Sunderella: A queer Bollywood retelling

Director Bali Padda and actor Adish Jain join Honi ahead of the debut of their 2023 production Sunderella

Set for its debut on the 1st of March, Trikone Australia and Bali Padda have collaborated to create Sunderella, a queer bollywood adaption of the white heteronormative classic fairytale Cinderella.

The play is set in 18th-century India, revolving around the main character Sundar. Much like Cinderella, Sundar is forced to live in a home with his evil stepmother and narcissistic stepsisters. As the play progresses, Sundar’s fortune changes upon his encounter with his fairy godmother, who transforms him into a beautiful woman in time for the princes’ palace.

Sunderella – just like Cinderella – is a story of love and acceptance,” says Bali Padda, the director of the show. “Sunderella gives us an opportunity to tell a South Asian same-sex love story using the template of a fairytale universally loved. 

“Not everyone is familiar with Bollywood music or dance, but they know the story of Cinderella. We want to draw them using that hook, then help them discover the rich colours and facets of South Asian culture.”

Padda is currently the head of New Work, Stage at Co-Curious (Here Out West, Counting & Cracking) and Creative Producer for Griffin Theatre Company’s Sex Magick. For the past decade, Padda has been involved in consulting for the screen and arts industries on creative projects, industry and business strategy, diversity, equity and inclusion, and talent/artist development, championing the authentic voice of historically excluded communities.

First staged in 2017 at the PACT theatre in Erskineville, Sunderella was performed as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. The 2023 production, in comparison, is afforded an increased use of resources from set through to lighting design due to its association with Sydney WorldPride.

Sunderella was initially “a fun passion project with some friends,” explains Padda. “We thought it was a niche. But that year, the Sydney Morning Herald featured the play on the cover of its weekend supplement, and – right after the opening night – thanks to word of mouth, the whole season sold out overnight. 

“Six years later – we decided to bring it back; for the audience who loved it in 2017, but also for a global audience, [who are] coming to Sydney for the WorldPride festival. This is our opportunity to represent the diversity of Australia on an international stage, at an international event. We want to be seen.”

In the true spirit of Bollywood extravagance, the play is set to be full of dramatic scenes, comical characters, talented drag, ornate costumes, and numerous dance sequences featuring hit songs from popular South Asian productions.

Adish Jain, one of the seventeen cast members involved in the production, is making his acting debut in the lead role as Sundar. Jain first got involved by auditioning to be a dancer for the 2022 queer bollywood party Bar Bombay produced by Australia-based Queer South Asian organisation, Trikone. Later, Jain found himself asked to audition for the lead role.

Jain finds the plot of the story to be relevant to his own personal life, allowing him to present an “authentic” performance on stage. In his interpretation, the play is about finding self-confidence and self-love in one’s queerness. Coming out and finding a community so alike your own identity allows you to accept love and support from others, as it “doesn’t matter what gender you have, or where you come from. Love is love.”

For him, Sunderella is a way to “go out and about and tell the world, other brown people, [that] it’s okay to be out and proud about it.

“This story might empower them, might give them courage back. If he can do it, we can be doing it too.”

Sunderella is a play that puts queer brown people in the spotlight and makes them seen, heard, and felt. The large-scale production, as Jain says, “is a way of telling the world that we do exist. And we are no different, we may have different colors, but…we all go through the same struggles.”

Sunderella will be performed at the ARA Darling Quarter Theatre from the 1st to the 4th of March.