The mother of a young Indian girl recently told Sahana Srinivasan, the 22-year old Indian-American host of the Netflix original series "Brainchild," that her daughter relates to the show because Srinivasan seems like her older sister. That conversation happened around the same time the Dallas Observer referred to Srinivasan as "the hipper, more accessible Bill Nye [the Science Guy] for the digital generation."
"It's awesome, especially for young women of color to see themselves on screen," she said. Srinivasan understands that she is a physical representation of possibilities for girls in a male-driven industry.
In each episode of the series, which is executive produced by music mogul Pharrell Williams, Srinivasan piques young viewers' curiosity by transporting them to a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) universe. From debunking the ever-so-popular myth of the "five-second rule" to discovering the truth behind dreams and what monkeys have to do with us falling asleep, Srinivasan makes science cool and progressive. And she does so in an accessible manner and format.
"The goal is to motivate young girls to pursue STEM or STEAM (STEM plus arts) related fields," Srinivasan said over the phone. "Young girls are so used to seeing the media representing a person who is passionate about science and math as a male figure. Seeing a woman host a science show is refreshing and encouraging."
The daughter of engineers, Srinivasan was exposed to STEAM fields as a young girl living in Houston. "Growing up, I really liked watching 'Cyberchase' (the PBS Kids animated series)," she said. "It talked about science and math without talking down to children."
But ultimately, arts and entertainment captured Srinivasan's long-term interest.
As a child, her parents introduced her to the performance arts through local Indian association talent shows. "They noticed that I enjoyed performing and encouraged me to dance, sing or perform skits," she said.
Now a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, Srinivasan is a film major who directs, produces, writes and sometimes stars in her productions. Concurrently, she is pursuing a stand-up comedy career -- a talent she discovered at 15 but started to nurture last winter at New York City comedy clubs while shooting for "Brainchild," which began streaming in late 2018.
"People stereotype Indian or South Asian people thinking we're only focused on studying, but almost every Indian person I know does some kind of creative thing," Srinivasan said. She added that she is committed to ending false narratives and stereotypes about women and people of color.
Srinivasan credits fellow Indian-American Netflix star and comedian Hasan Minhaj with paving the way for her and for other Indian creatives. "It was cool to see a familiar face and relatable story for me on-screen when I was watching his standup special, 'Homecoming King,'" Srinivasan said. Minhaj paid homage to his Indian culture without portraying a caricature of an Indian person.
"Don't get me wrong, I definitely like to weave aspects of my heritage and culture into my creative work," Srinivasan said. "But sometimes, it's better to incorporate it subtly. Because although it's a huge part of my life, there's so much more to my identity and personality than having an Indian background."
A positive representation of this execution is evident in the "Creativity" episode of "Brainchild"; a traditional Indian dress, or churidar, is seamlessly incorporated into the show without it being the focus. There's also "A Bollywood Hip Hop Love Story," a music video directed and edited by Srinivasan, initially for a final project, which infuses elements of a traditional Bollywood movie with modern/hip-hop dance.
Though she skipped a semester to shoot "Brainchild," Srinivasan remains on track to graduate with her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in May. She attends university while pursuing standup comedy and acting opportunities.
Ultimately, Srinivasan hopes to break more ground in the industry and develop an Indian superhero film or series starring herself. Her character in such a program would have comedic powers along with traditional superhero strengths. Srinivasan, a self-proclaimed fitness enthusiast, envisions her character embracing her Indian culture and kicking ass in traditional Indian garb.
"I know she'd be super strong and super funny," she said. "Is that a strength? I don't know."
She will graduate college at 22. She stars in a Netflix series. She rocks stand-up comedy and is changing the face of STEM/STEAM and representing Indian culture in the mainstream.
It sounds like Srinivasan is already becoming the real-life superhero version of herself.
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