Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She’s a dynamic, fearless, and strong woman. She’s your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi woman.
Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and today we are so excited to be joined by Rashmi Rustagi. Rashmi is an actor, writer, producer, and food blogger based in California. She has pursued acting from a very young age, starting out as a radio actor in All India Radio plays in Lucknow, India. A fluent Hindi, Urdu, and English speaker, Rashmi has performed in several theater productions while living in the Bay Area and is currently a film and television actor in Hollywood, working with some of the biggest names in the industry. She is now putting the finishing touches on her feature film script. Rashmi, welcome to the show.
Rashmi Rustagi (01:34):
Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
Soniya Gokhale (01:36):
Rashmi, we are so excited to have you and your resume and work experience are absolutely amazing. You’ve worked with the biggest names in Hollywood. As I was researching you for the show, I was just blown away and I wanted to ask how you got involved in acting and have you always had your family support in pursuing this endeavor?
Rashmi Rustagi (01:59):
Yeah. So my mom was an All India Radio artist in Lucknow, which is where I was born and I grew up. So we started doing radio plays as a child actor, radio actor from the age of nine, I started doing and some of my siblings, and then they dropped out, but I continued. And then I did theater as a teenager, I did runway modeling as a teenager in Lucknow, and then I got married after college and came to the US. My husband grew up in Columbus, Ohio. So I came to the US, after that I had an arranged marriage and I tried to go back to school, tried to get my MBA degree, did not do any theater or radio work because of the places that we lived. And because at the time, 30 some years ago, there was no work for Brown people.
Rashmi Rustagi (02:51):
There was not even theater. So I continued, and then about 25 years ago, my husband and I finally moved to Palo Alto, California, where there’s a huge theater industry for Desi theater, for Indian theater. One of the companies is called Naatak and I started working with Naatak and it was such a pleasure, such a joy to be able to speak in Hindi or to just listen to other people speaking in Hindi, in life here. So that’s how I resurrected my acting career doing theater, and then finally, gravitating toward Hollywood and doing film and television.
Soniya Gokhale (03:32):
Wow. That is absolutely amazing. So not only did you write and produce the film entitled Unborn, but you also star in the film, which is now currently streaming on Amazon Prime. And I’m going to have the link in the podcast notes. And you just won the best supporting actor award from the Indian Film Festival in Cincinnati. So congratulations on that.
Rashmi Rustagi (04:00):
Soniya Gokhale (04:01):
And while it’s common knowledge that female feticide is common in India and its surrounding countries, what surprised even you, as you indicated in a recent interview, is the fact that feticide is also practiced by Indian-Americans and South Asians in certain parts of the US. So I just wanted to see if you could tell me more about what inspired you to write a script about feticide as it’s such an unfortunate phenomenon.
Rashmi Rustagi (04:33):
Yeah. Having lived here longer than I lived in India, you hear stories here and there, but you don’t think about that here in America. And I was visiting my gynecologist for a routine checkup one day, she’s a middle-aged Indian woman, and she said that, “I’m so frustrated.” And she started talking about her day and saying that, “Today, I had another female Indian patient who has two daughters, and I did not want to do her ultrasound because the first thing they ask is, they don’t ask, ‘Is it a healthy baby?” The first thing they ask is, “Is it a boy or a girl?’ And because she’s got two girls, I’m afraid that if it’s another girl it’s going to be gone.” And I said, “What do you mean it’s going to be gone?”
Rashmi Rustagi (05:21):
She said, “She’s going to get an abortion.” And my jaw dropped. I said, “Are you kidding me, here in America? Really?” She said, “No.” And she was so frustrated. And she said, “Rashmi, you’re a creator. You’re a storyteller and you’re an actor, why don’t you tell the story?” So my first thought was to make a documentary film. So I talked to a lot of other OB-GYNs in town, they had similar stories. Then I talked to some filmmakers and they said, “Documentary is a whole different beast. You have to do so much research, you have to have so funding to do the research. So why don’t you just write a story and give it a point of view?” so I thought, “Okay, unless and until the change starts from the woman who stands up and says, ‘No, this is my body. I take a stand. I will do what I want to do with this baby. I don’t care what you say.'” So with that in mind, I wrote this story to bring, A, this issue to light and, B, for the women to start taking a stand.
Rashmi Rustagi (06:28):
You cannot change other people, so therefore, you change and start to change from within and start taking a stand. So I wrote this short film. I had a producer who was going to produce it and he backed out 10 days before the project. So I ended up becoming the producer by default. I wrote the small actor part for me because I was going to be more on the periphery, working other aspects of the movie-making. So I’m glad I didn’t have a bigger part. I wrote and I found this amazing actor who brought the young woman’s character to life. So that’s where it all started. And I was so happy that I could finish that project in spite of everything else that was handed out to me.
Soniya Gokhale (07:16):
It is absolutely incredible project and I was just blown away by it. And I’m going to ask you, in researching, again, for this interview, I saw that there’s a lot of reasons why women and our culture still so much want a male child, but many of these women are pressured by their in-laws, their husbands and there’s a whole host of reasons. And I just want to see what your thoughts are on this. And just, already because of this phenomenon, whatever you want to call it, infanticide, the numbers are skewed. There’s not enough girls in India. There’s not enough women in China, and it’s just perplexing, this obsession.
Rashmi Rustagi (08:01):
Yes. And in some parts, as I was doing the research … So the difference between feticide is that you get rid of the baby, the fetus. Infanticide is you get rid of the baby after it’s born and both are being practiced in India. And in some villages, there was a statistic. This one village in Haryana bragged that there has not been a girl baby in their village for 100 years. How possible is that, right? So basically, infanticide is happening in those villages. And as a result, there’s such a shortage in some parts of Punjab, there’s such a shortage of girls that there’s one girl for two, three boys in a family or girls are being raped. So again, it perpetuates the violence against women by getting rid of women. It’s just such a vicious cycle.
Soniya Gokhale (08:56):
Absolutely. And based on Hollywood being the origin of the “Me Too” movement, it could be easy to presume that gender bias, ageism, and racism are quite prevalent for you. And you mentioned that you experienced that at the early part of your career in this country, but even now I want to ask you, you look at your career and you have been very busy with projects and work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. And now, here you are a woman of color in 2021, who’s writing, producing, and acting in a film. And in this industry, I thought that, that demonstrates power. So it’s kind of a dichotomy here, but I wanted to get your thoughts on that.
Rashmi Rustagi (09:45):
So the “Me Too” movement is fairly recent and I am not a young actor, I’m on the higher age range. So I sometimes worry that I may have missed the tide, or I may have missed the boat in terms of the “Me Too” movement now starting. And this year and last year, a little bit because of COVID, but the year before that there were a lot more parts being written for Brown people. Last year, we had the series on Netflix, Never Have I Ever, that is the first real series made by Brown people for Brown people and major cast is Brown people, and primarily women. So I’m hoping that I will be able to benefit from this change now, now that the people of color, the BIPOC actors, are being recognized and given parts and written parts, and hopefully, the trend continues and the next generation benefits from that. They’re making a lot of animated shows as well. I am a series regular in an animated show, which is all about Brown people, and Nickelodeon is making that. I have the voiceover for that, one of the characters in there.
Rashmi Rustagi (11:05):
So I’m hoping that this trend will continue and that the next generation will really, really benefit not just by participating in it, but as viewers. There’s so little content for my children to see Brown people up on screen or up on stage, so I’m delighted that, that’s happening. And I started writing because everybody kept saying, “Hey, if there are no doors, create a door.” There are no doors, create a door, so I very reluctantly started writing. I’ve finished writing a feature film, which is about a middle-aged Indian woman with a lot of the issues that we, first-generation women, have to deal with while trying to raise children in America. So you’re juggling both aspects of the culture and trying to find that sweet balance. So I’ve written that, and then another short film that I just finished writing and acting in, and it’s in post-production. So I’m just going to continue to create the work that, perhaps, is not there or is not there for sure.
Soniya Gokhale (12:14):
I love that. That is absolutely amazing. And like you said, you built the door, literally, which didn’t exist. And out of curiosity, I, myself, I’m not a big follower of Bollywood films, and it’s a completely different industry, and yet, I know that there’s obvious sexism in both industries, but just curious if you have any thought in regards to Bollywood in general, and have you done any work in India or been approached to do so, would you be interested in that?
Rashmi Rustagi (12:46):
Oh, I would love to do work in India. I have not done any. I was raised in a small town in India and just had my nose to the books and finished college. So, no, in terms of film, I didn’t do any work. You had to be in Mumbai or Bombay to do that. But the industry has changed dramatically. There’s such good work, independent work, independent film, that’s coming out of India that’s amazing and awesome telling true stories, telling stories that are about real people, not the dancing, made-up leading lady who’s not really in touch with reality. So there has been a huge shift, I would say, because of digital cinema, which gave me the opportunity to make a film as well, because the budget is a lot lower. At these film festivals, like at the Cincinnati Film Festival, there was some amazing work done by well-known actors and directors in Bollywood that have made independent cinema on the side. Stories that they really want to tell, which are not going to be necessarily blockbusters in terms of moneymaking.
Soniya Gokhale (13:56):
Wow. That is absolutely incredible. And I just want to make sure, this is Cincinnati, Ohio, huh?
Rashmi Rustagi (14:01):
Soniya Gokhale (14:01):
Like two hours near me? Okay. I was like, “I feel just special.” It’s in the state of Ohio. That really explains the global reach of what you guys are doing. And I was just amazed that there’s a film festival there. And then these other indie films that you’re talking about, I’m going to have to check them out because it defies some of the stereotypes of Bollywood films anyway.
Rashmi Rustagi (14:27):
Soniya Gokhale (14:28):
Interesting stuff coming out of there.
Rashmi Rustagi (14:30):
Soniya Gokhale (14:31):
And my final question, I can’t believe we’re at this point in the interview is, you are so incredibly talented and clearly just persevering, and like I said, and working on some amazing projects with people, very well-known. And I want to know what other projects we can expect from you. You sort of alluded to some of them and they all sound super interesting, but you’re a triple threat, acting, writing, producing, so anything you’re excited about? And then I’m going to have the link to your website. So I have a ton of listeners in India and she wants to work there, but anyway, I would love to hear what’s next with you. So that sounds great. And we cannot thank you for joining us today. We so appreciate it. [crosstalk 00:15:22].
Rashmi Rustagi (15:22):
This is wonderful. I’m so glad. I want to get the message across of my movie. It’s available on Amazon Prime, Unborn. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime, but it’s out for US and UK. And then it’s also streaming on moviesaints.com for the rest of the world. So it’s available to be watched anywhere in the world.
Soniya Gokhale (15:42):
Oh, that’s wonderful. Okay, because we have a lot of listeners in the South Asia region and I will have all of this in the podcast notes.
Rashmi Rustagi (15:50):
Awesome. Thank you.
Soniya Gokhale (15:53):
Thank you, Rashmi. Okay. Thank you.
Rashmi Rustagi (15:55):
Soniya Gokhale (15:56):