something millions of immigrants in America are doing each day, every day of their lives.
In a candid interview with the American Bazaar, Royin discusses her past roles, inspiration for the video and being a brown girl in Hollywood.
Your new video urges youngsters to dare to dream. Does it have a personal connection in any way? As an Indian American girl, did you feel the need to prove academically or the pressure to be a “professional” that checks the traditional list of stable career?
ONBV is a deeply personal project for me. It originated from a late-night phone call with my Spiritual Master Tarneivji, who was living in Bangalore, India, at the time. He told me to “sit and write right now.” As I sat down to write, the lyrics flowed from my heart onto the page. It was about following your dreams. I think we are born with dreams and we come into the world to fulfill them but with the passage of time, we stop listening to that urge. I am lucky to have a very supportive family. When we had the premiere of SOLD in LA, I had 14 family members fly to LA to be with me for that moment! But of course, I did have to follow the traditional path of academics first. I graduated from Duke University thinking I was headed to law school instead of LA. But life took me where I was supposed to be.
Tell us more about the new video, everything from its concept to inception. The part you played, how long it took to shoot and everything in between. Also, why was this message important?
It feels like this project was blessed from the very beginning with a bigger purpose in sharing it with the world. Every person who came on board brought their very best. Collaborating with Hari Bhatt, as the music producer, who works at Top Dawg Entertainment with such groundbreaking artists as Kendrick Lamar and SZA, resulted in a truly genre bending song that reaches across cultures to touch people’s hearts. His vision to mix classical Indian raga with heart thumping hip hop beats along with a soul stirring spiritual chant gives life to this track. He brought a talented artist, Thailr, to join as the female rapper and I sang the melody. Filming the video with co-director and DP, Raeshib Aggerwhil, was filled with magical moments. We found the perfect girl in 4-year-old Saniya Sharon, who embodied the spirit of a girl with big dreams born to perform. Adding Chandhi Shah to convey the crucial teenage years of this journey was another stroke of luck. We reached out to a good friend and talented actor, Nikhil Prakash, to play the tough dad. He’s a sweet guy who found something very honest in the role.
We had to reshoot the ending because it needed to reflect the outcome of our character’s journey. Her moment of self-discovery that comes from pursuing her heart’s calling. On this project, it was a real labor of love for me. I did just about everything I could with the help of my creative partner, Raeshib. I wrote the lyrics, sang the melody, co-directed with Raeshib, co-produced and acted in the music video. I think Raeshib summed it up by saying, “We hope this video will speak to everyone. Inspiring children, re-inspiring creatives and awakening adults to rediscover what makes them truly happy.”
What does ONBV stand for?
ONBV stands for the Divine Melody “Om Namoh Bhagavate Vasudevaya,” as taught to me in this particular style of chanting by my Spiritual Master Tarneivji. It is the melody in the song and it invokes a magical quality that is very soothing and very inspiring. Tarneivji blessed me with this chant when I was visiting him in Bangalore in December 2017. A few months earlier, he was bitten by a viper, the deadliest snake. While going through that experience and being in the ICU, he channeled this specific way of chanting. For me to have a chance to share that gift with the world is truly a blessing that can not be measured. I am grateful.
SOLD was a brave film, and your research for the film was exceptionally brave. Tell us about your experiences at Kamathipura (a red-light area in Mumbai, India). Can you list one best and one worst experience that you had there?
Being a part of the film SOLD, as an actress and associate producer was a life-changing moment for me. Prior to auditioning for SOLD, I went to India to do my own personal research about human trafficking and the red-light district in Mumbai. I hired a camera crew to follow me undercover as I walked the streets in Kamathipura at night. It is illegal to film in Kamathipura, not to mention extremely dangerous because of the pimps. The camera crew was in a jeep with a blacked-out window hiding the camera lens. It was a crazy experience for me to be surrounded by several men who felt they could touch my arm, feel my hair, and negotiate with the guy who was walking beside me pretending to be my trafficker. I didn’t understand the language so it was even scarier for me not knowing what was being said. But I am extremely grateful I was given a chance to see for myself how horrible the reality is in the red-light district because it gave me a deeper sense of purpose in making the film. It gave me courage to fight for the millions of children still enslaved around the world. I am certain the resolve to do whatever I can to help fight human trafficking will stay with me throughout my life’s journey.
Watch Seirah Royin’s 2016 interview with the American Bazaar:
Tell us about your growing up years and your Indian roots.
I grew up in North Carolina with a very Southern upbringing. There were less than 10 Indian families when I was a little kid living in Charlotte. My parents were very progressive in allowing me to blend in to mainstream influences in school with lots of extracurricular activities. But they gave me a firm foundation of traditional Indian values coupled with a deep sense of spirituality that continues to serve me well in all aspects of my life in Hollywood.
What would you say about racism and stereotypes in Hollywood? As a brown actor how have been your experiences?
I have been fortunate to have been given opportunities to play roles that are not specifically written for an Indian actor. I recently worked on a film project called Martha, in which I play the lead role of Martha. The story is not about an Indian woman specifically. I think we need to define ourselves as artists first, focusing on the stories we want to tell and not be limited with thoughts of stereotypes and racism. I have found that to be the most empowering.
Tell us about your future projects? With a lot of South Asian names, such as Mindy Kaling abd Hasan Minhaj, making their presence and Bollywood stars like Priyanka Chopra coming and claiming big roles, how do you think the representation may have changed in Hollywood?
I am working on a feature film in development right now that is a very special project for me. I have spent two years doing the research and writing the script. We are working on putting the creative team in place and attaching talent. I find great inspiration in the success of my fellow Indian [American] actors making great strides in the industry. They are immensely talented and their voices are a valuable contribution to Hollywood. I wish to see even more Indian artists find their place in this industry.
(This interview has been updated.)