Sheetal Sheth is at the forefront of the South Asian American film revolution starring in no less than five festival-winning films by and starring first generation South Asian Americans. In real life, Sheetal is a conundrum – equal parts Ghandi, Julia Roberts and snack food pitchman. The NYU grad and New Jersey native is herself a first generation Indian American and bursting to tell the true stories of a culture most often ignored or depicted as convenience store owners and cab drivers.
She won the lead in “ABCD,” her first film ever. “Nina is rebellious, lost, confused and smart but self-destructive,” describes Sheetal. “The film is an honest, cautionary tale that reveals a lot about the South Asian culture and deals with the issues that first generation Americans are confronting.” Working with an experienced cast in “ABCD” left Sheetal intimidated, “I was completely thrilled but also nauseous everyday,” she admits. “There was no easing into my first sex scenes and I also play the epitome of what every Indian girl is not supposed to be; however, that was a gift on many levels.” The film received critical praise and won awards at festivals in Mumbai, Calcutta, Houston and Austin, including “Best Film” at the latter two.
Next Sheetal won the lead in “Pocketful of Dreams,” shot in India and New York. “It’s about the harsh realities facing immigrants coming to America,” says Sheetal. In “Wings of Hope,” Sheetal snared not only the lead role but also a “Best Actress” award at the Cinevue Festival. “The film examines the mistakes one makes trying to assimilate when growing up with two distinct and conflicting cultures,” according to Sheetal. In “American Chai,” Sheetal plays Maya, the female lead, in the coming of age romantic comedy.
'American Chai' won the Audience Award at SLAMDANCE and the GEN ART Film Festivals and released theatrically in the States and internationally in 2002-2003. It is currently available on DVD and video at Blockbuster. “Maya and her boyfriend inspire each other to follow their dreams,” says Sheetal. “And it’s lighter than some of my other films.” Sheetal was also the female lead in 'Indian Cowboy,' set to release in 2004. “I play Sapna, who is cynical about love and winds up with a man who falls in love instantly,” says Sheetal.
Sheetal landed a supporting role in NBC’s “The Princess and the Marine,” based on the true story of the princess who escaped to elope with an American. “I was the veil-wearing, disapproving best friend,” explains Sheetal. She also starred and actually filmed guerrilla-style commercials for TheTruth.com’s anti-smoking campaign.
Sheetal continued to work in television by guest starring on 'The Agency' (CBS), 'Strong Medicine' (LIFETIME), and 'Line of Fire' (ABC). She also shot the pilot, 'Beat Cops' for FOX and provided the voice of Radhika on DISNEY'S animated series, 'The Proud Family.' She is currently completing a film (untitled as of yet) which also stars Mimi Rogers, Erick Avari, and Kal Penn.
Sheetal (rhymes with “lethal”) was born in Phillipsburg, New Jersey on June 24th to Rashmi, a chemical engineer, and Rekha Sheth. Her parents, whose marriage was arranged, are both from Gujarat, India. Sheetal attended Catholic school because it was the toughest school in the area and education was stressed in the Sheth household. She not only excelled in reading and school in general, she also played basketball on school teams and she began performing multicultural dance. She also watched lots of sitcoms, listened to Michael Jackson and Madonna, sneaked into Stephen King films at the mall, devoured mythology and learned Hindi by watching Indian movies.
The family relocated to Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania when Sheetal was in the sixth grade. Her father soon became
president of the local Hindu temple and Sheetal quickly became president of the
Hindu Youth Association. “I’ve always been interested in community
organizations,” Sheetal says, “putting together events, organizing activities
and putting on performances.” And she continued to be a straight-A student. In
ninth grade she had to choose between continuing on the basketball team or being
a lead in the school
play. “I chose acting and never went back,” Sheetal smiles, “which is good because I was still small and everyone else was getting taller and better.
Sheetal found acting to be a natural extension of her dancing. “It’s all about connecting with people and creating a catalyst for examining our lives,” Sheetal explains, “and it’s the first thing I ever felt truly passionate about.” She continued to choreograph and perform dance, was a leader in the National Honors Society, competed on the speech and debate teams and worked at McDonald’s for 2 years. This is in addition to her endless community and charity work. Unsurprisingly, she was chosen to speak at her high school graduation before an audience of thousands. Clearly this is one smart and eloquent multi-tasker.
She was accepted into New York University’s famed Tisch School of the Arts and took such a full load, she was ready to graduate in three years. She purposely delayed one requirement in order to stay an extra six months. One of her favorites was Americorps, President Clinton’s national Peace Corps program for select college students. The 900 hours of community service required didn’t deter Sheetal. “We went to inner-city schools and developed lesson plans that would interest the students, tutored and learned conflict resolution,” says Sheetal matter-of-factly. Through Americorps, she also worked with representatives of the Lincoln Center and the Public Theatre to develop arts awareness programs for groups with no resources. In her “spare” time, she was an officer for NYU’s South Asian organization.
In July, 2001, Sheetal relocated to Los Angeles. She takes the responsibility of starring in five Indo-American films very seriously. “With the yoga craze, the gravitation towards the Eastern philosophies and spirituality, the Indian jewelry and fashion trends, we are the next wave in films and Indian actors are finally getting better roles in mainstream films, I want to be the Indian actress to do the same.” She’s been called the Indian American Jennifer Lopez, a comparison she finds flattering. “Starting with her dance background, she’s become a star of American films,” Sheetal notes, “but my voice would never sell platinum records.”
Sheetal isn’t all work and no play. She loves extreme sports such as skydiving, hang-gliding and bungee-jumping, “I’ll try anything with a thrill,” Sheetal chuckles. She’s currently busy sampling every restaurant in Los Angeles. “I love food, I eat over 3,000 calories a day and fortunately, have excellent metabolism,” says Sheetal, who often carries cayenne pepper with her when spicy food isn’t hot enough for her palette.
She often checks in with her website and is flattered by the endless marriage proposals. Note to suitors: “I’m not accepting any via e-mail, at least send me a bag of Doritos and hot, not medium, Pace salsa,” she says.
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