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Avantika: Playing Mean Girls' Karen helps break stereotypes

Avantika, standing in front of blue school lockers. She is wearing a pink and green floral dress, and her hair is in a pink hairband
Do you wanna go to Taco Bell? Avantika feels the role of Karen "breaks stereotypes" for women

"I hope it's nearly as impactful for the rest of my community as it was for me to play this character."

Avantika Vandanapu plays the role of "bimbo" Karen Shetty in the new Mean Girls musical and feels it's a chance to change perceptions around South Asians in the film industry.

The ditzy character was originally played by Amanda Seyfried in the 2004 film, but Avantika joins a new cast and thinks it can "break stereotypes".

"Of what we encourage women to be and what we encourage women to think like," she tells BBC Asian Network.

In the original film, teen royalty Karen is a character who arguably doesn't think much, whether it's putting her whole fist in her mouth, having a "fifth sense" or crushing on a cousin.

But for Avantika, hearing the line "God Karen, you're so stupid" was actually pretty empowering.

"Karen feels like somebody who embraces being a bimbo and embraces being someone who's sexual.

"I think playing that kind of character, especially as a South Asian woman is really, really crazy," the 19-year-old says.

'Joy of musical numbers'

The musical, like the film, has been written by Tina Fey, and Avantika praises the team "for casting someone who visually also feels antithetical to someone who was like that".

She says it's important for her as an actress to "not spend my entire life in this industry forever being perceived as someone who can only play the shy nerd".

"And that people see me as something different.

"It's validated this feeling that I can truly play different characters and embody different people."

Bebe Wood, Avantika and Reneé Rapp stood in front of blue school lockers and a pink Mean Girls photoboard
Bebe Wood Reneé Rapp are the film's mean girls while Avantika is a mouse, duh

The film has debuted to mixed reviews, but Avantika was praised by some critics for "knockout comic timing".

Mean Girls isn't Avantika's first role in a Hollywood production - she's also appeared in TV series The Sex Lives of College Girls.

And before that, she was acting in Indian films, which she feels were more "male-dominated".

"I think even now films and stories feel very hero-centric.

"But the industry has moved in a way where it feels like we're like honouring the female perspective a little more. Which I think has been really nice to see."

Another difference, she says, is that working on set is less intense in Hollywood.

She describes "getting a timed break and being able to do school while filming" as a "really big luxury for me".

"The film industries [in India] are a different beast. It was much, much more difficult, like we just work more hours there and it's a little bit more of a hustle."

But Avantika says both "industries have their pluses and minuses".

"The joy of doing Indian musical numbers and working with people who speak the same language as you.

"And working with people who look like you in a country where everyone's brown, there's no stereotype to fall back into.

"I think that's incredibly liberating," she says.


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Listen to Ankur Desai's show on BBC Asian Network live from 15:00-18:00 Monday to Thursday - or listen back here.