In the popular web series Anarkali she plays a girl who needs to “get [her] shit together”, but in real life Kiran Rai (a.k.a KayRay) is the South Asian creative force you’ll wish you knew sooner. The 27-year-old Brampton-native has chased her high school dreams of becoming an actor for almost a decade, and she’s finally hit the sweet spot. It’s hard to mistake Rai as anything less than an activist; she’s all about breaking the rules. And her girl squad — a mere coincidence of fate, she attests — is made up of some of the greatest female South Asian talents of the time, including poet Rupi Kaur.
When she’s not fancying her life-size cut-out of Drake, channelling her inner proclaimed “strange” humour on social media, or modelling for local designers like Mani Jassal, she’s telling stories that matter. Exploring issues such as mental health and dating violence in South Asian communities, Rai provokes conversations around taboo topics one short film, skit and interview at a time. Her work has made waves beyond the 6ix; she’s jetted to a number of cities across the globe on tours to share her stories, work and wisdom.
In search of a few wise words of our own, we talked to the actor, filmmaker, and all-around hustling creative for a conversation filled with humble beginnings, laughter and lots of realness.
What does a day in the life of KayRay look like?
Every single day is completely different. [It] can entail anything from editing videos to altering a production schedule to shooting a video to setting up photo shoots and fittings, and also doing workshops as well.
Let’s talk about your YouTube series Cha Da Cup, which you’ve been doing a lot of recently. Where did the inspiration for this project come from?
First of all, I’m a huge cha fan; I drink at least two cha cups a day. And I’m always finding myself having really deep, in-depth conversations with my friends who are also in arts and doing really incredible things. And [from] watching shows like Chelsea Lately or Ellen DeGeneres, late-night talk shows as well as daytime talk shows, and how they almost like bring out a different side of celebrities and artists that we look up to. I felt like I could do the same thing with people I know or admire and I’ve been able to do that with just some friends of mine. So I thought why not change that and answer questions from the audience and engage them with my vlog; give them an opportunity to their influencers or artists they admire. And then, being able to have open, honest conversations and allowing people to see a really vulnerable side of these artists. So I think that that’s where Cha Da Cup came from and it’s just taking away from this idea that we don’t have any spaces, and creating our own. So Cha Da Cup is a safe space for people to really open up and share a side of themselves that people haven’t really seen yet.
You mentioned bringing your friends on the show, and I feel like your friends are all these powerhouses, all these female South Asian creatives. How did you all meet?
Years ago, there was a time we had an organization that created events for the youth, by the youth. And we would do anything from local concerts to showcasing local artists, and then also doing art galleries and stuff. And with these events came about your Rupi Kaurs, your Keerat Kaurs — all these different artists that are now connected. I think that’s why we became almost like a family through that and then we decided to share that on the Internet. And you know, we’ve committed to creating content together and still continue to do so, even when we’re on our different paths and doing amazing, incredible things on our own. It’s kinda dope to know that we have so much support and I think that’s what makes the Toronto community so unique and beautiful, because everyone’s so supportive of one another. And that’s genuine too… even if you might not resonate with their work it’s like they’re doing their thing, and that’s all that matters.
The content you create is so diverse. You cover really serious topics in the South Asian community, but then you’re also hilarious and play with all these Drake references.
I feel like it’s a part of my personality, but I think for me it’s creating content that’s relevant in whatever way. So if I think something’s hilarious but I’m still somehow touching on some sort of issue, I would do it that way. But if I feel like this needs more of a dramatic approach then I’ll maybe show it in a way that’s real and authentic to that issue. So I always try to see what works best. I can go either route, either being really crazy and funny and strange or it could be something that’s really hard to watch. I think this is like the actor in me. I wanna show that there’s so many different ways of approaching issues and if we work together we can create content that everyone resonates with.
So many of the stories you tell start conversations that don’t really exist until you’ve touched on them. So like talking about mental health, which you did in Haneri or dating violence in South Asian communities in Ananke. What made you want to tell these kinds of stories in the first place?
I think they are related to the real experiences that not only I face but the women around me have faced. So, these are conversations that we have all the time and I think for us it’s important that we start sharing our own stories. We haven’t seen that on-screen before, and that’s something a lot of people of colour always complain about — that there’s no representation for them, especially South Asian folk in the media, and it’s not done in a way that’s positive. So even when we’re talking about these issues that do seem to be negative in the community, it’s still allowing us to tell our stories subjectively, but not in a way that’s vilifying a community; only spreading awareness to what issues are actually affecting us right now.
So even in Ananke, dating violence is a huge thing that’s going on and a lot of people don’t know about it and why: that is because dating is already an issue in the community. So forget about the fact that there’s violence involved, the fact that there’s kids dating and people find it taboo, and because of that stereotype, young women who are in these harmful situations won’t let anyone know because they’re too scared to even let anyone know that they’re dating. So it’s like this really vicious cycle of how much stuff you keep under the rug and how much stuff is taboo, and when are we gonna start opening up and having open and honest conversations with our families so we don’t feel so scared and alone.
What is the most difficult thing in telling minority female narratives?
I think being very sensitive, because before I started creating videos I started off being very involved in activist groups that I have an understanding of, like how to make sure that we are telling stories authentically. A lot of the stuff that I tell is first-hand or I know someone who dealt with this first-hand, so I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that’s like inauthentic or is not related to me. I feel like [with] everything I’ve had some sort of experience with.
How did you start doing what you’re doing today when you didn’t really see other South Asian creatives doing the same thing?
I guess I felt like there was something in me that was saying ‘no, you need to be an actress’. Even when I was in high school, I was taking drama classes and I knew deep down that’s what I wanted to do, but at that time there was no support from the community at all. Everyone was just like ‘oh well, that’s a hobby, what are you gonna do for real?’. And so I felt like that was something that kind of was taking away from me actually doing what I wanna do. And it was a setback because it was like, my friends don’t believe in me and nobody really understands that this is what I wanna do, so I didn’t believe in me.
And it’s also because I didn’t see me on-screen. So it was very difficult for me to visualize it as well — even when I would, I would always see myself as a side character but never a lead. So when I did get Anarkali for example, it was such a huge deal for me because I was just like ‘Wait, what? Me? My face?’ I could actually be this person and it doesn’t matter how I look. It was like a huge step for me to see representation and how I can take that as my responsibility to make sure that people that do look like us are represented well.
And I think I realized that when I was 19, 20, I was going to school and I decided to take a semester off and I was like ‘You know what, I don’t care. My intuition’s telling me that I need to be in the arts. It doesn’t matter how I do it, I gotta be in there. I gotta be an actress.’ And so I started modelling for local makeup artists and photographers and then at the same time I was also working with community organizations and making videos for them. So it’s been a long road, and I think people don’t realize that. They see my social media and they’re like, ‘oh she’s been doing this for a couple years.’ But no, it’s been almost nearly a decade and you know now I’m starting to see the fruits of that labour, and it took a long time. So for anyone that is going into the arts, it’s gonna take a while. You have to be persistent and consistent and that’s the way you’re gonna be able to see results.
Let’s just talk about Anarkali for a second. I’ll ask the question everyone’s dying to know, when is Season 3 coming out?
The reason it’s taking so long is because — actually it’s pretty good news — we have new producers on it and they’re the ones who are making sure we’re filming it, making sure that we’re sharpening it in a way that is hopefully gonna allow us to expand it into an actual show. So it’ll be out soon!
Is there anything you can tell us about what we can expect from your character this season?
Yeah, I feel like this season is done so well. We already filmed it, we filmed it earlier this year. It’s gonna be a lot more drama and a lot more different characters that are kind of feeding into the drama. And also Anarkali you know, you kinda feel bad for her but you’re also tired of her shit and like ‘yo, get your shit together’. Yeah, so I think that’s where like I feel like the audience is gonna respond with, but also just like being like okay, she is struggling, but now it’s been so long, like, why can’t she figure it out? So I think there’s like a lot of room for her to figure out what she needs to do and I think that’s what we’re gonna hopefully touch on in season 4.
Do you have a motto or mantra that you repeat to yourself daily?
Oh man. So, I was not always confident, I still feel like I’m shy now which I guess no one else sees but I’ve got the extrovert/introvert personality, so I still have times where I feel like I’m super shy. So for me— again I know that it sounds funny — remembering who I am and being very present in that moment, and just knowing that I’m in control. And I always tell myself that I’m in control. And I think that’s all the power that I need to make sure that the day is incredible. So that’s something that I always go into every project with, even going to events, just always remembering who I am and putting myself in that position of power. And I think anyone and everyone should be doing that for themselves, just reclaiming your control and your power and being able to feel like you can do anything.
And last but not least, can we have any word on what’s to come from you next?
It’s so amazing because at work, we literally have a whole wall full of projects that we’re up to right now. So it ranges, there’s gonna be a lot more skits, we have a short film in the making, and Anarkali will be back soon. And also Cha Da Cup is now a podcast, so that will be released as well, so all episodes will now turn into a full-length podcast.
Ed’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.