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Undekhi actress Apeksha Porwal on being part of the English-Arabic series Slave Market

This interview was first published in The Telegraph Online by the same author.

“I had just done Miss India, but I wanted to be sure as an actor,” says Apeksha Porwal, who plays the lead role of an Indian princess in the English-Arabic series Slave Market, streaming on Shahid, the biggest streaming platform in the Middle East. Before breaking into the international circuit, Apeksha starred in two seasons of the Sony LIV series Undekhi and also had a cameo in Badhaai Do. In a freewheeling conversation, Apeksha talks about her vastly enriching experience of working on Slave Market and her responsibility as an Indian actor on the international stage.

How did you land Slave Market? Were you actively looking out for international projects?

Apeksha Porwal: It’s an actor’s dream to do an international project out of the country. For Slave Market, the audition process was long because it is an international series. The first stage was sending photos and work links. Then followed a long wait. When I got a call for an audition, I knew that I had to be a part of this project. I sent my audition tape and finally got the part of Lavani.

Was the character of the Indian princess Lavani improvised around your personality once you were cast?

Apeksha Porwal: I believe that a well-written script is an actor’s job half done. Slave Market’s scriptwriter Heba Mashari Hamada, who is a Kuwaiti, has written the character of Lavani very beautifully. Lavani is an Indian princess from the early 1900s, so it was an altogether different era. At the core, there are quite a few similarities between Lavani and Apeksha. Other than that, I worked on the character from scratch along with the director Lassaad Oueslati who had some lovely ideas.

What kind of similarities?

Apeksha Porwal: For Lavani, self-respect is very important. She goes through a tough journey in the show but she always keeps her head high. She is kidnapped from the ship and sold off as a sex slave, but she comes out and helps other people who were travelling with her. So, to function from a place of kindness is what I think is similar between us. She never gives up and fights as much as she can. I am like that. I drew a lot of inspiration from Lavani that I would like to incorporate in my life.

Do you speak a lot of Arabic in the show?

Apeksha Porwal: I learnt Arabic because I was there for a long time. The show is produced in the Middle East but it’s an international show in the sense that there are five stories – African, Caucasian, British, Arabic and Indian. So, all the characters other than the Arabs speak English as a homogenous language. I have a few lines in Arabic but mostly I am speaking English, which was also new to me because I had acted only in Hindi.

How has been the response to the series so far?

Apeksha Porwal: The love that I have gotten from the Arabic and Middle Eastern audiences, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to UAE, has been incredible. For an Indian actor, firstly to do a show outside India and for it to do so well is very special.

Was it difficult for you to break into showbiz because of your dusky complexion?

Apeksha Porwal: The times have changed now. Some of our leading ladies today are dusky. Brands are changing their perspectives. In Undekhi (on Sony LIV), I played a tribal girl, which was a strong role. I am dusky but I have played the lead in an international series. So, things are changing, and they’re changing for the good.

How do you plan to cash in on the international visibility that you’ve got because of Slave Market?

Apeksha Porwal: I have Slave Market Season 2 coming up this June-July. Let’s see what that opens up. An actor’s life is extremely unpredictable. You try your best but you’ll never know what is going to happen next. I am open to the universe. But yes, going international is the aim.

After Miss Universe India 2017, you got trained in acting at Jeff Goldberg Studio. Was acting always a part of your career plan?

Apeksha Porwal: It is easy to have big dreams. But I ask myself, am I deserving of what I desire? Have I put in that effort every single day? The harder you work the more prepared you are for the opportunities. I wanted to hone my craft, so I went to Jeff Goldberg Studio to learn acting. I go to attend a session even now whenever I have time.

‘I have done Miss India, now I want to become an actor’ is a different chain of thought. I had just done Miss India but I wanted to be sure as an actor. I did a couple of workshops, then did nine months in school. Then I did some theatre productions. Fame and glamour will come eventually but enjoying the process every single day is very important to me.

Both your shows Undekhi and Slave Market have become popular. When was the first time you realised that you have become popular?

Apeksha Porwal: I don’t know how to gauge that. Funnily enough, in real life, I look so unlike my character Koyal in Undekhi. So, whenever I go out with my Undekhi co-actors, people recognise them but take a while to realise and then be surprised that I was Koyal. When I was shooting in Egypt and Abu Dhabi for Slave Market Season 2, that’s when the locals recognised me by my character name Lavani. People liking and recognising you for your work is a special feeling.

What were the takeaways for you after working with a cast and crew of different nationalities and walks of life?

Apeksha Porwal: It was incredible. The makeup room was entirely Spanish. The director and the crew were Arabic, so I had to communicate through an assistant director who could speak English and Arabic. I was working with actors who were African, British, Arabic and Caucasian.

When you are on a set with a cast and crew of 10 to 15 nationalities, it’s an amazing learning experience because, at the end of the day, everybody is there just for the love of cinema. I have had dinner table conversations where I spoke in English which was translated into French or Arabic and vice versa. That’s how we got to know and understand each other.

Do you feel a responsibility while representing your country as an actor?

Apeksha Porwal: I definitely think so, especially when you’re representing a story so entrenched in your country. I am playing an Indian princess, that too in a leading role, so of course there’s a responsibility. More than that, it is a sense of honour because it’s like representing 1.2 billion people in the story. But honestly, when you are on the set, between action and cut, I have to put these thoughts out of my head. The only thing that matters then is being true to the character.

Do you feel the need to be out there on social media or do you feel like preserving an air of mystery around yourself?

Apeksha Porwal: I am a private person. Other than a few glimpses of my personal life, most of my feed is work-related. As an actor, I don’t want to be out there too much. I want my characters to be out there rather than just ‘Apeksha and her pictures’. At the end of the day, it is social media, not your real life.

Did you notice any cultural resonance between India and the Middle East while you were there?

Apeksha Porwal: Before going there, I didn’t know too much about them. I had not watched any shows or films from the region either. But when I spent time there, I realised that their quality of storytelling and production is incredible. Middle Eastern cinema is going to be so huge in the near future.

The Arabs are similar to us Indians in so many ways. They’re very warm and welcoming. They didn’t feel foreign to me. They have a culture of family life and sharing love as we do in India. There’s also a rich history. I was shooting in Egypt which goes back ages into the BCs. And I am a museum and art gallery nerd, so I have done proper sight-seeing everywhere I visited.

Did you try any food delicacies?

Apeksha Porwal: I am a vegetarian, so there were not many options for me. But there’s an Egyptian vegetarian dish called Koshari. And of course, there were hummus and falafel. In the last few months, I have eaten so much hummus that I cannot look at hummus for the next few months.

What are your upcoming projects?

Apeksha Porwal: I have something up for release which I finished shooting last year. It is a web series. The character that I play in it is way different than what I have played in Undekhi and Slave Market.

Right now, I want to keep exploring as many different characters as I can. As an actor, you come as close as humanly possible to live a different life in your lifetime. And you get to do that over and over again. So, exploration is what I expect at this moment.


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