She plays Abhay Deol’s teenage daughter in Spin, Disney Channel’s film with an Indian-American family at the centre. And as Rhea Kumar, she has to juggle academics, her responsibilities at the restaurant run by her dad and grandmother, friends, a cute crush and a new-found interest in deejaying. If that doesn’t intimidate her, that’s because Avantika Vandanapu, after featuring in several big films down South like Brahmotsavam, Premam and Boomika, is now making heads turn in Hollywood too, with projects like Moxie!, Senior Year, Brat, Prince Ea and The Wilde Bunch. And that prompts the first query:
After three years in India, what took you back to the West?
I felt that opportunities for people of colour were growing in Hollywood and I wanted to take a shot at pursuing my dreams in my homeland. I’m grateful to get roles that step away from the stereotypical Indian and South-Asian portrayal. I would love to widen the spectrum and sketch a horizon that paves the way for future artistes of colour, who want to come to Hollywood and try their luck.
Did working on Spin during the pandemic change your perceptions in any way?
It got me thinking about how numbered our days are here. I count my blessings and appreciate the little things more now. Also, the concept of movie theatres has changed with the releasing of films on streaming platforms.
I just finished a Netflix film, Senior Year, with Rebel Wilson. And I’ve recently purchased the rights of a New York Times bestselling novel to produce as a film. I would love to make movies that bring marginalised communities into the mainstream media — such as big-budget action movies. But at the same time, it’s my desire to produce cinema that focuses on telling important stories that have remained bruised for decades.
Let’s flashback to Dance India Dance Lil’ Masters. What was the biggest challenge you faced on the talent hunt show?
I’ve always found myself drawn towards creativity and arts. Being on the show put my interest in cinema on the map. It was a wholesome journey that nurtured my young mind with its competitive spirit. It was tough being amongst so many talented dancers while remaining confident and secure of your performance. The crew and the coaches were amazing, they made me feel comfortable, and I’m glad I learnt how to manoeuvre that situation.
You’ve trained in different forms of dance, from jazz and contemporary to ballet, Kathak and Kuchipudi. Any particular form that still stumps you?
Acrobatics! I’m always amazed and captivated by the sheer beauty and strength of it. Any time I see acrobatics on screen, it goes past my head.
Your music videos earned you the moniker of ‘Mini Madhuri Dixit’? Have you met the original yet?
No, but I would love to. She’s my role model, along with Viola Davis, Natalie Portman and Meryl Streep. My favourite dance film is Aaja Nachle. I also enjoyed Raazi, it’s three years old, but it’s a film that has stayed with me. More recently, I loved Mimi.
Do you see yourself playing a Bollywood heroine some day?
That depends on the film and the script. I would like to do movies that challenge me as an actor and also contribute to society. With such an oversaturation of content today, I would like to put my efforts into films that will make a difference. If Bollywood movies fit that bill, I would be open to them.
Any plans for a single or an album? A career in music?
I love R&B Music and would like to compose and produce a single and an album eventually. I am working on it and have just started learning composition skills. I train in singing two times a week. A career in music? Why not? I would like to be a great actor and a singer like Lady Gaga.
How do you manage to make time for studies in your hectic schedule?
I go to a Charter High School, which has an online division that caters mostly to ambitious athletes, musicians, singers, actors who want to pursue arts and sports, and at the same time continue their academics. The teachers help online when there are any doubts and questions, but all exams take place in person in school.
Your interview as a 10-year-old with Mahesh Babu and Kajal Aggarwal went viral. How did it happen?
I was at a press junket for Brahmotsavam in Hyderabad’s Park Hotel. I did some interviews with Mahesh Babu garu, Kajal garu and Samantha garu, and a few solos too. Then, I got the idea of interviewing Mahesh Babu and told my mom who spoke to his wife Namrata. She appreciated the idea for its novelty.
They could give me only seven minutes. I grabbed a pen, wrote down some questions that have long been on my mind and came away admiring both Mahesh Babu garu and Kajal garu, who were so grounded and humble answering a 10-year-old kid. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.