There’s never been a character quite like The Sex Lives of College Girls’ Bela Malhotra, who is best summed up by her declaration, “It’s like I want to have sex with him, but I also want to be him.”
An 18-year-old freshman who is keen to get the grades, the guys and a place in her prestigious college’s comedy club by any means necessary, she is the rare South Asian woman on screen who gets to be funny, thirsty and bold.
It’s tough to imagine she would be even half that if it weren’t for the actor behind her, 28-year-old Markham, Ont., native Amrit Kaur, who previously co-starred in the 2020 Crave series The D Cut. It’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, created and produced by television maven Mindy Kaling and airing in Canada on Crave, however, that’s finally placed her in the spotlight as one of four best friends navigating their way through the spoils of that slightly seedy teen era when one explores and discovers more than just Philosophy 101.
Despite the fact that she effortlessly exudes humour, Kaur says, “[The show] was my first time dabbling in comedy. I had only done drama. So I’ve pleasantly surprised myself. But I know the comedy comes from having a sense of humour about myself and my insecurities. Bela’s humour also comes from her insecurities – about her body, about not being the most beautiful, which is what I’ve experienced. I went into acting to feed that insecurity. I know now it’s ridiculous when we value beauty more than intelligence and talent, so playing this character was quite healing for me. I’ve fallen deeper in love with myself.”
In order to develop her comic muscle, Kaur studied with an acting coach, watched every Dave Chappelle and Tiffany Haddish show she could get her hands on, and even tried her hand at stand-up. But Kaur’s love of acting came long before that, and was influenced from quite another art form: Bollywood. She remembers dancing to her parents’ Indian music cassettes (the 1997 classic Dil To Pagal Hai being a particular favourite). From there, she became your typical theatre kid, enrolling in the esteemed Acting Conservatory at York University, assuming it would be much easier than it turned out to be, after telling her parents she would take premed classes on the side to satisfy their own dreams for her.
“I wasn’t raised to understand or respect the intelligence required to be an artist, which I learned immediately when I went into theatre school; the Band-Aid was ripped off the skin,” she says. “Acting is a personal art form and the notes that I was given as a person would be the same notes I would be given as an actor. I constantly wanted to be a popular girl, which was one of the petty reasons I went into acting – to get the attention that the inner bullied eight-year-old wanted – and so I [opted] for pageantry in theatre school. But I’ve learned that, in my root, I am a nerd, talented, intelligent and an average Joe, and I’ve been able to examine my insecurities. So when my coach gave me the same notes now, I was able to hear them and take them.”
Part of that came from earning the role of Bela. Although casting discouraged those without work visas from applying, Kaur auditioned anyway on a lark. After several callbacks, she won the role, but ended up having to apply for a visa twice. The second time around proved to be especially rewarding, as Kaling and co-creator Justin Noble, along with all the producers, wrote letters on her behalf, insisting she was “essential” to the show, which would not go on without her. Which makes sense, considering not only how much Kaur and Bela are alike in their ambition, but in the way the former understands the cultural significance of the latter.
“This character is revolutionary,” Kaur says. “I was enthused and I was scared to play her because I knew our community would be ecstatic to see us represented this way. We’ve been taught by movies and television in Hollywood, as South Asian women, that we have to be submissive when it comes to sex, and that’s a lie created by white people who have exoticized us.”
Bela is indeed a major departure from the stereotype. She has no problem openly and loudly announcing “I’m sex-positive, deal with it,” and her hope to score “a guy with sick, ripped, tasty abs” à la Zac Efron. And when she experiences a sexual assault in the later part of the season, she makes the decision to let go of a lifelong dream.
“From my own experiences of being desperate to be part of something, I know that she’s tested,” Kaur says. “She has to ask herself if she’s willing to sacrifice her intelligence and accept the patriarchy, and allow herself to be exploited in order to get where she wants to be. As we both learned, in order for her voice to really be heard and to go her own way, things might get harder, they might take longer, but she will be respected, and that’s a brave story to tell. I found myself emotional between takes knowing that, because Bela shares her vulnerability through her humour.”
Perhaps the most profound connection Kaur found on set was with Kaling, who is beginning to develop a knack for bringing talented South Asian women from the Toronto area into the Hollywood spotlight (think Never Have I Ever’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). Like many brown millennial women, Kaur has been a fan for some time, having read, watched and studied all of her work. So playing a character who is largely inspired by Kaling herself was something of an honour.
“I was nervous because I’ve looked up to Mindy for so long,” she says. “To the point that, on the first day on set, I mumbled my way through my scenes. The next day, I wrote to her and asked if I could talk to her, and she immediately came to my trailer and asked what was going on. I bawled my eyes out and admitted my admiration and reverence of her, and she was humble through it all, and talked me through. She has been so helpful.”
Kaur may be following in Kaling’s footsteps in more ways than playing a character literally based on her. An avid writer, she’s working on her own television series, and also dreams of starring in a film, or appearing on Saturday Night Live – much like Bela.
“They’re big dreams, so step by step,” says Kaur, ever the striver, a smile audible in her voice. “The universe decides, right?”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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