Trivandrum Boy Turns to Rapping in Breakout US Indie Film

Siddharth Dhananjay was studying philosophy and economics in a US college when his parody rap videos went viral, winning him a plum US movie role.

Danielle MacDonald as Patti and Siddharth Dhananjay as Jheri in <em>Patti Cake$</em>.

Danielle MacDonald as Patti and Siddharth Dhananjay as Jheri in Patti Cake$.

Siddharth Dhananjay stars alongside fellow newcomer Danielle Macdonald in the Sundance hit Patti Cake$ – though how that came to be is a curious tale.

Born in Trivandrum, Dhananjay studied in India and Indonesia, and eventually made it to Grinnell, a liberal arts college in Iowa, in 2014.

Around that time, he started making parody rap videos with two of his friends for a college film festival and a friend posted them on the WorldstarHipHop website. Using the rap moniker Dhananjay the First, he dropped videos like ‘Let Me Love You‘ and ‘Say My Name’ which went viral. The videos also piqued the interest of Patti Cake$ director Geremy Jasper.

“People loved the spoof rap videos, so we were like ‘Damn, okay, let’s do this, let’s keep doing a bunch of these, this is fun!’ Geremy randomly watched one the videos and shot me an email asking if I would like to be a part of a movie. That’s where it all started,” said Dhananjay. Jasper whisked him away to the Sundance Labs in Utah to audition for the role of Jheri, an boom-bap-obsessed New Jersey rapper.

Soon after his audition, Dhananjay’s student visa expired and he moved back to Bengaluru to live with his aunt. Months stretched into a few years until Dhananjay finally heard back from the folks at Patti Cake$ and reunited with the cast on set in 2016.

Set in gritty strip-mall suburbia, Patti Cake$ chronicles an underdog’s quest for rap superstardom with humour, raw energy and some unforgettable beats. The film captures the special bond between aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowski (played by Macdonald) and her best friend Jheri (played by Dhananjay) as they battle rivals in seedy gas-station parking lots and scheme madly about how they might finally earn some stage time for their new group, PBNJ.

Twenty-something Dhananjay, who has been hailed by the US media for his breakthrough performance, sat down for an interview with The Wire. Excerpts follow:  

Your life has unfolded like a fairytale. Did you ever imagine your first movie role would be a career breakthrough?

Not at all! I was just hyped with the opportunity. Everything after that was beyond my wildest dreams. It’s actually been quite overwhelming. Nothing can really surprise me anymore. It’s been an amazing, mad ride. I do want to add though that we knew in our hearts that Patti Cake$ was a special project. I’m glad audiences at the Cannes and Sundance Film Festival have loved the movie as much as we do.

You demonstrated a stunning aptitude for rapping, that too in a New Jersey accent. How did you pull off the role with such aplomb?

I don’t have any formal training, but I do listen to a lot of music, especially hip-hop, R&B, lots of that good stuff and am in tune with the rap world. I think a lot of that inspired me in terms of the performance. I just wanted to be as true as possible to this crazy character Jheri who is a pharmacist by day and rapper by night. He is also devoted to his best friend Patricia who he calls Killa-P, while the haters call her Dumbo.

I like to think that there are lots of young Indian boys like Jheri in Jersey who are struggling in their own lives, trying to figure out what they want to do and who they really are.  I don’t have formal training in music but as a child I learnt Carnatic music inspired by my mom who went to music school.

What was involved in learning the raps?

For me, the music and the rapping came naturally – that was the easy part. In fact, it was the opposite for me and Danielle. She had never rapped in her life and was struggling to figure out the raps, but she is a great actor; she can act. The music part came easily to me, but I was a little apprehensive about the acting.

Does a big rap career now beckon?

No, I don’t think so. Even with those parody music videos I think it would be disingenuous to call myself a rapper. They are comic sketches at the end of the day. I never had any plans to be a rapper. I loved being able to do it for the movie, but I’m going to leave that to Jheri. I have come to love acting with this movie. It’s the one thing I want to keep doing.

In other words, you are an actor who can rap, much like Ryan Gosling who is not a professional dancer, but can dance.

That’s a neat way of putting it.

Did you become an actor by chance?

Yes, I’m a completely accidental actor. I went to Grinnell to study philosophy and economics. Nothing to do with acting or theatre. This wasn’t in my plan. It just sort of happened and while melting into the warp and woof of Patti Cake$ I realised I never felt so good doing anything else in my life. I’ve made a big career U-turn and am having fun running with it.

Strong roles for South Asian male leads in the US are notoriously thin on the ground. But have you refused to audition for stereotypical brown skin roles?

Yes, I’ve definitely made a conscious decision that I’m not going to go in on stereotypical stuff. I think that coming off this movie I have an opportunity not to have to do those roles. I lucked out. A lot of young brown actors have to go audition for roles that they don’t really like. I don’t fault other actors for doing that. Sometimes you just need to work. I’m lucky in a sense that this movie has such momentum right now that it will hopefully allow me to not do those stereotypical roles.

More than just a movie screen buzzword, “brown” is attracting the attention of everyone but people don’t necessarily know what they are buying into. There’s so much left unsaid and I think I have the opportunity to try to fill the space in some way and push the boundaries a little.

A lot has changed since Sir Ben Kingsley changed his name from Krishna Bhanji as a way to his first audition. Actors like Sendhil Ramamurthy, Kumail Nanjiani and Dev Patel are not token diversity hires, but have lead roles in films which have mainstream success. Things are moving in the right direction, but when all is said we still need to push the boundaries.

Do you see any space for yourself in the Indian film industry?

I am hoping to do a reverse Priyanka Chopra. She’s a Bollywood superstar making it big in the US. On the other hand, I’ve been discovered in the US but I would love to act in India. I am a big fan of Indian cinema and would love to do something in India.

How did your parents react?

They are really excited for me, despite being quite clueless about the movie business. Still, they are happy for me and can’t wait to see what’s next.

What are you working on right now?

I’m on a mission to get my O1 Visa. It’s probably not the answer you would have expected but it’s tough for me to work in the US on an Indian passport without the O1 visa. Once I have that, I can audition for roles. The Patti Cake$ producers had me latch on, as an O2, to my costar Danielle’s O1 visa as I didn’t have prior film credits to score an O1 visa. They had to make the case that I was essential to her performance in Patti Cake$.

Uttara Choudhury is a freelance journalist.