The voice on the audio book of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake belongs to Sarita Choudhury. Suspended without visual cues, Choudhury’s proper English narration belies the actress’s rich cultural background. Her Bengali mother and British father married in Jamaica but her primary education took place in Italy and Canada. Her career was launched when she costarred with Denzel Washington in Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala. Choudhury’s gone on to portray a number of exotic, if troubled, women including a Chilean maid, a lesbian mother, and a Pakistani country-western singer.
But Hollywood is as famous for its films as it is for its cutthroat competitive culture. It’s a crazy soup of idol worshipers, egomaniacs, high rollers, taboo-breakers, and dreamers of every stripe all stirred up together. Throughout her career, Choudhury has remained true to herself and relatively unscathed. She’s made the most of the experience while standing solidly on the ground — priorities in place and gaze steady toward the future.
Acting Boot Camp
I spent a year touring the world with Declan Donolan and his theater company Cheek By Jowl. For the first six months I wasn’t very good, but Declan didn’t care. He taught me how to learn from my mistakes. It was the hardest training I’ve ever had. When I got a little better I could see him smiling with me. It was really fun. I think he changed everything for me. When I left the theater and got back into film I felt like I had a real base.
It’s funny how the image of show business is so bad. Truthfully I only meet supportive people. Even if it’s a bit fake sometimes, it definitely always feels supportive.
The Big Time
Denzel Washington had just got the Oscar for Glory and he was a big star but it was new to him, so it was kind of charming. I was so beside myself working with him (on Mississippi Masala). I was just so shy. He used to say to the director “Do you think she’s ever going to speak?” and still I wouldn’t. But I had no problem when the camera was rolling. That’s how I knew I loved acting. It was just like – I couldn’t be at all outside of that.
The Underrated Art of Listening
Being part of many cultures I think has made me very open to other people. But when I first came to University in North America I met many people who, if I mentioned that I grew up in Rome, would respond by saying “I’ve been to Rome” and they’d proceed to tell me all about their experience. But they would never ask me a thing. And so I thought “How do people learn?”
I think if you meet great people you often find that they ask many questions and they listen. When I meet a great teacher or a great mentor, I find that they know so much because they listen. They have nothing to defend, nothing to prove.
When I walk into an audition I really look at everyone and smile. Then I just sit down and listen to what they have to say – I don’t just launch into my own thing.
Finding a Mentor
I saw Mira Nair’s early documentary work and recognized that she had a very strong voice. Then I discovered that she was also doing feature films in Mumbai. I felt a connection to her. I’d gone from studying arts theory and criticism to acting. There was something familiar in her transition from documentary to features. And of course she was an Indian and living outside of India. Here was a role model that really fit. My feelings towards her work were so strong that it seemed very natural for me to reach out to her. Like most things if you really feel that connection, it gives you the courage to reach out to that person.
Resilience and Rejection
Oh my God, rejection happens all the time. But if I don’t hear back from the agency I don’t ask why. I don’t really want to know. I mean, unless I’ve done something outrageous. But in general there’s so many reasons why you don’t get a role that I’m used to it now. I am sure I’ve made a complete fool of myself. And the thing is… you keep going.
Every rejection is heartbreak. The trick with acting is that you have to really fall in love with a role to do it well so then if you don’t get it, it hurts. You have to get thick-skinned but not so thick-skinned that you lose your sensitivity. Actors have to have access to their emotions. It’s a fine line.
I tend to go for one thing only. When I look into my interviews from the time of my first film, they seem like pretentious. But what was interesting about those interviews, people would ask me – “Do you want to direct, do you want to write?” and I’d always say, “No, I just want to act.” I’m still like that now. I would always pursue acting over anything else.
A Woman of the World
I think that if you don’t travel, you get brainwashed. Travel is so important. You must see things for yourself. The more you witness, especially internationally, the more you’re able to judge as opposed to just showing off. With travel and a lot of reading definitely comes an open mind.
Instinct = Shine
I think we all have instincts. You might see someone walking down the street and they just look great — what they wear seems right for them, and yet it wouldn’t be right for you. When people really go for their instincts, they shine.
Happiness is Success
I’m lucky enough to work and live in New York City. But I don’t work all the time. If I lived in LA, I’d work much more. Often people ask me why I don’t move to LA. They ask if I’m scared of success and I say no, not at all, I love success, I’m not scared of success a bit. But I just feel happier in New York and that is a form of success.
I think true success is really about being happy. I go to yoga, which is all about getting to a point where you are just naturally in a state of happiness. And I thought wow; people have to work to get to this place, because life is so stressful nowadays.
Ruling the World
It’s shocking that women haven’t ruled the world. In a way they do. I mean, it depends on what world you’re looking at. There are so many — the world of children, the world of the heart. Women are already so successful that you want to say, “Don’t change what you’re doing. Just know that if it makes you happy, it works.”
This Featured Lady was profiled by Noa Jones, a writer based in New York City.