- The young actress, who’s been lauded for her performance, was excited to finally play a character that wasn't reduced to being the conventional image of an Indian.
Avantika Vandanapu wants to normalize South Asian representation in Hollywood and change perceptions around desi actors. And she hopes her character in her latest film has taken her ahead in that direction. The 19-year-old actress, who goes only by her first name, plays Karen Shetty in “Mean Girls,” putting a new spin on the dim-witted, easy-going, and flirty character first brought to life by Amanda Seyfried.
Directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., this version of the film which was released on Jan. 12, is adapted from Tina Fey’s Broadway musical, which was based on Fey and Mark Waters’ 2004 comedy classic. Apart from Fey and Tim Meadows, the cast of this version of the film is entirely composed of fresh faces. Reneé Rapp is seen as Regina George; Auli’i Cravalho as Janis ‘Imi’ike; Angourie Rice as Cady Heron; Bebe Wood as Gretchen Wieners; Christopher Briney as Aaron Samuels; and Jaquel Spivey as Damien Hubbard.
Avantika was initially skeptical about her chances to be cast as Karen in the iconic film. She feared being Indian, especially, would work against her, given that “Indians on screen were the smart girls, not the sexy girls.” She was surprised and thrilled to get the role, not to mention the changes made in her character to suit her ethnicity.
“I think playing that kind of character, especially as an Indian American woman is really, really crazy,” she told American Kahani, adding that she was “excited to finally play a South Asian character that wasn’t reduced to being a stereotype.”
She gave all props to Fey and the crew for casting someone “who visually also feels antithetical” to a character like Karen.”
There were talks of changing Karen as well to “something more Indian sounding like Kiran or Karen,” she revealed, “But after several discussions with Tina, we decided to stick with Karen.
What appealed most to her was the fact that while Karen Shetty is Indian and brown, her ethnicity was not the “focal point,” in the film. There is no backstory on her ethnicity, it’s just there. This she thinks can “break stereotypes of what we encourage women to be and what we encourage women to think like.” It also “validated the feeling” that she can play different characters and embody different people.
In a previous interview with American Kahani, the young actress stressed the importance of playing characters where the Indian identity is not a central part of the character arc. “While we are highlighting a person’s culture, a person’s heritage, it is important to also create characters where their culture and their heritage isn’t all that their story revolves around,” she said. “I think that’s the only way — a mix of those two kinds of characters – that we are going to be able to go into mainstream media.”
Apart from breaking stereotypes, Avantika realizes the impact Karen Shetty has on young girls. “To see a brown girl as one of the popular girls in school is a big deal.”
Born a year after “Mean Girls” first hit theaters in the spring of 2004, she was about seven years old when she watched the movie for the first time with her dad. And she’s been a fan ever since, quoting lines from the film, and drawing from it for some real-life challenges.
She has previously spoken about how she could relate to the film, “being bullied” in a South Asian-dominated school, and “growing up in an industry like Hollywood which feels very competitive.” She “felt documented and represented” by the film as she felt “incredibly seen.” And that’s one of the reasons she hopes Karen Shetty can help other brown girls find their own way.
She’s “overwhelmed” with the positive response not just from young Indian American girls, but from all sections of the community. Critics, too, have lauded her performance. The Hollywood Reporters says that “like the Karen before her, Avantika’s version of the character is also endearingly slow on the uptake, often garnering the film’s best jokes and biggest laughs.”
According to Collider, “Karen is truly the stand-out gem of this film, and by investing in her character the creators made a huge improvement from the original and improved the quality of the film as a whole.”
That Avantika had a memorable time during filming is evident by the chemistry she exudes with her co-stars. “This being my first musical, I thoroughly enjoyed the singing and dancing,” she said. One of her most memorable scenes in the film is her solo performance of the song “Sexy,” which she sings during a Halloween party. Filming the scene, which was predominantly comprised of one shot, was a daunting task and required “a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” she said. Working with a strong team and talented dancers kept her focused and confident.
Although she didn’t have the traditional high school experience, she didn’t have to prepare for the role or draw from other people’s experiences. “I definitely have had some of the experiences during my school years, so that was enough. “The movie felt like an epitome of everything I wanted to experience but never could like being glamorous and popular.”
She, however, didn’t get the chance to meet Seyfried before or during production. But she met her a few days after the film’s New York City premiere, at an an InStyle and Lancôme event at which Seyfried served as a host. Talking about that meeting, she told The Hollywood Reporter that she asked Seyfried some questions about Karen and the original film. “I asked her a bunch of stuff,” she said without revealing what they were. “But just the fact that she told me and bothered to explain things to me is a testament to how kind and open of a person she is.”
East Meets West
Avantika grew up in Union City, California, the only child of Anupama Reddy Chintala, a chartered accountant and real estate manager, and Srikanth Vandanapu, a software engineer. She ventured into Hollywood after establishing herself as a dancer. She is trained in Indian classical dance (Kuchipudi and Kathak), as well as in ballet and contemporary forms of dance. “All these dance forms are rigorous, especially Indian classical dance is really, really rigorous,” she told this writer, adding that it required her to be “super disciplined.” She credited her dance training to have changed her a person, “to keep myself grounded and consistent. I don’t think I would’ve been as resilient as I am today, had I not been a dancer.” She participated in several dance shows and competitions and won second place in the first North American edition of ZeeTV’s reality show, “Dance India Dance Lil Masters.”
She spent three years in India, from age 10 to 13, working in the Telugu film industry. That also played a significant role in her evolution as a person, teaching her “a lot about adapting to different environments,” she told this writer. “It was definitely an interesting experience because I grew up in America, and traveling to India and displacing myself for three years is a little bit different.” But it was her fluency in Telugu that helped her there. “I was very lucky as my parents taught me Telugu from a young age, and I can speak it fluently, I can understand it, and I can speak like a native. So when I went to India, I was at an advantage compared to a few of my friends in the Telugu community who were born and brought up in America,” she says. “Knowing the language really, really well helped me kind of adapt a little bit better,” despite it being a different environment.
She debuted as a child artist in “Brahmotsavam,” starring Mahesh Babu, Kajal Agarwal, Samantha, and Pranitha. She was then seen in “Manamantha,” with Mohanlal and Gauthami. Later, she signed on for “Premam,” starring Naga Chaitanya and Shruti Hassan.
She made her television debut in 2018 and starred as Monyca in “Diary of a Future President” on Disney+ . She was the voice of Kamala in Disney Junior’s “Mira, Royal Detective.” She was also seen in “Senior Year” (2022) , “Moxie” (2021), and “Spin,” a coming-of-age movie about a young girl’s quest to delve into her identity, making her the first South Asian lead in a Disney production.
She will be next seen in the supernatural horror film “Horrorscope,” which releases in theaters on May 10. “Horror is my favorite genre and I am really excited about it.”
(Photos, courtesy of Paramount Pictures).