Career

Kalyani Nagarajan’s big secret

The Raised by Refugees actor feels the weight of all mothers on her shoulders!
Selina Nunn

At only 28 years old, Kalyani Nagarajan has carved out an acting career in theatre and TV playing strong South Asian mothers.

The Auckland performer says it’s amusing that she is constantly cast in these roles because she is a proud single woman with no children.

“Every actor has that character they play that they are really good at. For me, it’s a South Asian mother. Their stories aren’t often told and when they are, they’re often stereotypes. I want to tear those archetypes apart.”

In her latest role, Kalyani portrays Safia Assadi, a character based on comedian Pax Assadi’s mother in the biographical local TV comedy Raised by Refugees.

Kalyani acts opposite Pax, who stars as his own father Afnan, in a series about Pax’s upbringing in New Zealand with parents who moved here from Pakistan as refugees.

Kalyani’s parents moved to New Zealand from India before she was born, so she could relate to the story of being a child of immigrant parents.

“Safia reminded me of my own mother. I deeply understand her because South Asian mothers are very direct, blunt and assertive.

“Many people can relate to having an immigrant mother trying to raise their first-generation child. As a first-generation daughter, I constantly feel this obligation to make my parents happy and proud of me with the choices I make in my life.”

During filming of season two of Raised by Refugees, which screens on Sky Open and Neon, Kalyani got to meet Safia on set and appreciated her brutal honesty.

“I was extremely nervous, especially when I knew she was watching me on the monitor. She would come up to me, hold my hand and give me pointers, offering me advice. It was so nice to have another South Asian woman in the room and feeling that wāhine energy.”

Raised in Auckland, Kalyani grew up with a love of performing. An incident she experienced at age six changed her life and directed her to the type of performer she wanted to be.

She was enrolled in ballet classes when someone in the class told her brown girls don’t do ballet. After hearing this, Kalyani’s father took her out of the class and enrolled her in traditional Indian dance.

“That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life,” she says. “The older I got, I realised that we are constantly silenced as a community. At that moment, I was silenced and something was taken away from me.

“One of the reasons why lots of us perform in the arts is to show the world that everyone has a voice and all of our stories are special.”

Kalyani excelled in accounting in high school and was in the running for a scholarship to further study the subject. Instead, she chose a career as an actor and attended Toi Whakaari Drama School in Wellington.

After graduating, she spent time in Europe, studying clowning and mask work at the famed Ecole Philippe Gaulier in France. During 2019, she toured with the critically acclaimed play Mrs Krishnan’s Party throughout North America.

She even spent a short time living in Los Angeles, trying to get her big break in Hollywood.

As Safia on Raised by Refugees, Kalyani got advice from Pax’s mum on set.

“I remember the first time I went to LA to check it out to see if I could live there,” she tells. “I had no money. I was living in a hostel with bunk beds and seven other people in the room, and roaming the streets aimlessly.

“It was horrific for the first couple of weeks, but then I started to find a group of people around me and I became more social.”

While in LA, Kalyani managed to find some work performing for the world famous improvisational and sketch comedy troupe The Groundlings. Some of their most famous alumni include Hollywood heavyweights Melissa McCarthy and Jennifer Coolidge. The experience cemented Kalyani’s love for comedy.

When the Covid pandemic hit, it put Kalyani’s plans to move overseas on hold, and she was forced to re-evaluate her life and career.

“The desire to live and work overseas is still there. I’d rather be invited into Los Angeles than force myself onto Los Angeles.

“The lockdown ruined a creative person’s life. All of my gigs got cancelled, and I had to go and do something about it.”

Kalyani returned to university and gained a postgraduate diploma in teaching. She is currently a drama teacher at a high school in Auckland.

Juggling teaching with her acting work on TV and theatre, Kalyani loves inspiring and fostering a new generation of performers.

“Being a teacher has taught me so much about acting. I’ve learned about conflict resolution and how to be a good person. I also love watching and noticing the emerging talent that is coming through.”

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