music

Meet the Indian singer whose hilarious rap videos became his ticket to Hollywood

Siddharth Dhananjay started out making spoofs of songs he listened to. Now he is making his debut in an indie.

Siddharth Dhananjay isn’t your average 25-year-old. The Indian-born, Los Angeles-based actor-rapper became something of an internet phenomenon as Dhananjay the First, who dropped hilarious parody rap videos on a blog. Come August, his celebrity is likely to get a lift when his debut film, Patti Cake$, hits the theatres.

A coming of age story, Patti Cake$ depicts the struggle of a white woman in New Jersey, Patricia (played by newcomer Danielle Macdonald), who aspires to become a rapper. Directed by American Geremy Jasper, it has a diverse cast and eclectic music, some of which was sung by Dhananjay, who plays Patricia’s friend Hareesh.

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Entering Hollywood had never been part of Dhananjay’s plans.

Three years after his birth in Thiruvananthapuram, his parents had moved with him to Jakarta – and that’s where he spent his childhood, barring a four-year interlude at the Rishi Valley School in India. He graduated in liberal arts from Grinnell University, Iowa, where he ended up making his Dhananjay the First spoofs with two friends.

In 2014, he received an email from the producers of the critically-acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). They had seen his rap videos, and asked him to audition for Patti Cake$. The film has already found some success on the festival circuit: at the Sundance in March, the indie was picked up by Fox Searchlight for $9.5 million.

In an interview with Scroll.in, Dhananjay talks about his music and his debut film.

Who is Dhananjay the First?
At Grinnell, back when I was studying philosophy and economics, there was a student film festival that was basically an excuse for people to have fun. Nobody was really making art films as submissions. My friends Luke, Matt and I decided to make our own funny video and parody Kent Jones’s Don’t Mind with our own lyrics. It was a super collaborative, low-budget process and the results were great. I attended music classes in school, but with the Dhananjay the First videos, we were just trying to capture a post-celebrity image and see how far we could push the experiment. It was all on purpose – we were trying to be funny and serious at the same time. People hate to admit it, but they watch the video hoping to hate on this rapper but end up finding it catchy and liking it. My parents dig it and my granddad loves it and watches it every day, even though he doesn’t get what I’m saying.

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Musically, who were your influences?
We love Drake, Young Thug, Destiny’s Child, TLC. There’s a lot of R&B, hip-hop and rap. We only do covers/spoofs of songs that we love to listen to, like Mario’s Let Me Love You and Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name. For all of us, making music isn’t the first goal. The idea is just to make fun of the things we’re saying because we’re aware how ridiculous the words are. A lot of people have come and said it’s so misogynistic and offensive, but they’re not getting the point. We don’t want to be taken seriously.

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How did you land a role in Patti Cake$?
The Dhananjay the First videos were like my acting portfolio. I’ve always enjoyed acting in plays, but was never the main guy. So when the producers mailed me about the film, I immediately sent in an audition tape and waited to see what happens. They asked me to come to Sundance because the project had been selected for the Director’s Lab, where they choose eight first-time filmmakers’ projects and industry mentors help the director reach the project’s full potential. As part of this, the directors get to choose potential actors to work on. For me, it was just a great week-long learning experience. But in 2016, they asked me to do the film. So I did two months of introductory acting classes, rehearsed a lot with Danielle, and shot in the summer. The producers still tell me that I was the riskiest bet in this whole film. We’re now busy with promotions before FOX Searchlight releases it on August 18.

You had a lot of visa issues?
I was on student visa in 2014, so you get a year to work. At the end of the year, you need to find someone to sponsor you for a work visa, but that’s hard because the big companies don’t want to spend their money and do all the paperwork to have you there. They’d rather hire an American. The only reason the film happened was because Danielle had an actor’s visa – O-1. They had to make the case that I was essential to her performance in the film, so I got latched onto her O-1 and got an O-2 visa, which is project-specific. My team is now helping me get an O-1 visa to live and be employed as an actor in USA. But the visa issues are annoying and it’s a collectively stressful process for us all. Once that’s done, I need to figure out what I want to do as a brown actor in America.

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Had things not panned out the way they did, what would your life have been?
After university, my plan was to move back to India. I’d have gone to Chennai, gotten into the Tamil film industry as an AD (assistant director) and worked under someone to figure out how things work.

But is this truly what you want to do?
Sometimes, it feels like I haven’t earned it. In LA, you meet people your age who are putting in all their money and struggling to be an actor. I just made a bunch of funny videos. It only makes me want to work harder and do a good job of it. I haven’t taken anything for granted. The scales are tipped against me. Patti Cake$ has been my starting point, but what I make of this momentum is what matters. It’s about being in the right place and right time. I had the opportunity to do something like this and also ended up enjoying it while acting. I hadn’t felt so good doing anything else my entire life. So I do want to keep doing it. You get into a new space and see the different sides to it, which makes you want to bite into it.

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From Indian pizzas in San Francisco to bhangra competitions in Boston

A guide to the Indian heart of these American cities.

The United States of America has for long been more than a tourist destination for Indians. With Indians making up the second largest immigrant group in the USA, North American cities have a lot to offer to the travel weary Indian tourist. There are umpteen reasons for an Indian to visit vibrant education and cultural hubs like Boston and San Francisco. But if you don’t have a well-adjusted cousin to guide you through the well-kept Indian secrets, this guide to the Indian heart of Boston and San Francisco should suffice for when you crave your fix.

Boston

If you aren’t easily spooked, Boston is the best place to be at in October due to its proximity to Salem. You can visit the Salem Witch Village to learn about present-day wiccans and authentic witchcraft, or attend séances and Halloween parades with ghosts, ghouls and other frightening creatures giving you a true glimpse of America during Halloween. But the macabre spirit soon gives way to a dazzling array of Christmas lighting for the next two months. The famed big Christmas trees are accompanied by festive celebrations and traditions. Don’t miss The Nutcracker, the sugar-laced Christmas adventure.

While it upholds its traditions, Boston is a highly inclusive and experimental university town. It welcomes scores of Indian students every year. Its inclusiveness can be gauged from the fact that Berklee College of Music released a well-received cover of AR Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The group, called the Berklee Indian Ensemble, creates compositions inspired by Indian musical styles like the Carnatic thillana and qawwali.

Boston’s Bollywood craze is quite widespread beyond the campuses too. Apple Cinemas in Cambridge and Regal Fenway Cinemas in Fenway can be your weekly fix as they screen all the major upcoming Bollywood movies. Boston tends to be the fighting ground for South Asian Showdowns in which teams from all over the North-Eastern coast gather for Bollywood-themed dance offs. The Bhangra competitions, especially, are held with the same energy and vigour as back home and are open to locals and tourists alike. If nothing else, there are always Bollywood flash mob projects you can take part in to feel proudly desi in a foreign land.

While travellers love to experiment with food, most Indian travellers will agree that they need their spice fix in the middle of any foreign trip. In that respect, Boston has enough to satisfy cravings for Indian food. North Indian cuisine is popular and widely available, but delicious South Indian fare can also be found at Udupi Bhavan. At Punjab Palace, you can dig into a typical North Indian meal while catching a Bollywood flick on one of their TVs. Head to Barbecue International for cross-continental fusion experiments, like fire-roasted Punjabi-style wings with mint and chilli sauce.

Boston is prominent on the radar of Indian parents scouting for universities abroad and the admission season especially sees a lot of prospective students and parents looking for campus tours and visits. To plan your visit, click here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an art lover’s delight. The admission-free Trolley Dances, performed in October, focus on engaging with the communities via site-specific choreographies that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Literature lovers can experience a Dickensian Christmas and a Victorian holiday party at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a month-long gala affair starting in November.

As an Indian, you’ll be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, especially with regards to food. San Francisco’s sizeable Indian population, for example, has several aces hidden up its sleeve. Take this video by Eater, which claims that the ‘Indian’ pizza at Zante’s Restaurant is the city’s best kept secret that needs outing. Desi citizens of San Francisco are big on culinary innovation, as is evident from the popularity of the food truck Curry Up Now. With a vibrant menu featuring Itsy Bitsy Naan Bits and Bunty Burrito and more, it’s not hard to see why it is a favourite among locals. Sunnyvale, with its large concentration of Indians also has quirky food on offer. If you wish to sample Veer Zaara Pizza, Dabangg Pizza or Agneepath Pizza, head to Tasty Subs & Pizza.

There are several Indian temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and San Jose that also act as effective community spaces for gatherings. Apart from cultural events, they even hold free-for-all feasts that you can attend. A little-known haven of peace is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Their Anjaneya World Cafe serves delicious mango lassi; the beverage is a big hit among the local population.

If you’re looking for an Indian movie fix during your travels, the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival’s theme this year is Bollywood and Beyond. Indian film enthusiasts are in for a treat with indie projects, art-house classics, documentaries and other notable films from the subcontinent being screened.

San Francisco’s autumn has been described as ‘Indian summer’ by the locals and is another good season to consider while planning a trip. The weather lends more vigour to an already vibrant cultural scene. To plan your trip, click here.

An Indian traveller is indeed spoilt for choice in Boston and San Francisco as an Indian fix is usually available just around the corner. Offering connectivity to both these cities, Lufthansa too provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its India-bound flights and flights departing from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.