Zenobia Shroff – Walking in Many Women’s Shoes


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Mira Nair & Zenobia Shroff

Mira Nair & Zenobia Shroff

Zenobia Shroff – From Bombay to New York

“Craft, –  ​craft​ ​isn’t​ ​going​ ​to​ ​get​ ​you​ ​nowhere,” says the actress with the flashing eyes and the name which often gets butchered.  “​ ​Maybe​ ​it’ll​ ​get you​ ​to​ ​an​ ​experimental​ ​theater,​ ​one-day-only​ ​show,​ ​where​ ​you​ ​stand​ ​on​ ​a​ ​ladder and​ ​iron​ ​clothes​ ​all​ ​day​ ​and​ ​call​ ​that​ ​a​ ​play–​ ​but​ ​that’s​ ​about​ ​it.​ ​​ ​If​ ​that’s​ ​what​ ​I wanted,​ ​I​ ​could’ve​ ​just​ ​stayed​ ​in​ ​Bombay,​ ​been​ ​comfortable​ ​as​ ​the​ ​nice,​ ​middle-class, Parsi​ ​girl​ ​goes​ ​and​ ​does​ ​theater​ ​as​ ​a​ ​“hobby,”​ ​which​ ​at​ ​the​ ​time​ ​was​ ​all​ ​amateur stuff,​ ​regurgitated​ ​Neil​ ​Simon,​ ​or​ ​a​ ​way​ ​for​ ​the​ ​liberal​ ​elite​ ​to​ ​say​ ​something​ ​about corruption.”

She adds, “But​ ​I​ ​wanted​ ​more​ ​–​ ​a​ ​helluva​ ​lot​ ​more.​ ​Every​ ​night,​ ​I​ ​would​ ​stand​ ​on the​ ​balcony​ ​of​ ​our​ ​bungalow​ ​in​ ​South​ ​Bombay​ ​and​ ​ask​ ​myself​ ​-​ ​what​ ​if​ ​I​ ​followed​ ​the road​ ​less​ ​traveled?​ ​So​ ​I​ ​left​ ​Bombay,​ ​the​ ​bungalow,​ ​my​ ​home,​ ​my​ ​life.”

Well, this nice middle-class girl from Bombay did follow the road less traveled. It led her all the way to New York City, the school of hard knocks, the elusive hunt for success and happiness.  Did she find what she was looking for?

Zenobia Shroff

Zenobia Shroff

Yes – and no. You can share all her experiences in this lively 80 minute one-woman off-Broadway show, ‘How to Succeed as an Ethnically Ambiguous Actor’ which is presented by Hypokrit Theater Company in association with the Castillo Theater (September 15 – October 1 from Thursday to Sunday).  Without giving away anything about the ending, I have to tell you it stars Zenobia Shroff  who is currently starring in the hugely popular film ‘The Big Sick’.

Zenobia, who earlier gave an amazing performance in ‘Little Zizou’, may have reached mainstream success with ‘The Big Sick’ but her story of struggles is one that many South Asian actors will be able to relate to: the lack of suitable parts for minority actors, the way their names are run through the spin cycle (Zenobia has been called everything from  Zerbonia to Bubonia, and even for seemingly no good reason, Tennessee.) and asked to do the mandatory ‘Indian accent’. For Zenobia, the roles offered were predictable: “Ethnic​ ​urban fashionista,​ ​fortune​ ​teller,​ ​gangster’s​ ​moll,​ ​terrorist,​ ​terrorist’s​ ​wife,​ ​girl​ ​with​ ​scarf on​ ​head,​ ​girl​ ​with​ ​dot​ ​on​ ​head,​ ​girl​ ​with​ ​fruit​ ​on​ ​head.​ ​​Rinse.​ ​Repeat.​​”


Sometimes to underline the ethnicity, casting agents wanted both the bindi and the hijab! In the play Zenobia says: “I​ ​couldn’t​ ​tell​ ​her,​ ​the​ ​hijab​ ​is​ ​Muslim,​ ​the​ ​bindi​ ​is Hindu.​ ​When​ ​I​ ​was​ ​asked​ ​to​ ​be more​ ​ethnic​ ​or​ ​told​ ​that​ ​I​ ​didn’t​ ​look​ ​Indian​ ​because​ ​I​ ​was​ ​fair-skinned,​ ​I​ ​didn’t know​ ​what​ ​to​ ​say.”

This one-woman play is written by Zenobia with Arpita Mukherjee, and directed by Molly Houlahan.  In that darkened auditorium, Zenobia takes you from Bombay to New York and back, playing over 25 different characters, the ghosts of the past and the crass, unbelievable players of the present – sharing the pain and loneliness, the anger and the occasional joy as she pursues her dream while dealing with creepy agents and sleazy bosses, working at wafer-thin day jobs as telemarketer or babysitter.

Zenobia Shroff

Zenobia Shroff

Interwoven with Zenobia’s quest for acting success is the lost alternate life that she does not get to live, the ordinary life of matrimonial bliss and children – and you sense the poignancy and the ache of choices made. As Zenobia says in a startling moment of clarity in the play: “Most​ ​of​ ​my​ ​life​ ​has​ ​been​ ​this;​ ​​ ​being other​ ​people.​ ​And​ ​for​ ​each​ ​moment​ ​I​ ​have​ ​lived​ ​another​ ​life,​ ​I​ ​have​ ​not​ ​lived​ ​my own.”

Yes, as an actress Zenobia has certainly walked in many women’s shoes (and some have pinched) but she is certainly having the last laugh. ‘The Big Sick’ has been bought by Amazon for $ 12 million and has received great reviews and the signing of new projects has become magically easier for her. ‘Zimbobia​ ​from Mesopotamia’ has come a long way.

In ‘How to Succeed as an Ethnically Ambiguous Actor’ this gifted actress shares the ups and downs, the highs and lows of her life and we watch avidly, we empathize, we laugh with her. In a strange way, we understand it’s our life too…all of us are actors and performing on a giant stage…ethnically ambiguous actors trying to fit into a new different life, making hard choices, giving up something known for something new and unknown…

A Photo Gallery of Opening Night of ‘How to Succeed as an Ethnically Ambiguous Actor’ with Mira Nair

Filmmaker Mira Nair has been a source of inspiration to creative people everywhere, and when those who’ve worked with her start out on a new project, she’s absolutely there to give them her salaams and root for them!

Mira Nair, Zenobia Shroff & Molly Houlahan.

Arpita Mukherjee, Mira Nair, Zenobia Shroff & Molly Houlahan.

Opening Night at Castillo

Opening Night at Castillo

Writer Lavina Melwani with Mira Nair and Zenobia Shroff

Writer Lavina Melwani with Mira Nair and Zenobia Shroff

Related Articles:
Little Zizou’s Zenobia Shroff Stands Up
Ek Main aur Ekk Tu: ‘Auntyji’ Goes Bollywood
Review: The Big Sick – Rom-Com Across Cultures

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Sep 23



About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!


  1. Adam Rizvi via Facebook on

    Adam Rizvi via Facebook

    Your every piece is a good piece, thanks, also its a long time we need to catch up, Lavina Melwani