'Little Voice's Shalini Bathina Talks Representation Through Prisha's Story
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Little Voice Season 1, Episode 4, "Love Hurts."]
One of the show's most powerful storylines is driven by protagonist Bess King's (Brittany O'Grady) best friend and roommate Prisha (Shalini Bathina). Part of a conservative Indian American family, Prisha is torn between following her heart — which includes happiness with secret girlfriend Ananya (Nadia Mohebban) — and pleasing her parents, who are focused on finding her a match via an arranged marriage.
Along with trying to uncover her own identity and sexuality, Prisha is a sounding board for Bess in her most difficult hours. Below, Bathina opens up about representation in the musical series, Prisha's ongoing battle with her identity, and working with Bareilles and Nelson on this charming new musical drama.
How did you get involved with this project?
Shalini Bathina: I was auditioning, just like everyone else. It was just the regular pilot season. I think I auditioned in December, and then completely forgot about it, had Christmas, went to India and got married. Then the callback came. This was all through Skype, and then they finally flew me out for the test. It all happened within a week. Then I waited for a really long time. They had a lot of other casting that they had to figure out. I actually didn't hear back for about two or three months, so I just continued auditioning. This was the project that I really wanted, so I was really hoping to hear something. Then within a few weeks, I was flying out to New York!
You're Indian American and telling a very unique Indian American story. Was there any pressure approaching the role in knowing that?
It's important to see these type of characters onscreen, and it's rare to see them. People are realizing, "Oh yeah, we should give people opportunities," and it's working, but there is still a long way to go, I think. We haven't even scratched the surface. This is one of the first few fleshed-out characters written for the South Asian LGBTQ [community] specifically. To normalize that narrative for South Asian and South Asian LGBTQ [people] is so important. So I hope that this just provides more opportunities for more stories like this to be told.
There was a pressure, but I knew the responsibility of it, and I knew that I had to lean on people to be able to make sure that I was doing everything in my power to tell Prisha's story. The pressure comes from representation right now, it's not the norm, but it's the exception. That was part of the pressure, is the expectation of any community is that these stories reflect all stories, but it's impossible to have one character represent an entire community or experience.
Being South Asian or LGBTQ, it's not a monolithic experience. I think it's because there are so few minority stories out there, there is that built-in pressure. But I felt responsible to tell Prisha's story, knowing that I did my job and hopefully that can affect a few people out there. It sheds the light on the topic for South Asian families, or people who might lean into a more conservative ideology, and plant some seeds for change. Again, we're just scratching the surface. It needs to be addressed from the top down, and we have to have more writers and more people who can accurately represent it behind the scenes, not just onscreen. That creates more systemic change.
Did you feel that representation behind the scenes on this project?
Yeah, definitely. Sara, Jessie and I had conversations the first day I even got to the studio, [they were] like, "We have South Asian writers on board, on the writer's staff, so every line has been vetted." There was also LGBTQ representation. It was not just in the cast and the writing staff, but also the crew. It was a very diverse crew. I think it just became the norm. It wasn't because they were specifically choosing or anything, but they found the right people, and that's what matters. I think it's more about they hired people based off of what they could offer, and that's what's amazing.
Viewers were introduced to Sundeep (Gopal Divan), who Prisha's parents are hopeful will be a possible marriage match. How will his presence impact her path?
I think she's genuinely trying to consider this, for her parents, and as an option. Let's see how long she can sustain that. I think right now it is a solution to avoid confronting her parents and prolonging the inevitable. It brings in some tensions and drama to the story. It's a cover for a bit. We'll see. I can't give it away, but we'll see how it affects her relationships and her own ability to confront herself, and what that means for her.
How will things work out on the other side? The last time we saw Prisha and Ananya together, they weren't on the same page about their relationship.
When your cultural identity becomes wrapped up in your relationship, it just causes issues, I think. I think Ananya understands what Prisha's going through because she's been through something similar and comes from a similar background. There is an understanding, so hopefully it'll work out, but you just don't know. After a point, for Ananya at least, she's been through this before, and it was so difficult, you don't know if she's willing to do that again for someone else, even if she loves her. I've heard so many stories like this, where that has become the crux of the problem in a relationship, and seeing if they are strong enough to push through that or move on from it, we'll see.
What was it like getting to work with Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson?
I met Sara and Jessie at the test audition. I've been a fan of Sara's since high school. They're very sweet. Once I got to know them, I was like, "Aw man, they're so grounded." You just forget, considering who they are and their careers and what they've done over the years. But they're just so grounded, and were there to figure it out with us. They were also just learning on the go, because this is one of their first TV projects. It's a very collaborative experience. They were very encouraging. Sara was like a light on set. Any time she came, it was really warm. Jessie, she's a great director. She was able to push us, and also create a safe space for us, I felt very taken care of.
Prisha's a musician who plays guitar in an all-female mariachi band. What kind of preparation did you take on in order to get ready for your role?
One good thing was I wasn't unfamiliar with the guitar. I had been playing for a while. I wouldn't say I was an expert. I had a little bit of experience, and I hadn't touched it for a while, and then the audition came and they asked us to play an instrument of some sort. I had to do that in front of Sara at the time, so I was sweating. Then it went fine.
Mariachi guitar is its own thing. It was a definite jump in my level of expertise as well. I had an amazing teacher, Nancy Sanchez, and she's based in L.A., so before I left [for New York], I was taking lessons with her. Then I would Skype every day. I practiced every day for about a month and a half or two months until I had to be on set. We learned three songs, and I learned them from start to end, so even though they showed a little bit of the clip, I learned the entire song. It was so fun. I essentially learned a new skill, and that was a cool experience.
New York City is like its own character in the series. What was it like getting to film on location there with this cast?
I've been to New York a couple times, but I was so excited to live in New York for four months. It genuinely felt like a vacation for most of it. It was amazing. I fell in love with New York very quickly, and I have been considering moving there. It was so fun, because a lot of the scenes we actually shot were on the streets of New York. They chose amazing locations, we shot everywhere.
One of the best locations was Governor's Island for the fifth episode. I had never seen the Statue of Liberty up close. We just had fun for three days on this beautiful, open land. And that was the day we rally bonded [as a cast]. We got deep real quick, and for some of us this was our first big experience, so we were trading stories on that and sharing our excitement.
Favorite song from the season?
I'm such a sap for melodic, sad songs. I don't know what it is. I love "Dear Hope." It's just gorgeous. The first time I heard it, I was like, "This is it. This is my favorite song," immediately. I think that was the big episode for me, too. My husband and I have been listening to it every day now, and have been trying to memorize it. I'm trying to find chords for it to learn it on the guitar. It's not out just yet, so I'm like, "Should I message Sara Barailles and ask her for the chords?"
What else can fans expect from Prisha's story as the season continues?
I think you're going to see her struggle a bit more. She has to make a decision, and you're going to see her trying to figure that out, and what that means. She's going to have to struggle to balance her relationships and find the strength to live her truth, but she's going to continue being the best friend a girl could have. In that case, she's such a good friend, so I think you'll see a lot more of that in the next few episodes. I really hope it works out for her. You're just going to have to wait and see.
Little Voice, New Episodes, Fridays, Apple TV+