After years of churning out now-beloved Disney Channel Original Movies, the network finally has its first Indian American movie star: Avantika, the self-aware and confident teen starring in the highly-anticipated dramedy, Spin.
For decades under the DCOM banner, Disney Channel launched one-off films and new franchises that transcended what a made-for-TV movie could be. But it isn’t until now that one of their original films featured an Indian American lead, despite 5.4 million South Asian diaspora living in the US. In Spin, Avantika plays Rhea, a smart and determined teen who is figuring out how to juggle her duties at her family’s restaurant and her newfound passion for DJing. The native Californian had been circling the character of Rhea for four years after she first auditioned for the lead role via self-tape when she was just 12 years old.
“It was my first American audition ever,” Avantika tells Teen Vogue about the full circle moment of booking the film. The project was then put on the shelf to rejigger the story and find the right people behind the scenes, including director Manjari Makijany (Skater Girl), but it was the beginning of a new era for Avantika. “I still watch that tape back and think it was so awful. But that tape got me to LA.”
As a kid growing up in the Bay Area, she had been a dancer drawn to the more expressive elements of the craft, which led her to enroll in drama classes in the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and Film Acting Bay Area. She then found acting success in India, where she had small roles in Telugu-language South Indian films.
But something about that career trajectory didn’t feel completely right. Avantika grew up watching films from all around the world, and her sights were always set on making a mark in Hollywood—even if she didn’t always allow herself to believe it was possible. “Acting in America, in English, in films that I watched…that is just something that I did not let myself dream of for a very long time,” she says. “[But] as representation grows in this industry…I felt I could shoot my shot now.”
Her mother was her biggest champion in following an untraditional career, and the young actress credits her mom with giving her the space to explore her interests, especially in a community that doesn’t always value the arts as a career choice. There’s a stereotype of Indian parents that often has some truth to it: children of immigrants are expected to be hard-working, book-smart doctors, lawyers, or engineers. A career in the arts is typically frowned upon. “She took that leap of faith on me and broke barriers,” Avantika says about her mother’s encouragement to follow her passion. “She’s been a role model to me to do whatever I love.”
Still, her parents ensured that she wasn’t putting all of her eggs in one basket. In exchange for following this dream, Avantika promised to stay strong in her academics in case she ever needs it as a safety net. She doesn’t seem fazed by this condition; in fact, she embraces the idea of intelligence as a backbone to success. “I think education is fundamental for any career you want to go into,” she says. “Being smart...is something that you need in such a competitive world.”
Avantika’s parents were also instrumental in instilling a pride in her Indian heritage at a young age. The family often watched Bollywood movies, listened to Carnatic music, and spoke Telugu at home. As a lifelong Bollywood fan, Avantika’s voice hits another register when she starts gushing about working with the Hindi film industry legend Abhay Deol, who plays her dad in Spin. “I remember getting the call [he] was gonna play my dad and I was absolutely in shock. I grew up watching his films.”
But there were some aspects of her heritage that she didn’t always understand. She used to be sent to school with a bindi on her forehead, which represents the third eye in Hinduism and is believed to ward away the evil eye. “I don’t think Avantika as a child had a grasp on the importance of a bindi or had full comprehension of what it means,” she recounts. While she wore the cultural symbol on her way out the door every morning, Avantika was bullied every day to the point of removing it at school. Now, years later, it’s an aspect of her culture that she’s reclaimed in the name of spirituality, and her Instagram boasts many rows of photos of Avantika and her bindi, in all of its glory. “I love it. It looks beautiful and I now understand the meaning behind it. I think it’s a good representation of how much I’ve grown.”
Representation is a hot topic in BIPOC communities, as diversity and inclusion are top of mind within Hollywood. However, not everyone agrees on what representation actually entails. Some believe that one or two stories can check a box, while others — like recent Teen Vogue cover star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan — yearn for more varied portrayals. Avantika hopes to contribute to the latter, and like many of her Gen Z contemporaries, she believes a time will come when South Asians have more stories that showcase their identities and cultures. “One story cannot possibly represent an entire community of people,” she said. “I hope that there will come a time when we have a diverse range of stories to reference and that we won’t be counting the projects that represent our community on one hand.”
Spin will contribute to that list of stories, and while it cannot (and should not) speak for an entire community, it certainly adds to the rich tapestry of the diaspora. By nature, Spin speaks to a younger generation who doesn’t necessarily have to deal with the same traumas or fight the same generational battles that millennials or Gen Xers did. That doesn’t mean the film is without an internal struggle: in Spin, conflict arises out of Rhea’s inability to communicate about her expanding interests, instead of falling into the trap of tense familial relationships between kids and their immigrant parents. In that, it defies the idea that all kids with roots in the same part of the world have the same experiences.
Avantika will next star alongside Rebel Wilson in the Netflix film Senior Year, in which she’ll play a character very different from that of Rhea, adding to that varied mix of South Asian representation. At only 16, Avantika is on the cusp of becoming a huge star, and she hopes to inspire all kids to dream bigger and “to venture into different fields, explore their passions, and just be themselves.” It’s not too different from her own role models Priyanka Chopra and Viola Davis, whose careers have paved the way for women in the industry and made it possible for Avantika to pursue this dream.
And so with her childhood experiences in the background and the way she’s grown since then as a marker for her future, Avantika is more sure of herself than ever. So sure, in fact, that she’s shortened her stage name to a memorable one-word moniker. “Avantika is a very strong name and it’s very identifiable,” she says. “I’ve always resonated more with my first name, and I think it sounds super cool and true to me.”
With so much still to come for Avantika, it’s surely a name we won’t forget anytime soon.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue