‘To the Death’ is skewering casting room tokenism

South Asian Australian actors Menik Gooneratne and Yasmin Kassim team up on comedy short film showcasing the power of collaboration, not competition.

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Menik Gooneratne and Yasmin Kassim weren’t always friends. The two South Asian Australian actors were once starting out in Australia’s limited film industry, and would often bump into each other at castings, sizing each other up as they vied for the same role.

“You always feel like there can only be one [South Asian actor], so it feels like you’re in competition,” says Gooneratne. “When you walk in the room to test for these characters, the expectation is to leave your heart on the floor and do it again and again, until you get chosen.” 

Eager for more opportunities, Gooneratne and Kassim moved to Los Angeles, successfully landing roles in major films such as Lion, Mortal Engines and Jungle. It was here in LA, during an eight-week improv comedy course Gooneratne and Kassim finally got to know each other properly, bonding over their shared experiences with the industry.

Yasmin and Menik wearing denim clothing. They smile whilst looking off into the distance.
Yasmin Kassim (left) and Menik Gooneratne (right) have embraced collaboration over competition. (Source: Supplied)

“We felt we couldn’t get close because there are so few women-of-colour roles,” says Kassim. “We didn’t want it to be that way anymore, so we decided to team up and create things to show more beautiful brown faces on screen and empower others to unify rather than compete.” 

Now, they want to promote collaboration closer to home, bringing their comedy short film To The Death to a screening at Melbourne’s ACMI. 

Co-written by Gooneratne and Kassim, To The Death hilariously dramatizes every actor’s intrusive thoughts, two South Asian actors forced to literally fight to the death to get a role. Premiering at Atlanta Shortsfest, the film has screened at several US film festivals, resonating with women-of-colour viewers across various industries who could relate to the sense of competition in their own workplaces.  

The To The Death ACMI screening will feature a post-show panel with South Asian trailblazers from various industries, including Masterchef’s Kishwar Choudhury, comedians Daizy Maan and Suren Jayemanne, and fellow actors Arka Das and Leah Vandenberg, who will workshop collaborative ways of increasing authentic representation. 

Menik Gooneratne holds up her hands in a fighting position. A still from To The Death.
Menik Gooneratne prepares to fight in To The Death. (Source: Supplied)

“We have no interest in Whinge FM – we’re all about positivity, collaboration, how we can help each other to succeed,” says Kassim. “We don’t need to wait for a funding body to start doing what we want them to do, we can build a community and make sure that we feel supported in this industry ourselves.” 

Gooneratne says creating To The Death has been a cathartic experience for all involved.  

“Creating something like this takes the power away from the casting panel and empowers us,” she says. “We’re not waiting for the phone to ring; we’re creating our own content and writing the characters we want to see and that will hopefully inspire the next generation.”

Yasmin and Menik look confused in the casting room in a still from their short film To The Death.
Yasmin Kassim (left) and Menik Gooneratne (right) in To The Death. (Source: Supplied)

Whilst in LA, the two actors found a supportive community of likeminded South Asian actors as well as meatier roles where they could explore their passion for comedy. They hope to encourage similar communities in the Australian film industry. 

“Everyone feels like they’re doing it alone, like they’re trailblazing,” says Gooneratne. “We want everyone to talk to each other and be friends, so they don’t feel they’re the only one trying to make change.” 

They hope to carve out a place for themselves as Australia’s version of Mindy Kaling and encourage greater opportunities and trust for actors of colour.   

“There needs to be more trust [for diverse voices] from the powers that be; diversity can be successful if you trust we can do it,” Gooneratne says.  

To The Death is screening with a post-show conversation at ACMI Melbourne on Wednesday 27 September.

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Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy is an emerging journalist and theatre-maker based in Melbourne.

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