Arka Das: Mulan and Beyond

March 25, 2020
The young Australian actor and creator will have to wait a few more months until his role in Mulan is revealed to the world, but that’s not stopping him from planning what’s to come.

“I play a character called Red Fez but I can’t say too much about the role specifically as they haven’t really revealed the character yet but I can say that I definitely had one of the coolest costumes in the film and I’m excited for everyone to see it in cinemas once it’s released!” says Arka Das about his role in Disney’s live action Mulan.

“Surprisingly, I initially auditioned for a different character months before I sent over the audition for my role and then I was pretty much over in New Zealand for pre-production.

“Shooting a Disney blockbuster was an incredible, larger than life experience,” he acknowledges. “It was my first time on such a huge set literally hundreds of people including cast, crew, extras and animals! My first day on set, I got to see a battle scene play out with around fifty horses and horse riders that were flown in from Uzbekistan! It can be quite nerve-racking being on a set like Mulan, but working with the amazing leadership, vision and clarity of director Niki Caro and her mostly Kiwi/Aussie team really helped a lot!”

As an actor, Arka has appeared in Lion, Top of the Lake: China Girl, and TV shows Pulse, Janet King, The Code and Bite Club. Behind the scenes, as a writer and a director, Arka has made short films, web series and short documentaries, including Khana Khazana, which played at both Flickerfest and St Kilda Film Festivals.

Apart from acting, you also have a number of productions that you spearhead yourself as a writer/producer/director. When did interest in that aspect arise for you?

I think I was always interested in telling stories from a young age but never quite sure in what capacity. I remember getting advice from a lot of people in the industry to make my own stuff and write roles for myself if I wasn’t getting the opportunities; so, I guess, that’s where it started. In 2013, I co-created and directed a comedy web-series called The Casuals – it was very punk and we did it all completely independently. That experience definitely taught me a lot of the foundational aspects of writing, directing and collaborating that I could use to keep creating.

Also, can you discuss your short film Khana Khazana, and what your plans are for expanding that story into a feature film? Is it a distinctly Australian story, or is it more internationally facing?

I wrote and directed my short film Khana Khazana a couple of years ago and feel very blessed to have had our Australian premiere at Flickerfest last year alongside playing St Kilda Film Festival and internationally in Los Angeles and Toronto. The short film tells the story of Ronny, a migrant worker who dreams of becoming a chef but discovers that his destiny is in the hands of his imperious boss. The story was inspired by a real-life case I came across in the news of indentured labour in Sydney.

I am really excited to expand the short into a feature film idea and have already started some early stage development with Co-Curious and the brilliant script producer Blake Ayshford. The feature film will be a socially conscious drama/thriller which navigates the world of indentured labour and modern-day classism. Set in Sydney, where most cases of indentured slavery takes place behind thin curtains, the film traverses the dark and shade of a gripping and real underworld but at its heart is hope and romance encapsulated by the joyous culinary art of South-Asian cooking.

I think it might be a new ‘type’ of Australian story if that makes sense, but I think international audiences can definitely relate to it as the themes are pretty global. I’m really lucky to have the support I have had so far and hope I am able to get it made!

Can you talk about your cultural background?

I was born in Bangladesh but immigrated to Australia at a very young age with my family. I grew up in Ashfield in Sydney’s inner west, attending primary school, high school and university here.

Was this cultural background a barrier for you to get into the arts, in particular from your family?

Actually, Bengali culture is deeply entrenched in the arts. Music, literature and cinema is a huge part of our community and heritage, having produced world renowned and Nobel prize winning artists and filmmakers throughout history. Also, with my dad being a writer, I was always involved in the arts from a young age, taking part in community and school programs.

However, getting into the arts ‘industry’ was a different challenge. There were definitely barriers as it was like venturing blindly into uncharted territory. It can be difficult for immigrant parents from different cultural backgrounds to wholeheartedly support their children’s desire to get into the arts in Australia because of the lack of opportunities, job security and not seeing themselves being reflected on screen/stage, so the trepidation makes sense.

Once they were able to see me working on stage and screen here and on a few high profile international projects, things do feel more attainable. I have to say, my family and the community have been very supportive in my career and give me the much-needed confidence I need to keep going during the tougher times.

What about growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney? Was that challenging in terms of finding like minds?

Growing up in Western Sydney was pivotal in helping to shape me become who I am today as an artist and a person. Growing up, I had friends from all different cultural backgrounds and it definitely moulded the way I see things and my perspectives on the world.

It was definitely challenging, in the sense that we didn’t have many resources, local ‘drama schools’ or hubs where actors/writers could go and find likeminded people. However, a lot of that has changed now and there is a thriving generation of Western Sydney creatives collaborating and working in the industry.

What about from the industry itself in terms of your cultural background being a barrier?

Yes, maybe less so now but I would say it’s still something I deal with on a regular basis and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. One of the main barriers being that it’s still extremely rare (almost non-existent) to see actors of my cultural background (or actors of colour) in leading roles in Australian films/TV shows. This has changed rapidly around the world in the US and UK with proven critical and commercial success but it feels like Australia is really lagging behind. It’s definitely not a question of a lack of talent, so I feel it may be a conditioning thing that needs to change, and I think it would subsequently lead to a huge positive impact on Australian content here and globally.

There’s a large chunk of our population that is of Asian background – how do Australian filmmakers/storytellers engage with them so that they will find our content interesting?

I think maybe it’s not so much about ‘us and them’ and more about an inclusive, integrated and diverse industry where stories on screen start to reflect the society that we live in. Australia is a multicultural society and a migrant nation in all aspects, but you couldn’t really tell from watching our content.

I think the large South Asian population in this country (along with the other migrant diaspora) would start to engage more with Australian film/TV if they saw truthful and nuanced reflections of their community whether it’s through casting, writing or filmmaking. I think the more creatives and artists of South Asian background are given a voice and more control, whether it’s in the writers room, in directing/producing or as actors, the more we can engage with the wider community on a local and international level. It really is the best way forward if Australian content is to have a global impact.

Lastly, can you tell us about Here Out West, what is it exactly and how are you involved and what your contribution will be?

Here Out West (working title) is an anthology feature film written by eight emerging writers from Western Sydney being developed by Co-Curious and Emerald Productions with the assistance of Screen Australia and Create NSW.

The project is a result of the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ initiative from 2018 and we are in the late stage development at the moment. I am super stoked to be one of the writers and an associate producer on the project and working alongside our script producer, the brilliant Blake Ayshford, we have a compendium of compelling scripts that are unique and exciting! I’m really excited for the film to reach audiences in Australia!

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