In depth feature of Sheetal in Little India Magazine.
Lethal Sheetal. Time and the moment is on Sheetal Sheth’s side.
by Lavina Melwani
Nina. Maya. Kaajal. Sanjana. Sapna.
All different women. All the same woman.
Meet Sheetal Sheth, the dynamic young actress who has brought all these very different characters to life in a handful of independent films made in the United States. Sheetal is a first generation Indian-American who captures perfectly the dichotomies of growing up Indian in America with her three dimensional portrayals of real women.
Take Nina in ABCD: she is every Indian parent’s nightmare – she is rebellious, sleeps around and has just not found her anchor. Sheetal played her like a violin, with so many nuances that you could not help but feel sympathy for this vulnerable young woman.
“I was completely enamored of playing this amazing character. I love this girl and I’m very protective of her,” says Sheetal. “She has a very tough exterior but it comes from her having years and years of hurt. She makes very self-destructive decisions and very negative things around her cause her to do what she does. She still hasn’t reached a place of self-awareness where she can change, but I love her because I know so many women like her.”
Indeed, young Indian Americans are sure to see glimpses of themselves in the characters Sheetal plays in.
ABCD, American Chai, Pocketful of Dreams, Indian Cowboy, and Wings of Hope. In American Chai she is Maya, a lovely young all-rounder who dances like a dream, blending east and western moves into her choreography. Yet, due to parental pressue she dare not think of dance as a career choice until her encounter with Sureel, a musician, inspires her to follow her passion.
In the just released Wings of Hope, Sheetal plays Kaajal, who like many young Indian Americans, has grown up sheltered in a well-to-do home where all her needs and decisions are taken care of by her parents: “She’s naive and the man she gets involved with gets busted and goes to jail. She makes bad decisions but takes responsibility for her actions.”
Sheetal knows where all these conflicts are coming from because she herself has grown up in America with India always on the doorstep. Her parents Rashmi Sheth, a chemical engineer, and Rekha came to the United States from Gujarat in 1972. Sheetal was born in Phillipsburg, NJ, but the family relocated to Bethlehem, Penn., when she was in the sixth grade.
Right from the start, she had to juggle two very different worlds. Her parents, devout Jains, sent her to a Catholic school because it had a reputation for toughness and like all Indian parents, the Sheths stressed the importance of education. A topnotch student, Sheetal sailed through school: “I, non-Catholic, would often read the scriptures at Friday mass because I was the best reader.”
Sheetal learnt to dance almost as soon as she could walk and this became her passion in school. Growing up with Bollywood films, she picked up Indian dance and Hindi, but at the same time there were the American movies at the multiplex in the mall and Michael Jackson and Madonna videos on MTV. All these diverse influences filtered into her dance choreography.
A straight A student, she also made it to the basketball team and was a regular American kid, hanging out at the mall and feasting on Doritos. Yet unlike other American kids, she was also the president of the Hindu Youth Association – and that’s some juggling act! Sheetal took it all in stride since she loved organizing community events and activities.
The acting became a natural extension of her passion for dance and performance: “I started acting in high school and then I couldn’t stop. I loved performing – it seemed like something you could constantly challenge yourself with. There’s never a pinnacle you can really reach with it because you can always do better and challenge yourself – and that intrigued me.”
In spite of her scholastic achievements, Sheetal opted to study acting at the prestigious Tisch School fo the Arts at New York University and her parents didn’t pressurize her to take on something more practical: “There were so many other things I was good at that they just wanted me – for my own happiness – have that stability. But then they realized how important this was to me and that I was independent and strong enough to be able to make these decisions and that I would be fine.”
Tisch was invigorating because she was thrown together with so many people all following their passion. There were just so many people all following their passion. There were just two other Indians there and at that time Sheetal did not even think race would matter. “For me, I didn’t ever think it mattered that I was an Indian until I started auditiioning and going for casting. People started telling me who I was and then only did I realize it was going to be an issue.
“I didn’t grow up with that – I never made those race lines myself. As an actor doing roles it shouldn’t matter what ethnicity you are. In school, the roles were given according to what you’re capable of – ideally that’s how everything should be. So for me, that’s what I knew and I was shocked to find it wasn’t always like that.”
Yet in the end, race or no race, talent does shine through. Sheetal has received glowing reviews for each of her films, especially ABCD from both mainstream and Indian press. Wrote Deccan Herald about her interpretation of the promiscuous and self-absorbed Nina, “There’s an intensity, an emotional honesty to her acting that is rare.” The Philadelphia Weekly wrote, “The luminous Sheetal Sheth shines.”
Sheetal brings so much to her roles because there is so much more to her as a person.She has taught Indian dance to the children of her community to get them involved with the Hindu temple; she’s been involved with Americorps, teaching drama and dance in inner city schools; she’s been the vice-president of Shruti, the South Asian students association at NYU.
And she’s into sky-diving, hang-glidding and bungee jumping! Slim as a reed, she’s addicted to Doritos and is a passionate foodie who must try every restaurant around. She graduated as a Tisch Scholar and she also went through the classic American rites of passage – working at McDonalds during high school and bartending and waitressing while starting her acting career.
What really brought all the different facets of two worlds together for her was a solo visit to India when she was 17. She stayed there for two months, studying Jainism with an “amazing” teacher and learning to read and write Gujarati.
This was a far cry from acting, but as she says: “That helped to put everything in perspective for me and gave me the spiritual grounding. I think the reason I have been somewhat successful is because i have that around me an d that helps me from drifting off. It allows me to be who I am and not get carried away, especially in Los Angeles where the business can suck you dry.”
Besides acting in the five films that have won awards at various film festivals, she also bagged the Best Actress Award for Wings of Hope at New York’s Cinevue Festival. She got her breakthrough into mainstream television with a major supporting role in NBC’s Movie of the Week, The Princess and the Marine. She played Leyla, a veil-wearing conservative girl and enjoyed the challenge of playing that very different role.
Sheetal has acted in commercials for TheTruth.com’s anti-smoking ads and has moved to Los Angeles to take on her acting career full steam in television and films. Being there has opened many doors and opportunities. She was selected over 2,000 aspiring actresses for a lead role in a pilot for a major network that she cannot name right now. If all goes well and it gets picked up for a series, she will be seen in living rooms across America. “It’s a waiting game,” she cautions. “Only five new shows get picked from about 20 pilots.”
As part of the handful of Indian American actors who are breaking into film, theater and television, she says: “We haven’t waited for anyone to give us the breaks – we’ve made our own movies and told our own stories. We are talented and we are good and there are more people doing it than you would expect. There are just so many South Asians in the arts and that’s amazing.”
She believes it’s long overdue for Indian American actors to have mainstream careers and that things are now changing. She adds, “We are the new generation here and Hollywood will have to take notice of us – and it has already. We are beginning to break through so I think it’s really our time now.”