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Indian student's unexpected journey from liberal arts undergrad to a prize US film role

Siddharth Dhananjay was studying philosophy and economics at Grinnell College, Iowa, when his rap videos went viral, scoring him a role in ‘Patti Cake$’, releasing on August 18
BY Uttara Choudhury |   10-08-2017

Siddharth Dhananjay
Siddharth Dhananjay

Breakout star Siddharth Dhananjay has a distinctly unusual path to American movie eminence. Born in Trivandrum, Dhananjay studied at Rishi Valley School in India and later in Indonesia, and eventually made it to Grinnell, a top-ranked liberal arts college in Iowa, in 2014.

Around that time, he started making parody rap videos with his friendsLuke and Matt for a college film festival, and a friend posted them on the WorldstarHipHop website. Using the rap moniker Dhananjay the First, he dropped spoofs of songs he loved, such as Mario’s “Let Me Love You” and “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child, which went viral. The videos piqued the interest of Patti Cake$director Geremy Jasper. Dhananjay said, “People loved the spoof rap videos, so we were like ‘Damn, okay, let’s do this, let’s keep doing a bunch of these, this is fun!’ Geremy randomly watched one of the videos and shot me an email asking if I would like to be a part of a movie. That’s where it all started.”

Jasper whisked him away to the Sundance Labs in Utah to audition for the role of Jheri, a boom-bap-obsessed New Jersey rapper. Soon afterwards, Dhananjay’s student visa expired and he moved to Bengaluru to live with his aunt. Months stretched into years until Dhananjay finally heard back from the executives at Patti Cake$ and reunited with the cast on set in 2016.

Set in gritty strip-mall suburbia, Patti Cake$chronicles an underdog’s quest for rap superstardom with humor, raw energy and some unforgettable beats. The film captures the special bond between aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowski (played by Danielle Macdonald) and her best friend Jheri (played brilliantly by Dhananjay) as they battle rivals in seedy gas-station parking lots and scheme madly to earn some stage time for their new group, PBNJ.

Dhananjay, 24, talked to BrainGain Magazine about how studying in America opened windows to an unexpected movie career, friends and opportunities.

Did you become an actor by chance?
Yes, I’m a completely accidental actor. I went to Grinnell College in Iowa to study Philosophy and Economics. Nothing to do with acting or theatre. This wasn’t in my plan. It just sort of happened and while melting into the warp and woof of Patti Cake$ I realized I never felt so good doing anything else in my life. I’ve made a big career U-turn and am having fun running with it.
 

How did your parents react?
They are really excited for me despite being quite clueless about the movie business. Still, they are happy for me and can’t wait to see what’s next. 
 

Your life has unfolded like a fairy tale. Did you ever imagine your first movie role would be a career breakthrough?
Not at all! I was just hyped with the opportunity. Everything after that was beyond my wildest dreams. It’s actually been quite overwhelming. Nothing can really surprise me anymore. It’s been an amazing, mad ride.

I do want to add though that we knew in our hearts that Patti Cake$ was a special project. I’m glad audiences at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals loved the movie as much as we do.
 

You demonstrated sharp talent for rapping, that too in a New Jersey accent. How did you pull off the role?
I don’t have any formal training, but I do listen to a lot of music, especially hip-hop, R&B, lots of that good stuff, and am in tune with the rap world. I think a lot of that inspired me in terms of the performance. I just wanted to be as true as possible to this crazy character Jheri who is a pharmacist by day and rapper by night. He’s also devoted to his best friend Patricia, whom he calls Killa-P, while the haters call her Dumbo.

I like to think that there are lots of young Indian boys like Jheri in Jersey who are struggling in their own lives trying to figure out what they want to do and who they really are.

I don’t have formal training in music, but as a child I learnt classical Carnatic music inspired by my mom who went to music school.
 

Was it challenging to master the raps?
For me, the music and the rapping came naturally that was the easy part. In fact, it was the opposite for me and Danielle. She had never rapped in her life, and was struggling to figure out the raps, but she is a great actor. It was just the opposite for me. The music part came easily to me, but I was a little apprehensive about the acting.

In 2016, I did two months of introductory acting classes, rehearsed a lot with Danielle, and we shot the film in the summer of that year. I think I was the riskiest bet in the film.

Danielle Macdonald as Patti and Siddharth Dhananjay as Jheri in Patti Cake$ (photo by Jeong Park)
Danielle Macdonald as Patti and Siddharth Dhananjay as Jheri in Patti Cake$ (photo by Jeong Park)

Does a big rap career now beckon?
No, I don’t think so. Even with those parody music videos, I think it would be disingenuous to call myself a rapper. They are comic sketches at the end of the day. I never had any plans to be a rapper. I loved being able to do it for the movie, but I’m going to leave that to Jheri. I have come to love acting with this movie. It’s the one thing I want to keep doing.

In other words, you are an actor who can rap much like Ryan Gosling who is not a professional dancer, but can dance.
That’s a neat way of putting it.
 

Why did you settle on Grinnell?
I went to Grinnell because I love their liberal arts curriculum. I majored in philosophy and economics. My first love was philosophy but I took economics as I thought it was a bankable degree that would get me a job. I enjoyed soaking in philosophy in this little bubble that was Grinnell. The best part of my Grinnell experience was meeting so many insane people like me. It was fun! I made great friends.
 

Have you faced visa problems?
After Grinnell, I was on my OPT (Optional Practical Training), which you get as a college student. After auditioning for Patti Cake$ I rode out my OPT doing odd jobs, and obviously I couldn’t get anyone to sponsor an H-B visa since I’m not in computer science, engineering, or the other STEM stuff. After my OPT period ended, I went back to Bangalore to live with my aunt. If all this amazing movie stuff hadn’t happened, I would probably still be in Bangalore, working somewhere, which would be chill. All my friends are there still. I’m on a mission now to get my O1 Visa.

It’s tough for me to work in the US on an Indian passport without the O1 visa. Once I have that, I can audition for roles. The Patti Cake$ producers had me latch on, as an O2, to my costar Danielle’sO1 visa as I didn’t have prior film credits to score an O1 visa. They had to make the case that I was essential to her performance in Patti Cake$. My team is now helping me get an O-1 visa to live and be employed as an actor in America. But the visa issues are annoying and it’s a collectively stressful process for us all.

A still from Patti Cake$
A still from Patti Cake$

Any pointers for young South Asians wanting to be actors or musicians?
People have a tendency to doubt themselves and their abilities. Trust yourself. Trust your gut instincts. Believe that you can do it, because the journey is mostly mental. If you don’t believe in yourself things are not going to go anywhere. Be ready. Jump at anything that seems like an opportunity a tryout or an audition because you don’t want to let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip away.
 

Strong roles for South Asian male leads in the U.S. are notoriously thin on the ground but have you refused to audition for stereotypical brown skin roles?
Yes, I think that coming off this movie I have an opportunity not to have to do those roles. I lucked out. A lot of young brown actors have to go audition for roles that they don’t really like. I don’t fault other actors for doing that. Sometimes you just need to work. I’m lucky in a sense that this movie has such momentum right now that it will hopefully allow me to not do those stereotypical roles.

More than just a movie screen buzzword, “brown” is attracting the attention of everyone but people don’t necessarily know what they are buying into. There’s so much left unsaid and I think I have the opportunity to try to fill the space in some way and push the boundaries a little.

Actors like Sendhil Ramamurthy, Kumail Nanjiani and Dev Patel are not token diversity hires, but have lead roles in films which have mainstream Hollywood success. Things are moving in the right direction, but when all is said we still need to push the boundaries.
 

Do you see any space for yourself in the Indian film industry?
I am hoping to do a reverse Priyanka Chopra. She’s a Bollywood superstar making it big in America. On the other hand, I’ve been discovered in America but I would love to act in India. I am a big fan of Indian cinema and would love to do something in India.
 

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

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