For more than 20 years of his life, Ravi Chand struggled with his identity. Was he Australian? Was he Fijian? Was he Indian? These conflicting thoughts presented themselves to him more starkly when he tried to enter the screen industry. He was often told there were no lead roles for a brown people which is no fault of the casting agent, as it starts in the writer’s room. It took Chand more than two decades to resolve his identity crisis and today he is on a path to create awareness about culture and identity to help others going through the same.
Chand’s great grandparents moved from India to Fiji as part of the indentured labour system. He was born in Fiji and when he was very young his family migrated to Australia. But it was when he lost his mother to a car accident at the young age of 12 that he started to grapple with the huge question of identity.
“Missing mum and growing up through racism at school and, on the opposite end, trying to assimilate into Australian life but being teased by your family for being too Australian – I just felt I didn’t fit in anywhere that I went,” he reflects.
These issues didn’t fade with time. “I grew up thinking that to be Australian and to be assimilated into Australian life and be accepted, I had to completely disassociate from my culture. I became completely Australian as I could possibly become. And then as I was getting older, I found out it doesn’t make a difference,” he explains.
At the same time, he wanted to find out more about his roots as Chand had little idea about the origins of his family. When Chand found out about his maternal grandmother, who he had assumed was dead, something changed. “I found out my grandmother was alive after 24 years,” reveals Chand, who wasted no time to reconnect with her. So it was five years ago that he took this historic visit to Fiji to meet a woman who was the solid link to his past.
“When I met my grandma, it was the very first time that I started to realise who I was. It was also the first time I felt I was really wanted by somebody. I felt unconditional love, someone loved me for who I am and it didn’t matter,” says Chand, who also knew that when he met his grandmother he, on some level also embodied all of her six kids who had tragically passed away. A responsibility he took very seriously.
But importantly, it was his grandmother telling him not to apologise for who he was that Chand felt anchored. She could see the hesitation in him as Chand struggled to speak to her in his broken Hindi. She made him realise he was born in Fiji, carried Indian heritage and is also Australian, and that still made him her grandson; he didn’t have to pick a side, he could be all of them.
Like Chand, hundreds of South Asians undergo identity crisis. Chand experienced them in his career in the screen industry. Starting out as an actor 10 years ago, a casting director told him that no matter how good he was, if nobody wrote a lead role for someone that looked like him there was very little they could do. So, rather than waiting for roles to happen, he decided to create them for himself.
Moreover, meeting his grandmother anchored him to the point where he knew exactly who he was and what he wanted to say in the world.
Chand created screen projects with the aim to bring some change. “I don’t want my son, my nephews and nieces to grow up feeling the same way I did, feeling totally disconnected from their culture and ridiculed by their school friends just to fit in. I want them to know that it’s OK to be Australian and also OK to be true to their own culture. That’s my mission to make sure that that gets there in the world, not just in Australia but globally.”
However, studying the marketplace in Australia made him realise that it was hard to get a feature film for a screen writer with no official credits so he started developing a TV show aimed directly at streaming through mediums such as Amazon, Netflix, Stan, etc.
This year, Chand was accepted into the Documentary Australia Foundation Story Works initiative backed by Film Victoria. The large scale of the documentary he is working on is called Colonial Lies and is focussed on “uncovering the lies of British colonial history and how all people of colour and first nations and how people around the world are all interconnected,” say Chand who established his company Entertainment Embassy in 2007, which morphed into a digital content and film production company while working parallel as an actor.
At the same time, he is documenting his story going back to Fiji, discovering his grandmother and also looking at the Girmit history of how Indians came to Fiji. The documentary is called Five-Year Grandma. Sadly, his grandmother recently passed away (30 minutes before Chand could get to her), which makes his project all the more meaningful.
His web series titled Brothers of Kin is a crime drama and a different story altogether but all his projects are tied to the theme of identity. Interestingly, the web series were shortlisted for the Sundance YouTube New Voices Lab and Chand was accepted into the Cinespace Writer’s Fellowship program supported by the Victorian State Government.
In September 2017, Chand was selected to attend the highly competitive Talent Camp run by Screen Australia, Film Victoria and AFTRS, which has given him the tools to develop his ideas and put him on their radar. The same year in November, he was offered a scholarship to attend the Compton School’s film business course backed by Film Victoria.
Screen Australia and Film Victoria are doing an amazing job of providing opportunities, says Chand, adding, “It is a bit difficult to get into those initiatives and it should be, but at the same time there is a lot of us that have been working on this for a very long time. And I feel it will eventually kick over.”
With his projects, Chand is creating stories that create strong culturally diverse talent and stories.
Today, Chand realises identity is a fluid thing. “You can certainly get through this world by not having anything to do with your culture and be very successful, and, if that’s your choice that’s OK. But for some that want to connect or for even those that have that awakening it is something quite extraordinary to understand the magic that came before you, and how people of all colour around the world are inter-connected. It is hard to explain, it is something you feel inside on a spiritual level. Once you understand that, I think that helps you as a person,” he sums up.
By Indira Laisram