Shortland Street is one of the most popular prime-time soap operas on New Zealand television, whose audience has grown manifold over the years. The Indian Weekender took this opportunity to speak to one of the recurring actors on the show, Ajay Vasisht, who narrates the complex, non-stereotypical character he plays in the longest running drama in the country, with over 6000 episodes.
Here are the excerpts of the exclusive interview:
IWK: In what ways is your character, Jav Mandal, not a stereotypical Indian character on New Zealand television?
Ajay: He does not drive a cab or run a dairy. He is a well-to-do businessman from Mumbai. It has been interesting to play a character who is so successful. You have to carry yourself in a particular way, and it also raises the bar in terms of the kind of roles available for Indian actors. Similarly, his wife, Zara, played by Nivi Summer, is a cardiologist.
IWK: Do you think Jav is a villain, and how did you find playing such a role?
Ajay: He is a complex character whose motives are unclear, particularly when he first arrives on the scene. The back story is that Jav is controlling, but the way I approached the character was that he was doing it to keep his family together for his daughter’s benefit. Even though he behaves in unacceptable ways, it stems from the love for his wife and daughter. It was challenging but great to get into the mindset of a character who would do anything to attain his goals. Whether he succeeds or not is a different matter altogether (laughter).
IWK: In particular, did you find it difficult to act the scene where you behaved aggressively towards Zara?
Ajay: It is not how I usually behave, but, once you look inside yourself, you can find a way to access those emotions. Nivi is a very generous actress, and she made it easy to be able to do it. It boils down to playing well off each other.
IWK: Is the representation on TV screens in New Zealand for the Indian diaspora increasing?
Ajay: Yes, and it is not just Indians. New Zealand is becoming more diverse and multicultural, and I think the media is slowly starting to reflect that.
IWK: Why do you think the representation of the Indian community is important on media?
Ajay: Being able to see yourself and your stories being played out on television or other media is an important acknowledgement of identity and culture. Visibility makes it easier to integrate into the broader community and to challenge stereotypes.
IWK: Chris Warner, played by Michael Galvin, has been a staple of the show from the first episode. Were you nervous about working with him?
Ajay: I have a lot of respect for Michael. He is thoroughly professional. Plus he is very supportive, so any nervousness disappeared pretty quickly. It was great learning from him and the team at Shortland Street, particularly how to work in a fast turn around a television show. The casting team, the producer and her team, and both of the directors were really supportive.
IWK: What was it like working with Keisha Jayapuram, who plays your daughter, Rani, and Nivi Summer.
Ajay: Keisha is an absolute natural who is able to be constantly in the moment. That is remarkable for such a young actress. I had a lot of fun with her and even met her parents on set. Nivi was really supportive, and we worked well together to understand the dynamics between the estranged couple. Scenes with conflict are emotionally challenging, but, with the connection between Nivi and I made it easier to get through them.
IWK: Is Jav going to be coming back to Shortland Street?
Ajay: I don’t know. If I did know, and I told you, I would have to kill you. (laughs)
IWK: Are we likely to see you in other roles either in India or in New Zealand in the future?
Ajay: There are things in the pipeline, but I can’t talk about them right now.
IWK: What barriers have you encountered as an Indian actor in New Zealand?
Ajay: Personally, not many. But there is a shortage of work for actors generally in such a small market. It has been harder for me, as an Indian, to craft a career out of acting, but I have also been fortunate in getting a variety of work across television, commercials, film and shorts.
IWK: Any words of advice for people from the Indian community wanting to get into acting?
Ajay: I would say “go for it”. If you have a dream and the drive, the world is your oyster. But acting as a profession offers no guarantees, so you have to work hard to succeed or get the big breaks. With the advent of streaming networks like Netflix, there are far more opportunities now than when I started in the 1980s. Netflix and Amazon Prime in India are producing high-quality content and a lot of it.