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.
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 $9.5 million.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Dhananjay talks about his music and his debut film.
Who is Dhananjay the First?
At Grinnell, back when I was studying philosophy and economics, there was a student film festival that was basically an excuse for people to have fun. Nobody was really making art films as submissions. My friends Luke, Matt and I decided to make our own funny video and parody Kent Jones’s Don’t Mind with our own lyrics. It was a super collaborative, low-budget process and the results were great. I attended music classes in school, but with the Dhananjay the First videos, we were just trying to capture a post-celebrity image and see how far we could push the experiment. It was all on purpose – we were trying to be funny and serious at the same time. People hate to admit it, but they watch the video hoping to hate on this rapper but end up finding it catchy and liking it. My parents dig it and my granddad loves it and watches it every day, even though he doesn’t get what I’m saying.
Musically, who were your influences?
We love Drake, Young Thug, Destiny’s Child, TLC. There’s a lot of R&B, hip-hop and rap. We only do covers/spoofs of songs that we love to listen to, like Mario’s Let Me Love You and Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name. For all of us, making music isn’t the first goal. The idea is just to make fun of the things we’re saying because we’re aware how ridiculous the words are. A lot of people have come and said it’s so misogynistic and offensive, but they’re not getting the point. We don’t want to be taken seriously.
How did you land a role in Patti Cake$?
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.
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.