New Sesame Street character, Leela, is a product of two cultures, just like desi who plays the role
NEW YORK: An Indian American girl, Leela who is as bright as a button debuted this week in the long-running American children’s television series Sesame Street which is promoting math literacy during its Fall run.
Leela who runs a tidy laundromat next to Hooper’s Store features on the show with famous and fluffy Sesame Street characters Elmo, Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie and Big Bird. “This is my first season and I am very excited about doing ten or 11 episodes,” New York theatre actress Nitya Vidyasagar who plays Leela in the show, told DNA. “It is such a cultural icon.”
Aired in 120 countries and with more than 20 local versions, Sesame Street helps teach pre-schoolers numbers and words using puppets. There is an Indian version called “Galli Galli Sim Sim,” but this is the first time that the main US show will have an Indian American character — and it wasn’t quite planned.
“They were not looking for an Indian character. The casting notices said nothing of ethnicity. There were probably characteristics they had an eye out for in terms of the energy they wanted to add to the show,” said Vidyasagar who ended up impressing the casting directors enough to script a role for an Indian American on the Street.
Leela is a lively addition to Sesame Street and shares Vidyasagar’s passion for her Indian roots, dancing and the arts.
A recent graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Vidyasagar went straight from filming Sesame Street in the summer to starring in “Cecilia’s Last Tea Party” by Russell Davis which the “New York Times” praised as “a modest but ravishing new piece of theatre.”
She followed this up with a thematically adventurous production of The Flux Theatre Ensemble’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the West End Theatre. “My life has mostly been in theatre. Sesame Street is a different arena but I have always wanted to do a lot of different things—Shakespeare, television, film—be everywhere. There is no roadmap to acting,” said Vidyasagar.
Making it as a serious actor in the US stage and entertainment industry has always been the longest of career long shots. And there are few roles written for South Asians but Vidyasagar says the “interest in India” has opened more doors to the increasingly small but visible number of Indian actors.
“It is a complete double-edged sword. I had a lot fears about that starting out; it is true there are fewer roles. But there are those directors who are willing to take a little leap of faith if you show them something that intrigues them,” said Vidyasagar.
“For all the South Asian roles that I have played, I have done just as many non-specific South Asian roles. Take Sesame Street for example, they were not even looking for an Indian character. I feel very lucky and not limited by it at all.”
Vidyasagar was 12 when her parents moved to the US from India.
6 months ago