South Asian screen stars: 7 UBC alumni in entertainment
Whether they’re performing in Canadian, Hollywood, or Bollywood productions, these UBC grads have used their talents to make their mark in screen industries.
With the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes resolved and in the wake of Diwali, we’re toasting the new year by spotlighting just some of the UBC graduates of South Asian descent who illuminate our screens with their performing abilities.
From Canadian productions to Hollywood and Bollywood, each of these alumni, who span different generations, has taken varied and sometimes unique paths to find success.
Whether they’re portraying characters related or unrelated to their heritage, their contributions ensure that South Asian diversity remains reflected and represented in visual storytelling around the world. All of them are helping to inspire and pave the way for future generations pursuing careers within screen industries or sitting among audiences.
Unlike others on this list, Balinder Johal (MEd’69) put her acting dreams on hold while she undertook a different profession. Born and raised in India, Johal acquired Bachelor’s degrees in arts and teaching and a Master’s in Punjabi from Panjab University Chandigarh before she moved to Canada in 1965. At UBC, she received her Master of Education in 1969.
After 24 years as a BC teacher, she embarked upon her long-awaited performing career, gracing both stages and screens. In theatre, she has performed in both English and Punjabi theatre productions in Canada and the US. In cinema, she has had prominent roles in Deepa Mehta features: the 2008 Ontario domestic drama Heaven on Earth and the 2015 Vancouver crime thriller Beeba Boys.
Other movie credits include Love Hard, Donkeyhead, and Josie and the Pussycats while series appearances include Yellowjackets, Supergirl, Sanctuary, and Da Vinci’s Inquest. In addition, she has garnered five acting award nominations and won two Leo Awards (for her performances in The 410 and "The Birthday").
Fluent in English, Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu, she has used her multilingual talents in acting, voiceovers, dialogue translation, dialect coaching, and cultural consultation.
Ultimately, Johal’s career illustrates that sometimes it takes patience to find the right time to pursue your passions.
A high-school drama program and learning about filmmaking at the Summer Visions Film Institute sparked the start for Rami Kahlon (BA’16) in performance arts. While completing her Bachelor of Arts in psychology (with a history minor) at UBC, she continued on with auditioning.
She’s since racked up appearances on TV series like Almost Human, Motive, Supernatural, and Van Helsing, and had supporting roles in the 2022 feature comedy American Dreamer and the Canadian indie drama Dil Rakh. In theatre, her favourite lead role was in the adapted Punjabi folk tale Dooja Ghar (The Other House), staged in Langley in 2022.
Having performed in English, Punjabi, and Hindi, she hopes one day to utilize the French she learned at university.
Moving behind the camera during a lull, Kahlon made her directorial debut with the short thriller “Odd Girl.” She also champions stories with BIPOC leads through her production company, Rani Pictures.
Originally from Surrey and now based in Richmond, she submitted her horror-comedy “A Christmas Star” to festivals, is in pre-production for the horror short “Animalia,” and is developing a feature-length screenplay about colonial India.
Not stopping there, her appearances in the comedy American Dreamer, the romance The Wedding Contest, and the thriller Mommy’s Stolen Memories showcase her versatility across genres.
The education of actor, playwright, and dancer Anita Majumdar (BA’01) reflects her passion for language, culture, and the performing arts.
Having grown up in Port Moody, BC, she attended UBC to study English, theatre, and South Asian languages for her Bachelor of Arts degree. She also learned and choreographed contemporary hybrids of classical Indian dances (Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi), and performed in a UBC dance ensemble.
Going further, she graduated from the acting program at Montréal’s National Theatre School of Canada (2004), and acquired a Master of Arts in Theatre and Performance Studies from York University (2017).
The 2005 CBC TV movie Murder Unveiled marked Majumdar’s screen acting debut. Other on-screen appearances include the TV movies Diverted and Gavin Crawford’s Wild Wild West; the CBC TV series Republic of Doyle; and the 2012 film Midnight’s Children. In a search across Canada for the next up-and-comer for the Hindi film industry, she served as a judge on OMNI TV’s Bollywood Star.
In 2013, Majumdar won the Governor General’s Protégé Prize in playwriting and her Bollywood-inspired musical Same Same But Different, featuring her dance choreography, premiered in 2014. Her play Fish Eyes Trilogy, about three coming-of-age stories, toured Canada from 2014 to 2015.
Now based in the Greater Toronto Area, she’s developing her physical theatre project A Girl Has No Gym and continues her self-taught visual arts practice as a digital illustrator.
The charismatic Zain Meghji (BA’00) has demonstrated versatility with a global outlook throughout his career, harking back to his student days. Initially enrolled in UBC Computer Science, he graduated with a degree in theatre studies, acquiring experience in acting, producing, and directing. His international work spanned teaching high-school drama classes in England to working in Bollywood in Mumbai.
Segueing into entertainment news media, he has appeared on TV shows like Extra, Showbiz Tonight, and CTV’s Etalk; and interviewed stars like Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, George Clooney, and Oprah. He also hosted Breakfast Television in Vancouver and Calgary, and the 2010 makeover show How to Look Good Naked.
His acting gigs on TV shows include appearances on Vancouver-filmed series such as The Flash, Travelers, and Girls vs. The City, as well as Degrassi: The Next Generation. Other credits include the TV movie True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet; the 2005 Indian romcom Neal ’n’ Nikki, about two Punjabi Canadians from BC taking a cross-Canada trip; and the 2016 Canadian action-thriller Rampage: President Down.
Moving into digital media, Meghji produced hundreds of videos as Daily Hive’s head of video content. Now the senior manager of audience development at BBTV (fun fact: BBTV company CEO Shahrzad Rafati [BSc’07] is also a UBC alum), he leads creative strategy and audience development for the YouTube channels of the US–based movie studios and television networks.
Wahid Ibn Reza
A talent both on and behind the camera, Wahid Ibn Reza (BFA’13) already established himself in South Asian screen industries before he left for North America in 2010. Originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh, his first breaks in theatre led to roles as an actor, anchor, comedian, and model. His early work included TV movies like Ottopor Suvobibaho (At Last Happily Married) and TV series like Target Millionaire and Chandrakarigor (Creator of the Moon).
He also wrote for TV productions, and performed in both Bengali and English. After earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, he returned to the screen industry with a UBC BFA in Film Production, and wrote, directed, and starred in the 2013 short film “What Am I Doing Here?”
Moving into visual effects, Reza has worked on Hollywood blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey, Furious 7, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Now a senior production supervisor at Annapurna Pictures in Los Angeles, he oversees work on the CG animated series Sausage Party: Foodtopia.
His current projects such as "Surviving 71," an animated short about the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, and an animated NFB short about climate change reflect his interest in impactful storytelling.
Toronto-born Zaib Shaikh (MFA’01), who is of Pakistani descent, has come a long and impressive way since studying theatre for his Bachelor of Arts Honours degree from the University of Toronto and acquiring a Master of Fine Arts in Directing from UBC.
Most notably, he garnered international attention in his lead role as lawyer-turned-cleric Amaar Rashid in CBC’s groundbreaking Muslim sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, which ran for six seasons.
Shaikh’s other accomplishments, including off-screen, are also admirable and varied. In film, he portrayed personal secretary Nadir Khan in Deepa Mehta’s epic 2012 adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children. Behind the camera, he directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the 2008 TV movie Othello, the Tragedy of the Moor, and co-produced TV specials Long Story Short: CBC Turns 75 and Canada Day 2020 at Your House.
Additionally, he co-founded and became the artistic producer of the Whistler Theatre Project in 2006, and was the first South Asian person to serve as the Film Commissioner and Director of Entertainment Industries for the City of Toronto from 2014 to 2018.
Continuing on with his public-service career, Shaikh has been the Consul General of Canada in LA since 2018, as the federal government’s senior representative for Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada.
In conjunction with serving on boards for the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, and the AFC (formerly the Actors Fund of Canada), Shaikh has demonstrated a longstanding dedication to the arts and Canadian culture over the course of his career.
The worldwide experience and career dynamism of Hannah Simone (BA’02) epitomizes adaptability. Born in London, England, of Indian, German, Italian, and Greek Cypriot descent, Simone graduated from UBC in 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts in international relations and political science.
Not only has she lived in Canada, Cyprus, Greece, India, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the US, but her equally diverse work experiences range from being a fashion model in Cyprus to serving as a human rights and refugees officer for the United Nations in the UK.
In Canada, her TV presenter gigs have included hosting HGTV’s Space for Living in 2005 and VJing for The New Music and Much News Weekly on MuchMusic from 2006 to 2008. Stateside, she hosted WCG Ultimate Gamer from 2009 to 2010.
Since her acting debut on the TV series Kevin Hill in 2005, she has appeared on series such as H+, Single Parents, and No Activity. Among film credits, she’s had roles in Spike Lee’s 2013 Oldboy and the 2017 US comedy-drama Band Aid.
But viewers may most widely recognize her for her portrayal of Cece Parekh, the best friend of Zooey Deschanel’s character, on the hit TV series New Girl from 2011 to 2018.
More recently, she has been a cast member of Mira, Royal Detective and the workplace comedy Not Dead Yet. With Season 2 of the latter sitcom set to premiere in February, Simone’s screen adventures are continuing on into 2024.