Growing up, I hated being Indian: Shubshri Kandiah

As a child growing up in suburban Perth, Shubshri Kandiah would refuse to eat sandwiches at lunchtime like all the other kids. So her granddad, who lived with Kandiah and her parents, would come to the school every day with vegetable fingers that he had heated in the oven and brought to her, still warm. After school, with her parents both busy with work, it was her granddad who would provide her with an afternoon snack and then take her to ballet or swimming lessons.

Kandiah relates this anecdote as we tuck into a glorious vegan lunch at Carlton’s famous Shakahari restaurant. She tells it in passing, but it reveals a lot about her. First, the 26-year-old is devoted to her family, and they to her. She is the only child of Raj and Kumar, both of whom emigrated to Australia from Malaysia as teenagers. They later they met in Adelaide and eventually settled in the picturesque suburb of Applecross in Perth, just south of the Swan River.

Her parents are both vegetarian while Kandiah is vegan, a transition she made about six years ago – and not without some difficulty – when she discovered she was lactose intolerant. Along the way, cutting out dairy had the added happy bonus of clearing up her eczema.

And now, Kandiah finds herself firmly in the spotlight, having already carved out a successful career in the highly competitive world of musical theatre. She is starring as Ella (Cinderella) in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the fairytale at the Regent Theatre.

Those of us who grew up with the story will instinctively conjure up the Disney version of the princess: a white-skinned, blonde-haired downtrodden young woman who, with the help of her fairy godmother, finds her prince and escapes her bondage. Kandiah is aware of the importance of bucking that stereotype, not just in looks but in attitude: she says her Cinderella is a much more modern, empowered woman than the more traditional renditions, while maintaining all the well-known elements of the story: there is still a wicked stepmother, a kindly godmother, a pumpkin coach and, of course, glass slippers.

She is delighted there is more diversity in casting in the Australian musical theatre scene, something that was sorely lacking when she was growing up, when she rarely saw people who looked like her on stage or screen. I think even five years ago this opportunity would not have presented itself, but I’m so happy it has, she says. I don’t think anyone should be limited in what they can do by the colour of their skin.

Dealing with looking different from those around her was not easy for Kandiah. As a child, her parents were actively involved in the Indian community in Perth, and young Shubshri was sent along to Indian dance lessons and other Indian stuff. She was acutely aware of being the only kid at school who wasn’t white – and the other kids were aware of it too.

I really hate saying this, but I hated being Indian, growing up. I hated looking the way I did because I knew I was so different to everybody else. And now I think that’s so silly because I think some of the best things about myself are those things that make you a bit different, she adds, tears springing to her eyes. I love my culture, I love my heritage.

After Kandiah performed in a musical at primary school, a teacher suggested to her parents that their daughter had no small amount of talent, so they dutifully took her along to singing lessons. Then in year 10, she went to see her first-ever musical theatre performance, Wicked, and it was there that the epiphany came: I remember thinking at interval, ‘I want to do that. I want that to be me’.

She kept up the ballet and singing lessons, and when she finished school she enrolled in a teaching degree while also undertaking a certificate in musical theatre at Perth’s storied Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), which has produced such showbiz luminaries as Lisa McCune, Lucy Durack and Eddie Perfect. Meanwhile, she tried to get into musical theatre courses around the country without success and was particularly devastated when she did not get into WAAPA.

Finally though, she was accepted into a Bachelor of Musical Theatre at Griffith University’s Queensland Conservatorium of Music in 2015 and, without finishing her teaching degree, she packed up and moved to the other side of the country to pursue her dream. Her parents were nervous about her giving up her teaching degree, perhaps aware of the precariousness of work in the entertainment industry, but Kandiah was determined.

Her first year in Queensland was tough: away from home in any meaningful way for the first time, suffering from a break-up with her first boyfriend and separated from family and the Indian community in which she had grown up, she was lost and homesick. Gradually, though, she became more comfortable. I really think it is what you make of what you’re given, she reflects. I had the best time in Queensland, I had amazing teachers and I had experiences I don’t think I would have had on the west coast.

In her third year at university she landed a non-speaking, non-singing role in Queensland Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers and even though it was a small part, it reinforced to her that the stage was where she belonged.

After completing her degree in 2017, she was prepared to do the hard slog – attend every audition, steeling herself for knockbacks – and took on casual jobs, delivering flowers and performing at children’s parties. (She once baulked at the idea of performing as Ariel from The Little Mermaid at a kids’party, worrying she was clearly not the right skin colour. But she popped on the red wig and did it anyway, and Not a single child thought anything of it. They didn’t see it.

Then, quite unexpectedly, her break came. She had auditioned for the role of Princess Jasmine in a tour of Disney’s Aladdin, and initially had been knocked back. But they kept calling her back, and then one day she got the news: the woman playing Jasmine was finishing and the role was hers. Not as an understudy, but as Jasmine.

So she became Princess Jasmine until the end of 2019, after which she performed – just for something completely different – in Antigone with Queensland Theatre. When that finished she was cast in the musical Everyone’s Talking about Jamie, before disaster – COVID – struck. Suddenly, work in the arts industry was extremely hard to find.

She took a job waitressing, did some teaching. It was really depressing, to be honest, she says. It’s not that I didn’t know who I was outside of performing, but it is such a big part of your life and your way of making money. I have such a niche skill set – singing and dancing – so I felt limited to doing hospitality and retail.

Finally though, restrictions began to ease and she was cast as Brianna in Fangirls at the end of 2021. And by the time she had finished that season, she knew she had been cast in Cinderella (which was meant to open in October 2021, but was postponed due to COVID).

If there was one bright spot during the pandemic, it was that she was able to buy an apartment in Brisbane with her boyfriend, Aaron. And while her job means the couple spends long periods apart, it has become her sanctuary: It’s just bliss, it’s right on the river, we’re surrounded by trees.

For now, though, she is getting to know Melbourne (and its vegan restaurants) and looking forward to being a modern Cinderella. Her schedule is punishing: eight performances a week, each lasting two and a half hours. But she loves it, and never tires of it: there is always something new to explore in her performance, some extra dimension to add to her character.

Her parents will be in the audience, of course, and her mum in particular will be beaming with pride – she is Kandiah’s biggest fan. My mum especially will fly everywhere the show is and she’ll see it multiple times, she smiles. Raj even flew to Dubai to see her in a production of Why? The Musical over the summer.

As for what’s next Kandiah is unsure, which, of course, is the nature of performing. She is just happy to have such a great role for the rest of the year.

I think I would honestly be happy doing any role in any show, she adds philosophically. I think it’s just the joy of being in a show.

Cinderella is at The Regent Theatre from May 20. cinderellamusical. com. au

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