Like many working in the performing arts, theatre star Shubshri Kandiah's career took a hit when the COVID-pandemic began. After having just wrapped up her role as Princess Jasmine in a stage tour of Disney’s Aladdin, she was forced to turn to waitressing to make ends meet.
"I worked in a restaurant for a good chunk of time," the 26-year-old tells Refinery29 Australia. "All of my work that year got cancelled, and I needed to pay rent. So that's what I was doing but it was depressing, mainly because it wasn't fulfilling. I knew what I loved doing and it was [a question of] when am I going to get back to doing that?"
The answer is now, after a golden opportunity arose last year — one that's no doubt transformed her career but also made global history. After being asked to audition for the lead role of Ella in the Australian version of Broadway's Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, she's been back on stage since May this year when the production opened in Melbourne.
While the fairytale princess has typically been a white, blonde woman, Kandiah is one of the few South Asian women who've portrayed Cinderella on stage, and says this version does more than just make strides for cultural representation. It reflects a modern, empowered woman.
"She really isn't the damsel in distress and the very girly princess in this version," says Kandiah. "She's very much in charge of her destiny and it's a very modern take on the story," the actor continues, assuring us there's still a wicked stepmother, a wonderful godmother and glass slippers involved.
"The message of Cinderella is that you're enough just as you are, you don't need to have the most beautiful clothes. You don't need to come from the wealthiest family and they're the little things I think very much related to."
Kandiah's parents, who are of Indian heritage, migrated to Australia well before she was born. They raised her in Perth where she was immersed in South Asian culture from a young age, learning classical Indian dance styles Kathak and Odissi, and visiting the temple every Sunday.
"I was very much involved in the Indian community in Perth and in various ways I felt really connected," she reflects, but says "in other ways" she felt detached, struggling with growing up between two cultures.
By her teenage years, she felt a sense of shame in being South Asian.
"In high school, I really felt like I was pushing away being Indian. I was probably one of the only brown people at my school," she says. "I hated being Indian, to be completely honest."
It wasn't until she began dating a Greek person, who was incredibly proud of his culture, that she truly began embracing her own. But then, there were challenges she faced while studying acting and musical theatre. Like film and television, Australia's theatre scene has also undeniably failed to best showcase the country's cultural diversity over the years. While it's starting to improve - and Kandiah's latest role exemplifies that — it's easy to understand the actor's fears in recent years that she'd be typecast because of how she looks.
"For me, I think there was a big thing around when I was studying of 'What is your type?' and like, trying to play towards that. I think in my head, my type was brown. And of course, that's not right, that's not a type," she says.
"But in my brain, I was limited to only doing those roles, because that's really all I saw. I didn't really see brown people doing roles that weren't specifically written for brown people. I think in my head, that was all I could do. I had really wonderful teachers that were like, 'No, you can do more than that,' but it's hard to believe when you can't see it."
That's why Kandiah's performance as Cinderella is more important than ever, filling the void so many of us women of colour felt during our earlier years when we learnt of the Disney princess who slips her porcelain-skinned feet into the glass slippers. The younger generation of today will see that there's no one way to be for the shoe to fit.
Cinderella is currently playing at Sydney Lyric Theatre after running at Melbourne's Regent Theatre and the Lyric Theatre QPAC, Brisbane earlier this year.