by Josephine Deroo
Photography: Jessie Volk
Indian-American actor Richa Moorjani’s name has a deep meaning. She needs to find a concise way of explaining what it means and it’s kind of hard to explain. “Basically, Richa is a sanskrit word so it comes from sanskrit and literally translates to the word him, like hymn, and it basically describes the scriptures and the knowledge that was written into the ancient text of Hinduism which were written by the ancient sages. So ‘Richa’ is basically the knowledge that was written into the ancient texts.” Her maiden last name, Shukla, means the light of the moon. So that’s really funny that you said that.
That’s a really impressive explanation, I have to say. Impressive indeed, but not as much as Moorjani’s rising star and her landing a regular on the Mindy Kaling-created Netflix series Never Have I Ever, a coming-of-age comedy drama loosely based on Kaling’s childhood experiences in the Boston area. It premiered on Netflix in April of last year and the second season premiered this July. Moorjani plays Kamala, Devi’s cousin who is staying with her and her family. Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is the character based off of Kaling. The role of Kamala was highly-coveted. Kaling started posting on Instagram about a global casting for the three South Asian female lead roles—Nalini, Kamala, and Devi. “From that Instagram post, the casting office received anywhere from 15-20,000 tapes and self submitted auditions from all over the world. Most of the people I know auditioned for Kamala because most of the people I know are my age (32). So, it was definitely something when I submitted my tape. I did it because everyone else was doing it and I was very thrilled when I found out that I even had a callback.” You will also soon see Moorjani in Peacock TV’s True Stories with Ed Helms. Release date not confirmed.
“The reason I went vegan was because I was exposed to what goes on in the meat industry and the dairy industry and I just can’t do it anymore after knowing all that. Once I saw that I was vegan pretty much instantly.”
Moorjani has been dreaming of this moment ever since she was a little girl in California. At 5 and 6 she started learning Indian classical dance and western dance. She used to watch a lot of Bollywood movies and her dream at a young age was to become a Bollywood actor. She ended up moving to Los Angeles after college to pursue acting, but still had that childhood Bollywood dream in her that wouldn’t go away and she had to give it a shot. So after a few months in LA Moorjani packed her bags, put everything in storage, and flew to Mumbai. She didn’t know anybody there but knew she had a calling to go there, a very strong calling.
“I was there for almost two years. It was really scary at first and throughout I would say that there were many times where I was scared and alone and it was tough. Because not only was I new to the industry [Bollywood], I don’t have any family in Mumbai. I have family all over India, but not in Mumbai. I was a complete stranger. But I will say that I learned so much, I made lifelong friends, it really gave me an even deeper connection to my culture and to my heritage and even to acting for that matter. Because I went even deeper into my craft while I was there, I studied with great teachers. I didn’t do any big Bollywood movies which is what I went there for, but I ended up doing a lot of other really fulfilling things and auditioned for a lot of things so it was just a huge growth process. And it really transformed me as a person and actor.”
But Mumbai has a huge swath of the city impoverished. It was something that devastated Moorjani and it was the first time she was exposed to it, to understand it. As a young girl she would go to India with her family but never understood the impact poverty had over its people. “To be honest, I don’t really know how I dealt with it. It kind of just becomes something I had a lot of empathy for.
I just tried to be very conscious to not become desensitized in whatever way I could: I would teach dance classes to young children there at different schools and orphanages. So whatever way I could give back, that’s what I would do. But it was not easy to see that. It still isn’t easy, even when I go and when I think about it, it’s something that as long as I can, as long as I have a platform, will want to do whatever I can to help.”
In Never Have I Ever, she’s in Kaling’s orbit, a powerhouse, somebody that does it all. She wears every hat and even before Moorjani met her was inspired by her. “She’s extremely grounded, extremely down to earth, and that’s something that inspires me even more. Because with the amount of success she’s achieved and with the amount of work she does and with being a single mom and just everything she does, it’s just something that I will always forever think about as I continue to climb the ladder in my career.”
For future projects, Moorjani is ambitious. “I am starting to work on developing a series with my sister who is also a writer. I am just looking to produce, whether it’s book adaptations or working with other writers. But definitely my goal with producing is to continue to amplify salvation voices and salvation characters behind and in front of the camera. That’s definitely what my goal is in producing.”
On a personal note, Moorjani is a diehard vegan. Something she started to explore after being in Mumbai. “About a year and a half ago, my sister went vegan first and when she told me her reasons why it was something that I felt like I needed to explore. I just watched a few documentaries. I watched one documentary that’s called Cowspiracy on Netflix and it’s all about the dairy industry and how cows are treated for their milk and it showed the horrors beyond just meat. Once I saw that I was vegan pretty much instantly. The reason I went vegan was because I was exposed to what goes on in the meat industry and the dairy industry and I just can’t do it anymore after knowing all that. And knowing what it does to the environment and it’s all around just bad for our health, it’s bad for the planet, and it’s bad for the animals so there’s literally no reason for me to ever be a part of that again.”
The turning point in Moorjani’s career was an amalgamation of events and it was specifically when she was living in Mumbai.
“The challenges of living in a new country by myself and all of that was really difficult but at the same time I was growing a lot and I think that my growth as a person really affected my growth as an actor as well,” says Moorjani. “I would say the different types of people I was meeting and the different types of work I was doing…it just expanded my skill set as an actor. I think I had a lot of growth as an actor and as a person while I was there.”
With a hit show on Netflix and a new show to arrive on Peacock, Moorjani dreams of India. “I still have family there. My grand, my ninety, I think she’s 95 now, my 95-year-old grandmother still lives in a city called Varanasi. Hopefully, I can see her very soon.”
“The challenges of living in a new country by myself and all of that was really difficult but at the same time I was growing a lot and I think that my growth as a person really affected my growth as an actor as well…”