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 catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers 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 internalised 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.