Reema Sampat on Shanking Stereotypes on OITNB

Meet The Homegirl: Actress, Producer, “Shruti Chambal” on Orange is the New Black

by Malavika Kannan

Swipe through the shows on Netflix, and you’ll find just about every South Asian trope in its episodes—the scientist, the mathlete, the unnamed doctor, the exotic extra. But this time, there’s a bad girl in town. She’s one of the wiliest inmates in Litchfield Penitentiary: tough as nails, ruthless, and willing to shank anything that moves--that is, as long as C block ends up on top. Shruti Chambal may be the newest character on the wildly popular Orange is The New Black, but she’s already taking names, stealing hearts, and changing the game.

Portrayed by the electric Reema Sampat, Shruti’s character marks a slow but steady evolution towards greater representation on the silver screen. Reema plays the first South Asian inmate in all six seasons of OITNB--a role that she doesn’t take lightly. Because to Reema, playing Shruti is about more than telling a crazy story. It’s about proving that brown girls are just as complex, hilarious, tragic, and criminal as anyone else.

Reema Sampat poses in the prison yard with her fellow inmates from C-block.

In a cultural scene dominated by emerging Asian-American icons--Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, the entire cast of Crazy Rich Asians--Reema is determined to reclaim her narrative. She’s a proud self-described Gujarati Indian American Texan chick who speaks three languages, lives with five cats, a daughter, and a husband, and works as a producer, graphic designer, and animal advocate. But most incredibly, Reema is an actress working her way up in an industry that has historically been hostile to people who look like her.

And as of right now, Reema is just getting started. Already, she’s been involved in Emmy-nominated content with none other than James Franco himself. Reema is also repping her culture in the pilot of Surina and Mel, a show focused on South Asian leads. In the middle of these projects, Reema didn’t expect to be portraying Shruti Chambal. She almost didn’t audition, believing that she wasn’t the right actress for the role. In spite of that, she ended up snagging the role--all while six months pregnant.

Telling the story of Shruti Chambal--an Indian girl from Maine studying to be an ENT doctor--was an adventure for Reema, especially in the context of the blood feud between cell blocks that dominates Season 6 of OITNB. As danger heightens, Reema had to convey the depth of Shruti’s struggle to survive as the minion of bigger, scarier inmates. In a show that’s widely praised for its nuanced portrayals of queer, disabled, and disenfranchised women of color, the female solidarity on set really stood out to Reema.

Despite the wild success of shows like OITNB, Reema believes that gaining representation is a work of progress. The so-called “Brown Renaissance” is still in its opening stages, and it’s up to generations of fearless actors, artists, and creatives to continue pushing the cultural needle forward. As long as creators are mindful and active about the resonance of their projects, equality will continue to thrive.

But in the meantime, we have a new season to binge.