“I hope to tell stories that change the way people see women of colour, by virtue of the narrative itself or the narrative of the people behind the project (as producers, writers, and actresses) to inspire a younger generation to say “I can do that.””
Melanie Chandra, an actress and producer, is well-known for her role as Dr. Malaya Pineda in CBS medical drama Code Black. She has played multiple television roles, including guest appearances on Rules of Engagement, Parenthood, and Nashville and large recurring roles on Netflix’s Brown Nation and HBO’s The Brink. Chandra quit her high profile corporate job to pursue her childhood dream of acting. “Cultural conditioning had me believe that success was getting into the best college, graduating with an engineering degree, and landing a well paying job. But the dream of acting was always there. I stopped myself from pursuing anything further, primarily because I had no point of reference that acting could be a career for someone who looked like me,” recalls Chandra.
When she moved to New York City and met an Indian American actress working in theatre and TV, Chandra thought: “If she can do it, I can do it too.” That moment let to the onset of her dream career as an actor. The path was not easy; having no one to guide her, Chandra stumbled a lot and faced insecurities. “People wanted to limit me to certain types of roles, which was hard for me to accept knowing that I have so much more to give. And no one really cared about the accomplishments in my previous career that I had worked SO hard for. Instead, I was objectified, just another face in a sea of actresses trying to make it. It was an awakening.” Chandra’s talent and hard work eventually bore fruit and she started getting recognized for her TV roles and other notable works.
The beautiful actress is also a passionate producer. “Producing projects allows me to exercise both my brain and my heart. I love channelling my creative voice into the storytelling, and then I love building things from the ground up, providing leadership, solving problems – everything I learned to do in the tech world and corporate America,” says the excited producer who is in the midst of developing a passion project called Surina & Mel. Chandra will be acting and executive producing alongside her friend and co-star Surina Jindal. “We’ve also partnered with Kal Penn and the studio Gunpowder & Sky,” she adds.
Another production that Chandra is trilled to share is a comedy titled Attachment for HBO. The comedy explores the complicated relationships Indian American women have with their immigrant mothers. “We’re telling it through the lens of a first-generation Indian-American tech CEO who’s forced to share her tiny NYC apartment with her mother, who’s considering a divorce. The two learn to live with each other – and for themselves,” narrates Chandra.
Through her projects, Chandra gives out a strong message that representation of South Asian women in the industry is crucial. “If I hadn’t seen or spoken to another South Asian woman doing what I dreamed of doing, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, and I might not have taken the leap. Representation makes us feel SEEN. That we belong. That we matter,” asserts Chandra who wants to create more opportunities for the next generation. “I hope to tell stories that change the way people see women of colour, by virtue of the narrative itself or the narrative of the people behind the project (as producers, writers, and actresses) to inspire a younger generation to say “I can do that.””
Beyond acting, Chandra is the co-founder of Hospital for Hope, which provides health care services to villagers in rural India. The non-profit has been serving thousands of patients every month, sending volunteers abroad to work there, and creating special initiatives such as women’s maternity clinics. During college, Chandra volunteered in a village in India one summer as part of a student organization. She totally fell in love with the experience and the people there. “After graduation, some of us continued to help the village and wanted to address one of their biggest challenges: health care. So we decided to build a ‘hospital for hope’ that could serve the region,” explains Chandra.
How has a woman’s role in the industry changed over the years? What needs to be done further?
There are some initiatives now to support women in roles behind the camera, but there is a LONG way to go. We have to keep encouraging girls to enter the field and to write and produce their own narratives. But the industry needs to give women the $$$ to produce those projects, a bigger say in how we build the teams behind them, and the POWER to make the decisions on what ultimately reaches our screens.
What is your message to young girls and women who wish to be part of the film and TV industry?
Find mentors. Collect as much information as you can. Work with people who truly believe in you and your talent. Beware of anyone with ulterior motives – because that will never lead to anything real or long-lasting. Befriend as many people as you can along the way and maintain those relationships. It’s surprising how much of your early career is shaped through collaborations with people you’ve befriended.
Indians around the world have made significant contributions to their immigrated countries, what do you think of this accomplishment?
It’s really energizing that the Indian diaspora has contributed so much to the places our families came from. There’s so much passion and goodwill, and we should all be very proud!
Photos: Corey Hayes