For a long time, Sharon Johal’s dreams to become an actor were buried beneath the weight of her parents’ opposition. Now she is a rising star.
Sharon Johal is on top of the moon. After all she has just made history becoming the first Australian Indian/Punjabi actor to bag a permanent role in the iconic mainstream television series Neighbours. Since April, Johal has been appearing on the show playing the character of Dipi, a woman she says is after her own heart, “warm and loving but also fierce and strong”.
Over a cup of coffee at the office of The Indian Weekly, Johal says this has been a dream come true. She didn’t have the foresight to see it coming but she had the drive, persistence and hard work to make it happen. It took Johal about ten years to realise her dream which was: to be a part of either Neighbours or Home And Away. And it has been a wait fraught with discouragement and barriers.
Johal was born in Australia to Indian Punjabi parents who migrated when they were in their 20s. But the family had already established a sense of affinity with Australia as Johal’s grandfather came to Australia in the pre 1970s. “He would make periodic visits, take part in the sugarcane plantation and cutting, then go back to Punjab and live very well.” When Johal’s parents finally moved here, they started life in Wakerley, in rural South Australia.
Growing up in a predominantly white town (they were perhaps the only Indian family at one point of time), her parents kept alive their nostalgia of India playing Bollywood movies and at the same teaching the children all about Sikhism and Punjabi. Not only that, at the age of 15 Johal and her other two siblings were bundled off for a few months to the famous Akal Academy Baru Sahib, a boarding school in Himachal Pradesh. But it did a world of good. “Sometimes you are born into a religion and you don’t choose it, which is what it was but when I stayed there I actively chose Sikhism. I thought this is where I am supposed to be, I love this faith and I am going to practice and use this for my everyday life. The school changed me that way and it actually shaped me,” reflects Johal.
Her parents also wanted them to pursue laudable careers – become a dentist, doctor or engineer. But Johal’s contrarian streak showed from a young age. “I always wanted to be an actor from when I was young. I was always the loud one, always putting on shows, always making home videos with the dogs and just entertaining everyone. My parents, while they were very social and not strict in that sense, didn’t want me to become an actor because they saw it as a shameful profession at the time.”
The other worry that she senses her father had then was the fact that he saw no future in her dreams. “There were no shows in Australia that had Indian girls. So that means I had to go to Mumbai, India. Everyone knows what that lifestyle is about. So they were trying to steer me off that. They said I had to study.”
To keep her parents happy, Johal who had the smarts for studies took up law degree after dabbling in dentistry. “I couldn’t spend my whole life looking at people’s mouths,” she laughs. So she took up a law degree in Adelaide, the city her parents eventually moved to. While studying law, she would secretly take out time to study acting. But this did not escape the protective eyes of her mother, who one day followed her to her acting class and in front of everyone told her, “You can’t do this”. The more her parents opposed, the more her determination grew. Johal made it a point to finish her degree early so she was free to learn more acting while working.
After working at a few law firms in Adelaide she moved to Melbourne, which seemed the best thing to happen as her main focus and goal to become an actor remained. Away from the prying eyes of her parents, she attended acting classes three times a week at the prestigious Howard Fine Acting Studio while working full time as a lawyer. “I wanted to make sure I had the skill as I was just waiting for the opportunity to come.”
In the meantime having signed up for an agency, she got plenty of modelling assignments for big brands such Holden and Target, to name a few. But they were not acting jobs. “All I ever dreamt of was a full time job on a show. I always wanted to work on Neighbours or Home and Away (the latter I thought was unlikely but at least Neighbours had an Indian family casted). So maybe, maybe. I kept trying.”
Johal knew very well that there hasn’t been opportunity for Indian actors on mainstream shows. “The difficulty that comes as an Indian actor in Australia is that since there aren’t many opportunities, you have to either move to India or America or the UK. I could have done it but my parents were dead against it. They were like ‘you are just going to waste your money, you are not going to get the job’.”
But she did have a taste of Mumbai in 2012 when she got selected for SBS show Bollywood Star, a four-part series that gives ordinary Australians the chance to win a life-changing prize: a role in a Bollywood movie. Johal, who had initially gone to support a friend at the audition, was surprised when she was actually asked by one of the producers to take part in the auditions. “Typically I wasn’t really interested in Bollywood because my parents have steered me away from it. But when I was told that SBS was behind it and it was like a documentary, I got interested.” To cut a long story short, Johal was one of the six contestants that landed in Mumbai. And fortunately for Johal, she had supportive workers at her law firm who allowed her time to take part in the show.
But if there is anything she learnt from that experience it is the fact that Mumbai is not where she would like to live. “It was an eye opener. I got to see what life I would live there or what it was like politically. You got to have meetings with people at strange hours of the night. I have got a lot of pride and integrity, something my parents have instilled in me,” she says, adding, “I didn’t mind that I didn’t win, I was happy for Teigan Lloyd-Evan who won. But in the end the film didn’t go ahead anyway. That’s the other thing; it doesn’t go all according to plan in India whereas in Australia everything is scheduled and professional and based on merit.”
Next, Johal came close to bagging lead roles in Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean. “I auditioned for both the movies and I got up until the end with another person. In the end they chose the American actress who had more credits and I didn’t have Instagram or Twitter followers. It’s ridiculous. It was so close and I was like my life is going to change, you can taste it and when I didn’t get it I tasted rejection.”
Nothing in Johal’s life has come easy. “Everything has been a struggle up to this point. I think that’s for a reason as well. It’s funny. I was trying so hard for 10 years and then I gave myself a time frame which was the end of last year.”
Her time frame having elapsed, Johal gave up and planned on getting married to her fiancé this September and work her way up the law firm, when she got a call from her agent saying they wanted her to audition for Neighbours. After rounds and rounds of auditions and interviews that spanned weeks, Johal got the phone call that she was waiting for all her life. “They finally said ‘you’ve got the job, you have to be in Melbourne, here are all your scripts starting on this date’. I didn’t scream, I wasn’t in shock, it was a relief. Finally I made it after all these years. After giving up.”
Johal now has a three-year contract with this very popular TV show. She couldn’t have been in more privileged position as she has a secure job to fall back on. “That never happens in the acting world, you get a like a little guest role and then you don’t know if you are going to get something else.”
The other benefit of her three-year contract with Neighbours is also the training that comes with doing five shows a week. The money is also good, she laughs. “It is great money, better money than being a lawyer. But money was not even the thing. I would have done it for nothing because I just wanted the experience.”
Since having come alive on the small screen in April, Johal has had positive feedbacks. She plays Dipi who is married to a Caucasian man. “It’s the first interracial marriage on Australian TV on a long running show like this even though it’s so common in society. So we are not just the Indian family, we are the integrated Indian family. I have been able to play a character that depicts warmth and love and trying to help everyone, I am not a massive gossip but I am funny and I have a good relationship with my husband.”
Asked if acting comes naturally to her, Johal says, “I definitely have a natural ability for sure but even if you learn and learn, you still need to put some sort efforts.” She feels blessed working with an amazing team and a set of directors “who take you under their wings. Everybody is patient with you, they know you are new, they don’t judge your acting ability, you feel confident and secure to be able to play – which is the best thing. I couldn’t ask for a better workplace.”
Finally, Johal has set up her Instagram account. “I suppose I have a bit of a love hate relationship with social media. You don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it but in this job I have to be active because a lot of people are. My mom is on Facebook more than I am and she advertises me to everyone as much as she can,” laughs Johal.
And now she is finding it hilarious that she is slowly being recognised at places. “I was not seeking fame. It happens as a by-product, naturally. Every time I have been out I have been recognised, I didn’t think it would happen to me because I look so different off stage. But people recognise me and they are like ‘OMG it’s Dipi’ and everyone wants a photo. It’s so nice but it’s so strange because I am nothing special, I am just me. Hopefully I never become too big for my boots. I am very down to earth, I feel weird that you think I am special and want to take a photo with me. But that’s the weird part of it I suppose.”
Most importantly, she hopes her coming into the show will open the doors for other Indians because it is a mainstream program on a mainstream channel. “My goal at the end of the day is to inspire people to do things that they want in life, to follow their dreams by working hard. I couldn’t have had more barriers to be honest; I grew up with strict Punjabi Sikh parents who didn’t want me to act. When I won one of these modelling pageants in the past, the community was not very supportive, everything was against me and you would have never thought I would have got into this point.
“And I have already been told by young Indian girls as well that they are inspired. I truly think that if I can do it, anyone can. You just have to work hard, keep trying and something will happen. If it doesn’t happen, the journey of trying to get there will put you on a path to something you love anyway. I am so happy I am seeing the diversity on screen happening in my lifetime. We are behind Canada, the UK and even New Zealand, but now it’s cottoning on. The fact that they are looking for any ethnicity for the casting is great, that didn’t happen when I started.”
Although Johal never had the support of her parents, they have now embraced what’s happened and couldn’t be prouder. The times they are a changing!
By Indira Laisram