Meneka Das was born in India, but moved to London to follow her dream of music, theatre & films. Most recently her career reached a new peak, with a starring-role in the incredible multiple BAFTA & Oscar award-winning film, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, as the mother of Freddie Mercury, front-man of ‘Queen’.
Her four-hour physical transformation to take on the role of Freddie’s mother in the emotive biopic was just fascinating. Even the staff at the film premiere couldn’t recognise her and wouldn’t believe her when she said she was the actress who played the star’s mother.
In this interview, Meneka shares more about her TV and acting work, including the extraordinary experiences in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. But having added some new lifetime experiences working with the 2019 Oscar winning actor and BAFTA ‘Leading Actor’, Rami Malek, she also opens up to share broader issues of importance; her strong belief in female empowerment and a real insight into new projects, this time as a film director.
Meneka, can you tell us about your acting beginnings?
I was born in a little village in Northern India and then moved to London to pursue my dream of working in music, theatre & films. My passion for stories with strong female voices, especially those that reflect my own culture inspired me to turn to writing and directing, to help bring them to reality on screen.
What are your best projects to date?
I worked with David Yates in the Emmy award-winning film, “Girl in the Cafe”, starring Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald and with Mike Leigh in “Another Year”. I also had a role as Dr Alysha Shah, a regular in the Scottish TV Drama “River City”. On stage I played Amina in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children for the RSC, directed by Tim Supple and Melly Still, which took me to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in New York.
Can you tell us more about your role in “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
As an actor I use a mix of acting approaches and the method training part of me wanted to connect to Rami and get a real sense of him as my son, so I asked if there was a chance of meeting him. I remember making my way to the rehearsal stage, where Rami and the rest of the actors were rehearsing. He was in the middle of his song but he stopped and came over to hug me and I said: ‘hello son’ and that was it. Once I had the role then the next journey was getting to know Jer Bulsara’s character and become her. It was eight years since I’d been on screen and I really wanted to do her justice. I did research on the internet about her and travelled to Mumbai to visit the Parsi community; in the end all that it came down to was a mother who completely doted on her son and that was the essence of what I played.
I am also grateful to the sessions I had with my acting coach, Anthony Greene, trained in the Ivana Chhubuck technique. The first thing was taking care of my physical transformation. The test of sitting through a four-hour make-up transformation was quite a deal, especially with a pick-up time of 3am. I shall say no more – acting is fun but it needs a lot of discipline and physical fitness too. Everyone was so giving and Dexter Fletcher was wonderful to work with. I knew he was an actor/director much like myself but he helped create a relaxed atmosphere that just made the whole experience so comfortable that we all could work so much easier together. The one thing I have to add which still gives me goosebumps is, one minute I was serving coffee in a cafe and next I was working with the best of talent making such an iconic film!
What kind of response did you get from people through playing the role?
The audience seemed to accept me for actually being the appropriate age, so I think I must have done something right. It’s such a coincidence that only a few days ago my agent asked me who I admire and I said Mindy Kaling, as she does a lot more than just acting, but she doesn’t know me yet. Then, shortly after, a friend forwarded me the tweet Mindy wrote about her favourite emotional moment in the film being when Freddie blew a kiss to his ‘little proud Indian mom’, and I thought she does know of me, even if it’s as Freddie Mercury’sproudIndian mum in the film!
Even at the premiere at Wembley, the funny thing was I went as myself and nobody recognised me. I even had to explain myself again to even get into the after-party. I would tell people I was in the film and they would ask, ‘what role did you play’? His mother, I replied.
“During conversations where people were talking about BoRap, I would join in and at the end, say, ‘so did you see me – I played his mum’ and then there is a silent moment where they are just incredulous and find it so hard to believe me. “
I quite enjoyed that. It takes me back to my childhood where I would usurp myself and do sketches to entertain people, I guess that’s one thing that acting does offer – keeping the child within me alive.
Do you have any interesting film projects coming up?
Currently I am developing a feature script “Summer Hill”, with the BFI. The film tells a story of two offbeat Indian sisters who journey to London to make their mark on the capital’s music scene. The script has already won the BAFTA Rocliffe writing forum and was selected for Tribeca All Access.
There has never been a time like now for diverse stories to be told and more than anything I want to share my own. It is my love letter to the city of London, where I journeyed to follow my dreams of music and films with my sister from our humble little origins in North India.
This initial inspiration gave me the freedom to distill an emotional truth of my own experience and fictionalise it into a metaphorical narrative. Last year I got on the prestigious ‘Women in Film and TV’ mentoring scheme and got an amazing mentor, writer/director Miranda Bowen, who won the BIFA for her debut feature ‘Gozo’ and recently directed “The Last Post”, for BBC 1.
Most recently I have been doing the first pilot directing course with Peter Sollett at Sundance Collab.
I am in the process of meeting collaborators and talent who would be willing to come on the ‘Summer Hill’ journey with me. We have a producer onboard from India and now I need to connect with the right producer from London who really gets the story and has a vision to help take it to the next level.
To quote Mindy Kaling again, “Talent is an important part of success, but you also need mentors to find promise in people that don’t necessarily seem like they will fit in…. particularly if you’re a woman of colour, you really need people to give you opportunities”
My mother was a great role-model, always standing up for the empowerment of the underdog, especially women. Our house was always filled with women who she would help and support. At one time in her career she was in charge of a jail with women who had killed their husbands due to domestic violence. She would tell me that you can’t choose where you are born, but ‘know your why’ and then follow it through, no matter what. And that’s what I want to do – inspire a never-giving-up spirit in my own life and through the stories I choose to tell.