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Sohm Kapila: ‘Bhangra Nation-A New Musical’ explores life of three South Asian women

Sohm Kapila ( Photo credit: @CaitlinFisherPhoto)

By: Eastern Eye

Sohm Kapila, an internationally renowned actress (Aquaman 2, Never Have I Ever, Greys Anatomy, Small Town Big Story), born in India and raised in Nottingham, is back in the Midlands from her home of Los Angeles and spoke to Eastern Eye about her latest role on stage as Rekha in the new musical Bhangra Nation at The Birmingham Rep Theatre.

You have just finished rehearsing for Bhangra Nation – A New Musical, what can you tell us about the show?
It is a show that celebrates traditions we inherit and those we create. And we explore that through the lives of three young South Asian women, Sunita, Mary and Preeti who end up taking part in a National Bhangra Competition through their university. The story is told through music, song and a lot of dance. We actually call it a dansical because it has so many Indian dance forms in it from Bhangra, Bollywood to Kathak and also a fusion of jazz and hip hop.

What drew you to this particular musical and role?

One of my favourite career moments was being involved in Bend it like Beckham, the musical directed by Gurindha Chadha with Sonia Friedman Productions. From the beginning workshops to its run on the West end stage (a three year process) nothing quite beat the thrill of doing this type of show especially once the packed audiences were in, it’s also where I met renowned music composer Kuljit Bhamra. Kuljit is doing the orchestrations for Bhangra Nation, so when he asked me if I would be interested in doing an Indian musical again I jumped at the chance. I was drawn to the project mainly because of his work and the other creatives who I’d heard lots about, like director Stafford Arima, composer Sam Willmott and choreographer Rujata Vaidya, and of course the Tom Kirdahy Production team who are behind musicals such as Hadestown and Ragtime.

Sohm Kapila (L) and Jena Pandya (Photo credit: @Craig.Sugden.Photography)

How do you typically prepare for a role, especially one in a musical production?

Well for this one I had to pack up and leave LA first in the space of a couple of weeks! We have a dog, and two-year-old twins, so there were a lot of logistics to figure out! Once I’d arrived in England and began rehearsals I threw myself into the preparation for it. We are very lucky to have the writers Rehana and Mike Lew Mirza in the room with us so we can ask them questions directly about the text which is so rare and super helpful. I believe in doing as much prep as I can for a role, but also not getting stuck in one way of performing and remaining open to notes, directions and new ideas from the creative team because in a new musical anything can happen!

How do you balance the acting, singing, and dancing components to create a cohesive performance?

You do have to train in each component, for example getting cardiovascularly fit for the dancing, vocal exercises each day for the singing, finding new choices everytime you go back to the text you say. Then one hopes and prays it will all come together by opening night!

Have you found any similarities between your own experiences and those of your character in the musical?

Absolutely yes. My character Rekha left India to start a new life in USA. And I left England to do the same when I moved to Los Angeles so I really resonate with the reasons why she chose to leave her motherland. She runs an Indian restaurant and having my own cooking show and restaurant has also been another dream of mine. She is a lone ranger, and one who has strength, wisdom and determination and I was drawn to these aspects of her.

Can you tell us a bit about your background in performing arts and your journey to becoming an actress?

I began acting at age 14. It was a play about racism that I was the lead in that had inspired me to work in the arts due to the impact it had on our school and community, I then worked as a background artist in UK TV shows such as Peak Practice, Crossroads, Kiss me Kate. I then trained as an actor at college in Nottingham and drama school in London. I always had plan B jobs such as working in a bar, a telemarketer, or sales rep, but by age 29 I decided to go into acting full time and it was then that I landed my first West end gig. A few years later I decided to move to Los Angeles.

(From left) Lydia Danistan, Zaynah Ahmed, Mervin Noronha, Jena Pandya, Leo Udvarlaky, Arysha Kelly and Raimu Itfum during rehearsal for Bhangra Nation (Photo credit: @Craig.Sugden.Photography)

You have been part of some successful films and TV shows. How do you approach collaboration in a musical production compared to other acting forms?

I have to admit I enjoy TV the best, it’s extremely fast paced, you have to be 100% ready when you walk onto set, and still be in the moment with what you receive from the other actors. For me there is nothing like it, and once it’s done, you can’t go back and change it. Whereas theatre is ever evolving. In Bhangra Nation for example we have ten previews where the work will go through a process of edits depending on how it is received once it’s on the stage and we have an audience seeing it.

What would you say to anyone thinking about booking to see Bhangra Nation – A New Musical?

Come! It will lift your spirits and fill your cup with joy! I promise you will be leaving your seat bouncing your shoulders and singing a few melodies! I also really love the message of our musical as it explores identity and what it is to be South Asian and hope it will connect with audiences on a deeper level too.

Can you share some challenges you have faced as a South Asian actress in the industry and how you overcame them?

One of the main reasons I had left the UK when I did was because I felt like a lot of the roles I was auditioning for were always a part of the same story or dialogue. And my own experiences as a British Indian were not something I always saw being reflected on the screen or on stage. I do believe things are finally shifting now with more content being made from South Asians at the core of the work, whether that be in the writers room, or creating their own content or being included more in conversations about the work and stories we share.

How do you think the success of South Asian performers in the global entertainment industry has evolved in recent years?

I’ve always been a Mindy Kaling fan and so getting to work with her in Never Have I Ever was a dream come true – this show for me was a true example of how far we have come in the industry. A positive mainstream show made about a teenage Indian girl and her school and family life. For me personally it was groundbreaking and I feel opened the doors for other South Asian work to be at the forefront of global entertainment.

What advice do you have for aspiring South Asian actors looking to break into the entertainment industry?

Be honest with yourself if you are truly passionate about acting, because there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. If the answer is still yes, then just keep persevering and do the work. Whether that be an acting class, making your own short films, creating an online sketch show (how good is Lily Singh!), and as my mum would have said ‘Just keep doing it!’.

 

How do you manage to balance your career as an actress with your role as a mother of twins? Have you developed any strategies to navigate the demands of both worlds?

It’s like that old saying nah, ‘It takes a village’. We couldn’t do what we do without the help of our friends, family, supportive creatives and my agents who understand our needs. I do try to find time for myself, whether it’s a 5 min meditation, a few hours with friends, or a phone call in the car to a loved one when the twins are napping! A friend of mine actually said to try to have ‘date moments’ instead of ‘date nights’. My husband also works in the industry so this was a revelation for us as our work so often includes working nights, whether we have a 15 min walk holding hands or a 20 min lunch together with no distractions – it’s a date moment! I also make sure the time I have with my kids is as focused as possible whether that’s 30 mins with them or 10 hours. I leave my work in the office.

Sohm Kapila (@SohmKapila) and Chris O’ Dowd (@ChrisODowd) behind the scenes of ‘Small Town Big Story’

Any other interesting projects you’re working on?

I’m about to start filming on Small Town Big Story which stars and is created by Chris O’Dowd who is just so much fun to work with. One of my scenes is with Christina Hendricks. It kind of blew my mind when I booked this role because literally two weeks before I was working on an acting scene playing the character ‘Joan’ from Mad Men who Christina Hendricks actually plays in the actual TV show! So to then find out I would be working alongside her was just amazing news as I really admire her work too.

Are there certain criteria you consider when selecting projects to ensure they align with your family life?

I tend to ask myself the following; How much time will it take me away from my family and can we all handle that? Can my family join me? Is it an experience I will gain value from or challenge me? And most importantly will it bring me joy? I have learnt that when I am working on a project that truly brings me joy it never feels like work at all. For me acting, writing and producing, working with like minded creatives has always done that. And so I’m in it for the long haul.

Bhangra Nation is playing now at The Birmingham Rep Theatre until March 16th. For tickets click the link: https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/bhangra-nation-a-new-musical/

 

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