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Ashland Native Sharayu Mahale Pushes Boundaries in Real Life and in Film

Ashland native Sharayu Mahale stars in new HBO film, “Unmothered.” (Photo/courtesy Chris Jon at Chris Jon Photography)

By Cynthia Whitty

Twenty-seven-year-old Sharayu Mahale is an LA-based actress who grew up in Ashland. On Sept. 27, “Unmothered,” a short film where she is the lead, was released on HBO Max. The film competed at several film festivals, and most recently, placed first at the Asian Pacific American (APA) Visionaries short film competition sponsored by HBO.

“This project is very dear to my heart as we filmed it in India right before the pandemic started,” Mahale said. “Coming from a small town like Ashland, I think my story may resonate with aspiring filmmakers and encourage them to think big and follow their dreams.”

Mahale’s parents emigrated from India to the U.S. in 1993, and a year later she was born in Massachusetts. The family moved to Ashland in 2000, where she attended first grade. She graduated from Ashland High School in 2012. Mahale says she stays connected to her Ashland community through regular visits to her parents and zoom calls with high school friends.

In this interview, Mahale talks about her Ashland roots, how she became an actor, and what the film, “Unmothered,” means to her.

Whitty: What motivated you to become an actor?

Growing up I was always very curious about the arts and secretly wanted to pursue this field, but it felt impossible because I’d seen so few South Asians make it in mainstream entertainment. For the longest time the only representation I had seen in television was the animated character “Apu” in the Simpsons and Kunal Nayar in “Big Bang Theory.” I remember when I was young my mum and I would go to the movies and watch the credits at the end so we could count how many Indian names we found in the credits; it was never more than a handful. It wasn’t until I grew older and started questioning and thinking critically about why it was so rare to see people that looked like me represented on television. There was no one defining moment for me but rather a series of incidents that ultimately lead me to believe that I could be the change that I wanted to see.

Whitty: How did living in Ashland influence you?

In middle and high school I was a part of the band program and played flute and saxophone for several years. While I unfortunately was not particularly gifted in music, I am grateful that through the band program I met other students like Tim Merle and Parker Sheil who went on to pursue careers in music. That was the first time I met someone who was interested in pursuing the arts full time. I didn’t yet have the courage to commit to the arts full time at that point, but I do think it made an impression on me of what the possibilities could be.

Whitty: How were you chosen for this film?

It happened rather serendipitously! I was visiting family in India December of 2019 through January of 2020. I happened to get in touch with the director, Urvashi Pathania, and the casting team at the right moment through a friend’s referral and submitted my audition just days before the shoot was about to begin. I remember scrambling to film an audition at my aunt’s house in India and having my young cousins read the script with me out loud to help me scrape together an audition tape just in time. Within four days of submitting my audition, I was on set filming for “Unmothered” in Rajasthan, India. It was truly one of the fastest turnaround times I’ve ever had!

Whitty: What does the story mean to you?

“Unmothered” is about a rebellious Indian American girl who discovers a serious secret about her quirky family when she returns to India to immerse her mother’s ashes. Each character in the film processes grief differently, and what I love is that this subject matter could easily have ventured into melodrama, but instead it has pockets of bizarre humor sprinkled in that feel genuine and add texture. Just like in real life, grief is seldom one-note; it ebbs and flows and surprises us with unexpected humor at times.

What was particularly special about this story to me is that so often we see stories from India portraying India as a third world nation overwhelmed with poverty. What I liked about the director was that she was determined to make a movie set in India that did not center around “poverty porn” and class struggles. This feels like a step in the right direction of adding nuance to the portrayal of India in western cinema.

Whitty: Tell me about the character you play.

The character I play, Priyanka, is a rebellious spirit who goes against the norm. She challenges traditional gender norms in India, she questions her family’s judgment, and she ultimately ends up standing up for herself when no one else will. Rather than sitting back and allowing things to happen to her, she takes ownership of her destiny and how she wants to grieve the loss of her mother. I loved exploring this character because she is far more outspoken and daring than I am in real life. She inspired me to make bolder choices in my personal life and question certain customs and norms that I see around me.

Whitty: What’s next for you?

I have been on two seasons of “Attaway General” on Brat TV, a medical drama for high schoolers available on Hulu and YouTube. I just finished workshopping a new play called “Women of Zalongo” about generational trauma through a few generations of Greek women. And if you’re looking for a good laugh, you can find my series “Bollywood on a Budget” on TikTok where I recreate funny and iconic sequences from funny Bollywood classics.

I’m currently actively auditioning for TV roles in LA, NYC, and Atlanta, hoping to book something exciting soon! My hope is that I can be a part of this new wave of educating and inclusivity in Hollywood. I want to see more South Asian women in leading lady roles in film and TV telling nuanced stories that change people’s perspectives on stereotypes.