From pageants to philanthropic efforts, Mannu Sandhu has come a long way
Mannu Sandhu was raised in Surrey, BC. To her family, the small town of Surrey must have felt millions of miles away from their native India, where Mannu was raised in Palampur. Chasing the Canadian dream of opportunity, Mannu’s family left India when she was 14 years old. Mannu grew up speaking both Punjabi and English, celebrating her culture at home, while happily integrating into Canadian society.
Mannu grew quickly into her beauty and, at her mother’s encouragement, began modelling at the age of 16 but took a break to explore her career opportunities. It wasn’t until 2007 while employed full-time as a Correctional Officer with the Province of BC, that Mannu started to model again. Success naturally followed, and in 2009 Mannu was a finalist in the Miss B.C. pageant and placed 1st Runner Up in the Miss Moella Canada Beauty Pageant in 2010.
Although her travel and exposure has increased, Mannu has stayed committed to her career and community. She has devoted her time to charities and non-profit organizations like BC Children’s Hospital, Sikh Blood Donation, Pakistan Flood Relief, Salvation Army, Operation Canada and Mannkind Charitable Society, where she and others travel to Baru Sahib in Himachal Pardes annually to help children born with facial deformities.
Things really began moving for Mannu Sandhu in 2011 when she competed in Miss Universe Canada placing in the top 16 and won a humanitarian award for raising the most funds for SOS Children’s Village to build three computer centers in Nicaragua. The Indian beauty then went on to a role in her first Canadian feature film “Footsteps into Gangland,” and has since acted in a feature film in India called “Saadi Wakhri Hai Shaan”.
Mannu is one of those women you can’t forget. With the delicate doe-eyed beauty of Priyanka Chopra but the stature and compassion of Angelina Jolie – Mannu Sandhu has officially arrived.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a film in LA, set to be released on Valentine’s Day, called Tera Mera Pyaar. I’ve been busy with this project but am speaking to producers in LA, trying to get started on another project but for now it’s this film and my career as a correctional officer that is keeping me busy.
As the name implies, it’s a love story. The male lead is a well-known theatre actor from the United States, and Dhamendra Deol is also in the film. The film focuses on California, and how it is regarded as the “Punjab” of the US. There are smaller themes throughout the film focusing on hate crimes against Sikhs and trafficking between the Mexico and US border. The story line is a cool concept and the film is action based.
How was meeting Dhamendra Deol?
I was nervous. I took my mom with me to set, and we were asked to wait in a sitting room in the house we’re filming in, while Dhamendra came down this long hallway to meet us. The anticipation was building up and I got more and more nervous as I could see him walking down the hallway, surrounded by people. He was so down to earth and nice, and all the nervousness I felt dissipated when we had a chance to speak. Working with him has been a great experience.
You just finished filming your third film, Maple Heart, what is that about?
Maple Heart is produced by KR Hollywood Productions and is primarily shot in the Vancouver area. I play the role of a woman who comes from a broken home, with a father who is an alcoholic that denies his addiction. The entire film touches on difficult issues for families like sexual and mental abuse, mental illness, and the stories intersect. It should be released early 2014. Kavi Raz is such a great person to work with, and has such a unique vision for this film. He handpicked his leads and had a unique vision on how we wanted each character portrayed.
How did your first Punjabi film, Saadi Wakhri Hai Shaan, do?
It was a world-wide release, and not the traditional Punjabi film starring a singer or having a comedy base. I think all of the producers based the film on their own stories and experiences. It was my first film, and I got to work with Gurbir Grewal and Nadeem Khan. The film did well and opened a lot of doors for me.
The experience was great. I played Mya, a young woman in the foster care system that is abused by her foster father. Working on this film really pushed my boundaries, and allowed me to explore who I am as an actor. There’s a scene showing nudity, but the nudity wasn’t sexual, it was me portraying a dead girl in a bathtub with blood everywhere. There was a three second pan shot of me laying in a bath tub, naked and dead, with blood everywhere. Of course I was conflicted about appearing nude so I spoke to my mom about it, and she told me it was up to me. It was a tough decision and I don’t regret it. A lot of people criticize me for the scene, but people that know me know that it was part of the film and a part that I played. I feel like playing that role has allowed me to get over any fears that I have.
There is a perception that nudity in Indian cinema is sexual, even if there is no sexual association. A nude Indian male or female, in a film, is unfortunately associated with sex and pornography.
There’s a clip from the film on YouTube where a turbaned man is forcing himself on me, and I get criticized for that. There’s a perception that men with turbans shouldn’t be portrayed in a negative light, but I think it’s important to remember that people with turbans aren’t exempt from criminal activity – it’s not realistic to think that they don’t commit crimes at all, nor that all of them do commit crimes.
Do you think Mani Amar gets criticized for the film?
He gets criticized for a lot of his work, especially scenes where he shows cocaine usage around a gurdwara, or a turbaned man raping a girl. But the reality is sadly that things like this do happen, and he is showing something that is real. Look at what is going on in India, rapes are reported daily, and there are so many others that don’t get reported. Child molestation is something that affects the South Asian community, but it is ignored and brushed under the carpet. When we shut our eyes to issues like that, we are not facing the issue head on. The reality is that some parents do that to their own children, or someone else’s children, and talking about issues are going to shed light, create a discussion and allow for a possible solution. What people often forget is that Footsteps into Gangland was not a commercial film, it’s a documentary. It’s going to be real and people need to understand that. Mani wanted to show something real and it was hard for the actors involved too, because it is so real. He did an excellent job and accomplished what he set forth to do.
Would you appear nude in an Indian film?
I wouldn’t appear nude for an Indian film, it wouldn’t be tasteful or right for an Indian audience. If you look at Canadian or Hollywood films, it’s more accepted. I pushed my boundaries at a young age and feel like if I wanted to say no to nudity now, I’m in a place where I can easily say no.
Is it challenging to find appropriate roles while being mindful of your Indian roots?
A potential role needs to be strong. I’m looking for daring roles, but of course I don’t want to pursue anything that is insulting to anyone. I think there are certain topics that although they may seem taboo, need to be covered. It’s a case by case scenario, something that I need to think about when I get approached at the time of the project.
As a local celebrity, how do you deal with negativity or feedback?
I work very hard, but I’m pragmatic and know there will always be hecklers and critics. People believe what they hear, and often don’t based assumptions on their own experiences. I put my heart and soul into the work I do and when people meet me and see the authenticity of what I do, they’re humbled by it. You can’t fight with people, you let them be and hope they figure it out, eventually.
I’m the first girl in my family to branch into acting or modeling. No one has thought about entering the entertainment industry, and I’m pursuing it on a larger scale. My dad was involved with bhangra and dancing, but I’m really exploring unchartered territory for my family. When I experience negativity I remember that I’m creating a legacy and maybe I’m opening a door for future generations in my family.
I’ve mentally prepared myself to look a certain way and have a certain body type. Once you’re in the industry you need to maintain yourself, and you’re competing against the best. It’s a personal decision for me, I want to be healthy and fit, and I take it upon myself to watch what I eat, if I indulge too much I’ll make up for it the next day. I’ve been the same shape since high school.
I love Angelina Jolie and am constantly thinking about what she would do, how she dresses, her styling, etc. I see myself striving to be like her, I could never be at the same level she is at, but I am inspired by her. She’s humble and involved on an international level. I aspire to follow in her philanthropic footsteps. She’s also an amazing actor and has such versatility in her roles. She’s not afraid to be the “ugly girl” and doesn’t only go after parts where she gets to be beautiful on screen.
Do you hope to break into mainstream entertainment?
There’s always a desire to make it mainstream and I think it’s slowly changing where mainstream films and sitcoms feature more Indian actors. If the opportunity presents itself, I would love to pursue mainstream productions. I find myself drawn to roles where I get to be beautiful and feminine, but I do want to experience the flip side where I can push myself out of my comfort level.
If you could write yourself into any TV show, which one would it be?
I love Lost. I’d write myself into that show…or Gossip Girl. I don’t really watch a lot of TV. I’m behind the times with most television series, but maybe even a show about jail like Prison Break or Breaking Bad.
You’ve participated in a lot of pageants. How have you benefited from this experience?
The preparation for a pageant is intense, from presentation, etiquette, public speaking, etc. You’re trained to carry yourself conservatively, shape your body and prepare yourself mentally. Pageants mould you and prepare you for bigger roles, and are great for women not only hoping to break into the entertainment industry, but for any woman wanting to take herself to the next level.
There was a lot of buzz surrounding the crowning of Nina Davuluri as Miss America. What are your thoughts on a woman of Indian heritage being crowned as Miss America, and the reaction that she faced over social media?
I think it’s great that Nina Davuluri won Miss America. She’s really risen above the negative comments, and has been so graceful. She has received support from all over the world, and from within the US. It’s important to remember that there is such a small margin of individuals that reacted negatively. I don’t think that the naysayers are narrow-minded, they’re ignorant. The critics don’t understand geography and are ignorant on where India is. Some people don’t want to challenge their perceptions or stereotypes, but this changes and evolves constantly.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
Professionally, I want to continue working as hard as I am now, and further myself. I’m really at the peak of my career right now and want to see how far I can take my acting career. Of course I want to eventually settle down and start a family, but that’s not something I’m focusing on right now. I’d also like to continue working on philanthropic efforts, with a focus on women’s issues both locally and internationally.
Hair, makeup and images by Farah Hasan