“The Mysterious Benedict Society is the perfect show for this time,” says actor Gia Sandhu. Set to play the warm-hearted teacher, Ms Perumal, in the Disney+ series that has been adapted from the popular young adult quartet of books of the same name, she is all-smiles for a video call with The Hindu.
The Canadian actor is well aware that with the ongoing pandemic, the world is running high on anxiety and low on empathy. The series follows four orphans with no magical powers but rather heightened senses of empathy, intellect – superpowers that are very human. They are brought to Mr Benedict (Tony Hale) who tasks them with finding the source of an unexplained global disaster.
Sandhu shares that she signed onto the series before COVID-19 changed the world. She adds, “In retrospect, I am so fortunate to be part of something light-hearted and funny. This was the perfect project to spend six months on to keep my sanity.”
She is no stranger to the industry, with acting credits across titles such as A Simple Favor, Nikita, Kim’s Convenience and The Indian Detective. In fact, after graduating from the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS) in Montreal, Canada, she landed her first feature film The Moth Diaries with director Mary Harron, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2011. She also co-starred in Beeba Boys, spearheaded by Academy Award-nominated director Deepa Mehta, which premiered as a Gala film at TIFF in 2015.
Sandhu feels the next step in her career comes at the right time with The Mysterious Benedict Society.
“I don’t take it lightly that this is a book that has shaped so many people’s childhoods. The show didn’t take that lightly at all, either. Everything created has been inspired by extraordinary characters and story, as well as the vibrant aesthetic of this world in which children will get immersed in. I feel grateful to play a character that exudes all qualities that you want children to look up to.”
Ms Perumal is a far cry from the stereotypical Indian educator, and Sandhu, who was partly educated in India before her family relocated to Canada, says she is well aware of this. She, however, points out that Ms Perumal reminds her of a combination of two teachers she had in Canada across Grades 7 and 8, and that “this is what drew me to her,” she recollects, “They encouraged me and ultimately changed things for me at a pivotal moment in my life. At this point in one’s life, you’re just trying to figure yourself out and who you want to be.”
On whether audiences will see more of Ms Perumal’s arc, Sandhu ruminates, “The first season is brilliant in that she surprises herself in how much she realises she cares for Reynard. She depends on him a lot more than she expects in the beginning. This is articulated beautifully and I hope to see a lot of that – perhaps archetypal – relationship bloom, as she is a mother figure.”
Unlike many books-to-screen adaptations where a role is evolved for diversity’s sake, Ms Perumal is fully Indian. At this, Sandhu agrees that things are changing for Indian actors and storytellers, stating, “When I came on the scene, there was never a role like this. We were all playing side characters, like the nurse or secretary in the background. To have a person of Indian descent at the forefront who is so wonderful and has a warming bond with the lead is a testament that we are going in the right direction.”
In the pilot episode ‘A Bunch Of Smart Orphans’, Ms Perumal shows Reynard (Mystic Inscho) an advertisement in the paper for an entrance exam to a prestigious academy. As Reynard’s teacher, she hopes this will be the break the intelligent boy needs to fulfil his potential. In the scene, she speaks of Reynard’s reading aptitude, “Inge intha noolagathile irukum ella puthakangalayum vaseechirukeengala?” (Have you read every book in this library?) to which Reynard responds that the library is too small for his liking.
“I don’t speak Tamil,” she laughs, recalling that very scene, “so it was very hard for me to learn it. I learned that the root of Tamil isn’t Sanskrit (it is Dravidian), unlike a lot of languages in India. It was tricky because I initially assumed it wouldn’t be such a challenge; my adult brain is not as quick as Mystic’s child brain, so he was able to pick it up a lot quicker. But that is a very touching moment between the two characters of her sharing something personal to her with him.”
Children as co-stars
Though we may not see much of Ms Perumal, Sandhu has grown close with Inscho and has high praise for the young actor. “The way he comes across in the show is so endearing and genuine, and that’s exactly who he is in person. He sings, dances, is athletic – he’s really the full package!”
Having worked with a diverse young cast, Sandhu wishes for everyone to work with children at least once in their lives. “It keeps you on your toes,” she laughs, “and children are so present. As adult actors, our minds wander thinking about something else while trying to remember a line but children are 100% there all the time.”
Working with the young actors, did Sandhu see herself in any of the young heroic characters? “It’s a mix of the stubbornness from Constance and the occasional insecurity of Reynard,” she responds.
Sandhu lights up at the mention of her co-star Tony Hale. She sums up her impression of the actor-comedian by the Christmas gift he gave the entire cast: T-shirts with the word ‘kindness’ across the front in a superhero font, as a celebration of the series. “That’s his superhero trait,” she says.
The Mysterious Benedict Society aside, does Sandhu have her eye on more Indian projects? “There’s so much amazing independent work coming out of India, and so many bold series such as Sacred Games which had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.”
The Mysterious Benedict Society is streaming on Disney+Hotstar Premium from June 25