Joya Kazi’s work on Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ helps blend Indian and American cultures

Joya Kazi

Ritu Jha-

Born in Mumbai, dancer Joya Kazi came to the US just two weeks short of her first birthday. These days she lives in Hollywood and has choreographed dance in “Never Have I Ever,” an ongoing Netflix 10-episode comedy-drama produced by Indian-American Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher.

Though many won’t recognize her by name during the Ganesh puja dance, but viewers will certainly notice a tall girl dancing in the middle garbed in Indian golden langha and long hair.

Yes, that girl is Joya. She was excited not just about helping choreograph the Bollywood dance but she also decided what the artists wore and was offered to be the main dance, named Preeti in the scene in “Never Have I Ever.”

Joya Kazi
Choreographer Joya Kazi, in the middle garbed in golden langha.

The comedy-drama is getting mixed reviews from the Indian-American migrant community in the US and Indians living across the world. The television show features a typical Indian American family and the community’s love for their culture, higher education, and the inner quest of desi girls – life between two cultures.

If you talk to Joya, she has her own dream –  a quest to promote the Indian culture and dance to the mainstream.

GROWING UP

Joya, 31, who is a dream chaser, sharing on how she landed in Hollywood, not into an IT or medical profession told indica she grew up listening to and dancing to the tunes of Michael Jackson songs and videos.

At the age of three when infants watch Tom and Jerry, she used to watch Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White.”

A huge fan of Jackson, her mom used to wake her up from a nap to be able to watch Michael Jackson on TV.

Joya Kazi
Two-year-old Joya Kazi with her mother Papiha Nandy.

“My mom used to play, and I would love it, so he became my first crush and even wanted to marry him, when grownup,” she said with a laugh. “I thought if I could dance like the Odissi dancer in “Black Or White” music video, he would marry me.”

Joya, who says she was lucky to grow up in an Indian family, said her mother was not aware of why she loved to dance, but she saw the talent, the passion, and now her career. So, she enrolled her in Indian classical dance classes to learn the basics first.

“My mom told me that I wasn’t allowed to do any dance but Indian classical dance until I was 16,” said Joya, who is equally talented and comfortable tapping her feet to both hip-hop and Bollywood dances.

AN ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER

Joya said many people believe dancing on the tunes of Hindi Bollywood songs are what we call the dance, but dance means you need to have a very strong foundation.

Recalling there weren’t many classical dance teachers in ’90s, in the San Francisco Bay Area, she said her mother had to drive two hours to the dance school and today she knows Kathak, Odissi and Bharatnatyam dances which provide a strong foundation and authenticity in her Indian and Bollywood dance which has helped her gain international recognition.

Joya Kazi
Joya Kazi

Joya’s career has featured her in a variety of roles. She has appeared in projects spanning Hollywood to India, such as “New Girl” (Fox), “Dance Deewane” (Colors TV) and “Dance Plus” (Star Plus). She’s also done commercials for Walmart, Hyundai, Radio Shack and Wow Skin Science and been in music videos for  “A Different Way” by DJ Snake featuring Lauv, Raja Kumari’s “I Did It.” The Strokes “Threat of Joy.” And she can be seen in Indian feature films “I am Singh,” “Na Peru Surya Na Illa India.”

THE EARLY DAYS

“I started becoming more serious about dancing, and when I was 12-year-old, I knew I am professionally going to pursue it,” said Joya, who, at sixteen, started choreographing professionally and opened a dance school.

Nine years ago she moved to Los Angeles and presently owns and runs Joya Kazi Unlimited in Los Angeles, where the academy aims to educate, motivate, and inspire students to achieve at higher levels in dance ranging from Indian, classical, and jazz to hip-hop and contemporary.

Joya Kazi
Eight-year-old Joya Kazi blessed by her Odissi dance teacher Guru Kelucharan Mohapatro.

Recalling that her high school friends on getting their driver licenses would love to go to the mall. But instead, she spent weekends making fliers and going to all the local stores and libraries to find students for her dance class.

When asked if she found any students, she replied “Yes.” And began teaching various dancers every weekend until she went to college.

But then she got into college. Joya has earned a double major in Political Science and Theatre & Dance with an emphasis in Choreography & Production Management with a minor in Managerial Economics at the University of California, Davis.

UC Davis in 2006, Joya was the founder of Toofan, the university’s very first competitive Hindi Film Dance Team.

A SUPPORTIVE FAMILY

With a pause, she says, “I want to be a creator, and I feel like I can have a look at the longevity of my dance career as a creator. I feel like I have…you know, something natural within me that I’ve been blessed with where I can really just imagine the movements, the choreography, the costuming, the entire production just in my thoughts.”

She was 12 when she told the same to her parents and that she was going to be a choreographer. “They kind of…surprised and said, ‘OK, so you don’t want to go to a medical school.’ I said, ‘No, I want to do this.”

Her parents told her that whatever she wanted to do to be sure put her mind to it and give 100% to her career and life.

“I really wanted to show my parents I don’t have to depend on someone else if I’m just an artist. And my mom raised us to be very independent,” Joya said.

Joya-KaziJoya says her mother was always by her side, even when she was struggling to keep her dance academy’s name.

Joya considered a different name, but her mom said, “You know, you don’t want to limit yourself to what you can achieve in the next 50 years, you know, So, keep it unlimited… Joya Kazi Unlimited is the best way to go.”

When asked who she would credit for what she is today, said that it’s her mother.

“I always give my thank to my audience, my Mother Earth, my gurus, but most importantly, I give credit to my mom, because when she saw that this is something that I’m so focused on and it’s not just like a passing hobby, and I really want to pursue it,” said Joya, adding further that she still remembers when she was four-and-a-half years old and her sister was three or four months old, and her mom would wake up at 5 a.m., get her and her baby sister ready and drive to Odissi dance classes.

“She (mom) would wait in the van with an infant baby sister, breastfeed her, and wait for me for three hours, Joya said.

CHALLENGES

When asked about the challenges she’s gone through, she said it has definitely been an interesting path because she comes from a time period when there were no social media. “And it wasn’t cool to be an artist and a dancer like these days. You can just make an Instagram account, and in 15 seconds Instagram videos, you’re a professional dancer.”

“I come from a time where it was all about technique, experience, credit, and knowledge, where your qualifications are not captured in 15 seconds,”  she said. “Also being a dancer was not widely accepted among the Indian community, I remember very clearly, we had gone to a community event, and there was another uncle who scolded my mom, telling her she is ruining me… by allowing me to become a choreographer and lead my life in the arts and entertainment industry.”

Adding further she said that even in the community people don’t respect her career choice. “So, I really just had to take it upon myself the type of person that I want to see because I didn’t have anyone, that I could look up to in our community, so I have to create a path of my own.”

Sharing on how she landed in Hollywood, Joya said by the time she was 18 years old she was financially independent because she was teaching dance classes, and during her studies, at UC Davis she would fly to Los Angeles for an audition.

“I really worked hard to put myself out there, and my mission to bring Indian dance to the Western world,” said Joya. “My entry into the Hollywood industry didn’t just happen overnight.”

In the middle of her senior year of college, she already had a job offer as an assistant choreographer in Los Angeles. After working for a year, Joya felt classical dances weren’t taken seriously, so she decided to launch another branch of her own business- Joya Kazi Unlimited that today has become her own brand.

‘NEVER HAVE I EVER’

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan & Joya Kazi
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan & Joya Kazi

Describing her dance style, Joya said she believes it shows strong training in Indian classical dance, the aesthetic of her style, with a certain class, grace, beauty, and authenticity. And she tries to add fusion that the young generation wants.

“I guess one of my X-factors is that I have a very deep knowledge of the Western and the Indian cultures which enabled me to bring the Indian classical dance to the mainstream,” she said, and that is what led her to “Never Have I Ever’ set.

Even with the Mindy Kaling TV show, it was such an absolute delight to be able to work, she says. “This is authentic. They listen to everything, and they let you even do the casting.” Joya said she made sure the dancers selected should be trained either in classical or Bollywood dance.

“I loved it, being able to choose the costuming,” said Joya, who worked along with costume designer Salvador Perez on the set.

She believes most of the time Bollywood costumes are mistaken as some kind of fusion between Middle Eastern and belly dancers. So to give the real Indian look, Joya said, she wanted girls to wear langha not saree while dancing since teenagers in US wear langha. The costumes were accessorized with matching jewelry, not any random Middle Eastern jewelry mix and match.

The main character ‘Devi’ played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the teenage girl in “Never Have I Ever,” struggles with the push and pull of the Eastern and Western culture and is still not very comfortable with her Indian identity. And that’s easily visible when Devi saw Preeti in the series, who looked so comfortable proudly celebrating the Indian culture.

Joya, sharing on being a choreographer and actor at the same time, said with a laugh it was crazy the day they had shooting because she had to take care of what girls were wearing and hairstyles, and then she got dressed and be on the set all at the same time.

Joya, who first met Kaling at the shooting set this past summer, said, “I was just so happy to be able to get that chance to be a part of such an iconic show that is so huge for our community and to take the character who is so proud of her Indian heritage and her dancing and our culture.”