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Actress | PREMIUM CONTENT

Emily Shah blends extremely well!

Sep/11/2022 / by ABHIJIT MASIH
EMILY SHAH
PHOTOGRAPHER: AUSTIN RYDE HAIR AND MAKEUP: AUSTIN RYDE
EDITIOR: AUSTIN RYDE WARDROBE: TOP AND DUPATTA BY KYNAH

“Camera-ready.” That, in simplified television industry parlance, is the time-consuming process of getting hair and makeup done before facing the camera. Most request time and talent to get themselves ready. For Emily Shah, it doesn’t matter so much. When she spoke to us from her hotel room in Mumbai, it was late evening after a hectic day and had no time to get ready. The best option, she thought, would be to wear a hat. But the remedial prop obstructed the lighting, casting a shadow on her face. Thankfully she was requested to take it off, revealing delightful natural beauty, proving that some faces do not need to get camera-ready.

Shah has worked both in Hollywood and in Indian cinema. She has the credentials to straddle both industries, having studied theater art at Lee Strasberg’s Institute of Film and Theater and the New York Film Academy, and learned the nuances of acting in Indian cinema from the Madhumati Film and Dance Academy in Mumbai.

The interest to be an actor in the West as well as the East stems from her desire to accept and adapt to both sides of her mixed parental culture.

“My mother is American, Caucasian, white,” Shah said. “Her background is Scottish and Welsh, and my father is a Gujarati from Mumbai. My mother’s from the midwest of America. So I really embraced both sides, but I was drawn more towards my Indian than my American side. And I just really love the culture, I love being able to speak Gujarati and Hindi.”

EMILY SHAH

So how did a Gujarati immigrant man in Queens, NY fall for and marry a white girl from small-town Missouri? Shah’s dad, who is a big time movie producer now, worked as a manager at an appliance shop in Queens and her mother, who flew for a prominent American airline, was transferred to La Guardia airport. While setting up her new apartment, she went to the appliance store where she met Prashant Shah. His advances were met with a curt no-nonsense message, but the instantaneous cheeky response broke the ice. Emily narrates the story about her parents getting together. 

“My mother didn’t even know where India was located on the map,” Shah said.. “She was from such a small town in Missouri. I think the population is maybe like 3,000 people – she might kill me for saying this. But it was a very, very small town. She’s proud of where she came from. But nonetheless, she told my dad that he wasn’t her type, but he said I’m O positive. That was his pickup line. And she kind of gave him a chance after that.”

Shah’s parents have been her rock ever since she was young and have supported her all along, throwing her in every possible artistic class. From when she was 2 years old, she had been taking lessons in ballet, music, painting, soccer and acting. Both her parents indulged her in every passion that took root and helped her thrive in it. 

Shah talks about her love for the arts and how after dabbling in several creative interests she chose acting. She takes us back on the creative route that she took.

“I just love creating, whether that was with music or being on stage or dancing,” she said. “I tried painting and ceramics. I wasn’t very good at that. But I did try basically every avenue and route of art. I just took a real liking to being on stage and performing. I started dancing when I was two years old. And one thing kind of led to another, starting with dance. And then it moved into theater. Then I really discovered and fell in love with acting.”

Emily Shah as a young girl
Emily Shah as a young girl

The seriousness and the passion for acting and the support of her parents saw her enroll at the Madhumati Film and Dance Academy in Mumbai when she was just 5. She spent that summer with her grandparents and showed her parents she was serious about acting. The proud parents still treasure some VHS tapes of performances recorded during her time at the acting school in India. 

Shah also recalls the summer spent in India with her Ba (grandmother).

“They saw all of the performances that I had done at Madhumati, the monologues that I memorized, and the dance performances I did,” she said. “I think at that moment my family knew that there was something special about me performing, and the spark I had when I would get on stage or perform for an audience.”

Prashant Shah may have turned producer to fulfill his daughter’s dream of becoming an actor. And while he produced films for both Hollywood and Bollywood, including the Shahrukh Khan-starrer “My Name is Khan,” his daughter went about getting professional degrees to complement her acting talent. She graduated from California State University with a degree in entertainment media management. Around then she also studied theater art at the Lee Strasberg’s Institute of Film and Theater and did an acting course at the New York Film Academy.

Training and talent helps, but you have to charm the cameras as well. So what do you do? In 2014, while still in high school, Shah entered a beauty pageant. She thought she was entering the Teen category of the Miss New Jersey USA pageant, but she was listed as a contestant for the main category. She was crowned Miss New Jersey USA, the youngest ever, beating 130 other contenders. Now 18, she recalls the moment: “I genuinely enjoyed my time as Miss New Jersey, USA. I was the first Indian American to ever compete. So I’m really proud of that. And after that, there’s been so many that have competed.”

Shah said the pressure of being the youngest contestant made her a different person, one focused on winning the crown. 

“I felt immense pressure being the youngest contestant,” she said. “I felt like I had to always have my guard up. I had this insecurity that people might be expecting me to fail because I am so young. I was so competitive, almost in a way that it wasn’t friendly. I wasn’t mean or anything. I was, like, I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to win Miss USA. I think if I could go back and change that I definitely would because I remember coming out of Miss USA, and the girls that I competed with, whom I wasn’t even friends with during the competition, became some of my best friends.”

The Miss New Jersey then shifted her focus back to her goal of becoming an actor, learning the craft through acting institutes and working as a production assistant on some of the biggest Hollywood productions. Shah worked as a stunt director assistant on “Captain America 2” and Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys,” as well as on the stunt teams of “Fast & Furious 7.” She then moved on to working with the stunt team on Ed Harris and Liam Neeson starrer, “Run all Night.” 

Shah considers her stint as a production assistant, the best training for any actor, helping her immensely when facing the camera. 

“I realized that whatever I was experiencing in that moment, working on those sets, there was no way that I could have learned that in any university,” she said. “Not even the best of the best schools could have taught me what being on set has taught me. I admire my parents specifically for pushing me to do that. You’re working on these massive Hollywood productions – you’re talking Universal Studios, Disney and Marvel. It was quite intimidating at first, but truly and honestly it’s taught me so much about what I know today. I don’t think that I would be half the actor I am right now if I didn’t have that experience. I understand what it’s like to be a PA (production assistant). I think working on both sides of the camera is just so much more helpful. You respect everybody a little bit more like I can tell some actors that have worked behind the scenes versus ones that haven’t.”

The credits for Shah, in front of the camera, include leading roles in the 2018 Hollywood thriller “Fortune Defies Death” and the 2022 Indian film “Jungle Cry,” based on a true story. Shah’s movie career has commenced and she is consciously putting in play her learning of both styles of acting. She does not want to be limited to one kind of cinema and wants to explore and be a part of not just Hollywood and Bollywood but also to give British cinema a shot. 

She can compare the Hollywood and the Indian film industries. 

“I think they’re very similar in quite a bit of ways,” Shah said. “At the end of the day you’re still making a film or a series.  [But] I get a spot boy while I’m working here. Thatt’s basically an assistant. So that’s a difference. But more on a logistical and a creative note, I think Indian cinema is becoming worldlier than it used to be.”

Shah has been in India for a few months now, working on an under-wrap series, but is super excited to be in one of her favorite cities, doing what she loves best. While in the thick of things within Bollywood, she realizes the transformation of the industry which is quickly aligning itself to an audience that is now more intelligent and international. 

“I think because people have so much more access to global content now, the audience is becoming a lot more intelligent about the type of content that they want to watch,” she said. “I think that Bollywood does have to not only compete within their industry, but also with the rest of the world, just like any other industry does. I am noticing that shift in Bollywood happening right now.”

Shah was paired opposite Abhay Deol in “Jungle Cry,” which was released earlier this year and is now available on Apple and Amazon Prime. The film is based on the inspiring true story about a bunch of underprivileged orphan boys from Odisha, their journey to the International Junior Rugby Tournament, and their triumphant win as a dark-horse team. In the film, Shah plays the team’s psychotherapist, Roshni Thakkar. Along with starring in the movie, she also served as the film’s executive producer. 

“Even though it’s such an incredible story, nobody in India knew about it,” she said. “That’s when I realized, we really have to make this story. It’s really incredible. It’s really a family-friendly film. It’s a very sweet film.”

While there have been a growing number of white Westerners in Indian films, they are still limited to roles of exotic dancers or characters with negative shades. It may be payback for Hollywood stereotypes of South Asians as nerds, doctors or gas station owners. Shah feels people who look like her are breaking these stereotypes. 

“I think we have kind of taken over that stereotype and kind of grown out of it,” Shah said. “You see a lot more South Asians playing superheroes and things that you would have really never seen about 10 years, maybe even five years ago, for that matter. I do think we are making progress. But I also think that there still is a lot of work that needs to be done. I do think we have a lot more to progress, but I am glad of the direction that we’re going.”

Multiple Instagram posts of Shah include her partner actor Mena Massoud, who starred in and as “Aladdin” in the 2019 Disney blockbuster with Will Smith. The talented actor was also in the recent Netflix Rom-com “The Royal Treatment.” Shah shrugs at the idea of pairing with her partner for a Nicholas-Sparks based romantic film. 

Emily Shah with her partner Mena Massoud, who she considers to be a talented and multifaceted actor and looks forward to doing a film with him in future.
Emily with her partner Mena Massoud, who she considers to be a talented and multifaceted actor and looks forward to doing a film with him in future.

“I’m gonna let him do rom-coms with other actresses, but maybe we might have a different type of genre that comes up,” she said. “I’m not just saying this because he’s my partner but he is talented and a multifaceted actor. Recently, he actually did a horror film, which was so surprising. I was just amazed by him. So I’d be more than happy to work with him. And I hope we can one day.”

The partnership with Massoud is not just personal but professional as well. The two actors earlier this year got together to launch their own company, Dharma Gin. Inspired by and in continuation with merging her Western and Indian culture, she zeroed down on the tangible alcoholic product. 

“I never wanted to do tequila because I’m not Mexican,” Shah said. “I’m half-Scottish, half-Indian by heritage, and so I thought that gin would be the perfect spirit to distill.” She goes on to explain the Indian influences that has been added to create the unique gin.

“I was taught by my Ba at a very young age that Indian foods are actually super foods and Indian ingredients should be used almost like medicine,” she said. “I did want to incorporate what I learned and kind of bring that to the forefront in the spirits industry, because it’s never been done before. I thought it would be really interesting to kind of add those elements that I grew up with that all Indians are pretty familiar with in terms of ingredients. One of my favorite ingredients that we use is amchur. So on the back of our label, it says mango, but really we’re using is amchur (ripened mango peel crushed into powder form). The other ingredient that we use is black cardamom, dried over an open fire. So there is a slight element of smokiness in our gin which you’ve never tasted anything like that before.” Some of the other Indian ingredients in the gin are rose, turmeric, ginger, saffron and Egyptian coriander (Massoud’s country of origin), to make Dharma a premium gin.

Being half Scottish and half Indian by heritage gave Emily the idea of Dharma Gin; the perfect spirit to distil
Being half Scottish and half Indian by heritage gave Emily the idea of Dharma Gin; the perfect spirit to distil

While Shah is busy navigating Bollywood right now, she plans to be back in LA for Diwali, to celebrate at home, which for her is where her family is. That includes her parents, partner and her rescue German shepherd, Bagheera. She has been gearing up for a career that balances both Hollywood and Bollywood but her goal is to venture beyond the two megafilm industries. 

“I think the overall goal for me is to not just act in one industry, and not be labeled as a Hollywood or Bollywood actress,” Shah said. “I actually like to work in different cinemas in different countries. So I want to work in the Korean industry, whether it’s in music, beauty, fashion or series like “Squid Games.” I would love to work in Korea and in the U.K. on British content. I want to grow at the end of the day. I think that’s the overall goal of the future – to become an international actor and not be labeled as Hollywood or Bollywood.”

QUICK FIRE WITH EMILY SHAH

  • Favorite food – Pasta
  • Favorite movie – “Little Miss Sunshine”
  • Favorite Indian movie – “Kites”
  • Best co-star – Abhay Deol
  • Most romantic city in the world – Maui
  • City on the bucket list – Budapest. I’ve heard amazing things, people are incredible, living there is incredible and I would, if I liked it that much, actually consider living there.
  • Where is home? – My home is wherever my family is. It’s one place wherever my parents, my partner and my dog is, that’s home. 

DHARMA GIN COCKTAIL RECIPE BY EMILY SHAH

SPIKED CHERRY LIMEADE

Cherry limeades always give that retro feel. Stir up the old school fan favorite and spice it up with some Dharma Gin!

  • 5-6 pitted cherries
  • Half a lime wedge
  • Muddle (option to add .5 oz simple syrup)
  • 1 oz Dharma Gin
  • Stir and strain
  • Top off with sparkling water
  • Garnish with a cherry
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