International Women's Day: Meet Kerala-born Canadian actress Suleka Mathew

Anand Prince

6 min read
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Suleka Mathew (Photo: Colin Stark) - Suleka on the banks of river Pamba, during her visit to Kerala (Photo: Liz)

Kerala-born Canadian actress Suleka Mathew has already completed 30 years in her field. She has acted in numerous tv shows and some wonderful independent films. Suleka got wide recognition for her lead role in Sundance Festival hit movie Touch of Pink, released in 2004. She played Dr. Sunny Raman's role in the award-winning Canadian dramatic series, Da Vinci's Inquest. This Kerala-born woman also has the interesting accolade of being cast as a series lead regularly on five different series.

Though she was born in Kerala, she was raised in Canada. At present, she resides in Los Angeles, USA. Interestingly, in her 2022 movie 'That's Amor' she had the character name Kerala, which left many Malayalis curious.

Mathrubhumi English caught up with Suleka as part of International Women's Day. Excerpts from the interview.

1. Can you briefly explain your Kerala roots? Do you follow Malayalam?

I was in fact, born in Maramon, Pathanamthitta, where my very large extended family is from. I have been back to India half a dozen times, it is one of my favorite places on earth. Time just hasn’t afforded me the luxury of longer stays in the homeland. Thankfully, there is the magic of the world wide web, so it's lovely to be able to at least hear it over Zoom calls with my aunts and uncles.

I wish I spoke better Malayalam! I am fascinated by languages and having studied a bit of French and Spanish as well, I think the only way to be fluent in any language is to be immersed in it for a spell. No one ever believes that there are over 114 languages in India and that despite the fact that Malayalam is one of the original languages, it is still not widely known.

Truth is, I understand Malayalam far better than I speak it, but even then, like every language, it's so dialectically specific. My sisters and I argue about who speaks Malayalam the best. Truthfully, it is definitely not me. Njaan kurachu samsaarikkunnu, pakshe athrayeyullu!

So, most recently I got to play the role of a magic healer named Arjun on Anne Rice’s TV show Mayfair Witches. Esta Spalding, the showrunner, asked me to speak a few words in Malayalam as part of Arjuna’s healing spell. Thankfully, my friend Mani Pulimood gave me the true words. By the way, Google Translate doesn’t understand the nuances of our language. I prefer to take help from people around me.

2. In the movie That's Amor, your character's name is Kerala. Why was it named so? Is there any interesting story behind it?

That’s a fun story. My friends, John Ducey, and his wife, Christine Moore, wrote and produced that lovely little movie. They asked me to play John’s character Frank’s wife, Carol. We all agreed that I really don’t look like Carol. So they asked me what I would like to be called. In the history of my career, this was only the second time I was allowed to choose my character name. We chose Kerala. Because maybe one shouldn’t ever forget where one comes from!

3. Do you watch Malayalam movies? Can we expect your entry to Malayalam productions soon?

I can barely keep up with the movies produced here. I am wide open to any chances and I hear Malayalam films are amongst the finest. I keep hoping a project takes me to Kerala, so I am crossing my fingers that it will happen one day.

4. You have been in the film/ entertainment industry for three decades. Can you give some reflections based on your experience?

The beauty of having stuck with this childhood dream is that I’ve seen profound changes. Some are not so great, yet some are really inspiring and I’m grateful to bear witness. These days, there are so many more women involved in the upper levels of storytelling: more writers, producers, and directors. I am happy to see more diversity in what we see: to represent the world as it really is. Honestly, it only makes sense to represent all demographics not just for economic and philosophic reasons, but for the richness of so many world views.

Suleka Mathew (Photo: Colin Stark))

We are also living in a time in which in North America alone there are upwards of 500 scripted shows. When I started, there were two channels in Canada, and 4 in the United States. We can now watch shows from all over the globe.

I’m proud to be a part of the entertainment industry because, during the lockdown, it struck me that the talk was really all about “What are you watching? Reading? Listening to?”. It made me understand how deeply we need the arts, and how it doesn’t serve anyone to treat it as frivolous. It matters, telling stories.

Coming to my personal career, it always seems like the choices Indian kids are given for careers: doctor, lawyer, engineer, seem to be mostly what I get cast for!

5. Your Instagram handle has Mahatma Gandhi's photo. Are you fond of Gandhi? Do you follow political developments in Kerala or India?

Humanity owes the Mahatma our gratitude, not just India. Non-violent civil protest is one of the most powerful ways to stand up for what we believe in. He stood for women’s equality and equality all around. Martin Luther King called him his Guiding Light. These are thought leaders who make all of us think of the possibility of a level playing field - and these days, how dearly do we still need to come to peace with class, caste, color and creed?

Lastly, Gandhi's focus on simplicity is inspiring. We all want the same things: safety, kindness, not going hungry and a better world for our children. So leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and President Jimmy Carter, I admire them for walking their talk and for leadership by example.

I am fortunate to feel deeply connected to the three countries that formed me--India, Canada, and the United States. As a new American citizen, I am learning the history and politics of this democracy so I find it hard to keep up with the others.

6. Your thoughts on International Women's Day, feminism.

Part of the legacy of coming from Kerala is it remains the state with the highest literacy rate. How that translated in my life is that there was a very big emphasis on knowledge, skills, on learning. My mother was a librarian, so reading was a very big part of my sisters' and my upbringing and remains so today. I too have been lucky to have a career that I love, and that also really fostered curiosity in many different worlds.

I think my only way to honor the Suffragettes (women activists) is to keep cultivating that curiosity in all possible ways: To find ways to gain knowledge, to have uncomfortable conversations, to remain open-minded and willing to weigh differing opinions. To celebrate the inherent strength, capability, capacity to love, influence and intuition of women. To vote.

I would also like to quote Gandhi who said, “To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man's injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then, indeed, is woman less brute than man…Without her, man could not be. If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with woman. Who can make a more effective appeal to the heart than woman?”

7. Your present residence, key people in your life. Your dreams, interests, or anything like that.

I am fortunate to be living in Los Angeles. Some days, the wind hits a certain way, and the smell of the jasmine, the petrol, with the beating sun - you get a sense of Kerala.

I have a lovely family, I have amazing friends, I weight train and hike, and try to explore new interests (I love the University of Youtube!). I still try to study some aspects of acting even after all these years. Last year I was learning audio recording. I do love my gardens, and now that the pandemic is easing up, I am keen to jump on a plane /train and get out into that big world. I dream of getting another dog.

In the meantime, I have returned to an old love, calligraphy. When I feel that I have a good handle on copperplate lettering for my card company, I really want to take a crack at learning the Malayalam alphabet. It's so pretty! It almost looks like tiny elephants at play. And let's call it for what it is, Suleka means good writing, so I best get on with it.

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