The minute Emily Shah came across Jungle Cry — a riveting story based on the experiences of a ragtag team of rugby players from the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences in India, who went on to secure a historic win in the 2007 International Junior Rugby Tournament in London — she knew “it was a story that needed to be told.” She also noticed that nowhere in the story, oddly, was there a woman. So, she decided to create one.

“Most sports physiotherapists, especially in the Rugby field, are women. It was just kind of natural to have a sports physiotherapist and also make her female and on top of that, have her be Indian,” she explains the origins of her character in the movie, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. “We came up with her story and how she would mesh with the boys and how the boys would have an impact on her life, especially with her camaraderie with [co-star] Abhay Deol.”

Born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey, Shah’s childhood was an intensive study in multicultural arts and crafts. From her father, Prashant Shah — a famed Bollywood producer and director — she inherited an intense love for acting and production, which she augmented over the years through music and dance and, eventually, modelling. Though she’s spent the past couple of years in front of the camera, much of her groundwork lies in production, assisting on movies such as Fast and Furious 7 and Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys.

Recalling that experience, she describes it as a necessary rite of passage that schooled her both in art and life. “When you work in production, you gain a whole other level of respect for people who work behind the camera. I've seen actors ... treat people on production with a level of respect or lack thereof. I think when you become a successful actor it is so important to treat everyone on set equally.”

Beyond that, though, it’s her production background that gives her a 360 degree outlook on her job: “I have a better idea of what I need or don't need, and the job gets done a lot faster. I think that has helped me in so many different ways.”

As Jungle Cry his theaters this summer, PopCrush caught up with Shah to chat about her role in the movie, her transition to Bollywood and her dreams of a truly global brand of cinema.

There’s always artistic license involved when working on stories like Jungle Cry. How did you ensure that the new character didn’t take away from the story or burden it in any way?

It was essential for her to have power as a woman in the sports industry and in a field that is so male-driven. The director [Sagar Ballary] had asked me initially: "Do you think Roshni Thakkar should have a relationship with the coach?" And I immediately said: "No." That was my first instinct. I knew that the story wasn't about that. It wasn't about the coach; it wasn't about the school where they came from. It wasn't about Roshni. It was about the boys and their journey and the obstacles they faced. When we made the character, we thought: "How can she be important to them, and how can they be important to her?"

I think it's important for any sports film to have a female element, so every single person in the audience can connect to it. It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, male, female — there is someone in the story that everyone can relate to.

Courtesy of Russell Baer
Courtesy of Russell Baer

Jungle Cry is a very important story to a lot of people. When bringing something like that to the screen, how do you, as an actor, make sure that what's on the screen does justice to what's in real life?

The most important thing is to actually talk to every single person that was a part of the film. We spoke to each and every one of them; we got all of their stories together collectively, and when we wrote the script, we gave them the script to read. It was important for us to have their blessings before we even started the film.

I think it's very important when you're doing a true story to respect everyone's wishes. At the end of the day, it's hard to make everyone happy but you try to do it to the best of your ability, and still keep that sense of entertainment in your mind. We did our due diligence with all of that, I think.

You eventually plan to take over your father's company, and you’ve previously expressed a desire to bring a more global perspective. What kind of stories would you like to tell?

When you look at films across the board in today's day and age there are so many different types of entertainment on so many different platforms. It's very easy to be overwhelmed or be lost in that, so the most important thing for me, when it comes to content, is that anyone who sees it can relate to it. That's the type of element that I want to bring. The inclusivity, not just “I'm only going to hire Indian actors, or I'm only going to work with brown actors.” That's not a goal of mine: it should be everyone, from every part of the world. That is a dream of mine: to work with actors all over. If I can get a little bit of the gust of every single place, I think you could make brilliant cinema: every culture has so much flavor and so much value in what they do. If you can take the best of everything, you can create the magic.

As a general observation, movies that have a struggle at the center of the subject matter sometimes have a savior complex. When you were working on Jungle Cry, how did you ensure that it did not fall into the same patterns, that it did not have a savior complex?

I think when you're doing any type of project with an ensemble cast, it's a challenge to not make one person that figure. With our cast, I think everyone was highlighted in such easy format that there wasn't one savior. The story was for the boys and [about] the boys, even with such a huge name as Abhay Deol. He did such a brilliant job. He took the time to understand what the story was and wasn't selfish about his time on screen or his importance in that aspect of being the savior. I think you have to have actors who understand where they stand and not be selfish with the story, who really comprehend the message at the core.

You grew up as a child of two cultures. Did you ever have a dual identity crisis?

No, I think my family have done such a good job of teaching me where I come from on both ends. The best thing about my parents is that they embrace each other. My father has gone to church with my mother, and my mother has come to the temple. She's embraced Indian culture so much that she'll crave Gujrati food! [Laughs]

So, growing up with that — to see my parents being so open and supportive with each other — they never put pressure on me to pick a side or pick an identity. They let me embrace both cultures and both sides. I decided on what I value and what I believe in and things that I appreciate. It just made me who I am. I never really had an identity crisis or trying to fit in: I was who I was, and I was able to relate to so many different people from different backgrounds. I think it's a beautiful thing, what my parents have done.

Is there any advice your dad gave you before you dove into acting?

Ah, he's given me so much. One of the things that really stuck with me is that he told me to be patient. I like to get things done right away, and I get frustrated when people don't understand me, or I don't understand them. My father definitely taught me ways to talk to different people.

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