Saara Chaudry is young but she’s not afraid to speak up. The 13-year-old has done so professionally in various television and theatre roles over the past few years. Now, as a leading voice actor in the film The Breadwinner, this Canadian performer is proud to be raising awareness about the impact of gender stereotypes and inequality.
In the animated film, Saara voices the role of Parvana, a girl in Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy so that she can help her family survive. The movie, which was released in Canada on Nov. 24, has won enthusiastic reviews and may be an Oscar front-runner for best animated feature.
The story is based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis’s book, which Saara read when she was nine. We spoke to her about how she approached this challenging role, her advice when it comes to pursuing your dreams, and her own goal of empowering girls.
Q: The Breadwinner focuses on the story of a girl in Afghanistan after the takeover of the Taliban. Although girls in Canada don’t face the same challenges, how do you think gender equality and gender stereotypes affect girls here?
A: There are so many issues that we still have to address and that we’re beginning to talk about in North America. There’s a definite bias in the way our society sees girls.
When we talk about scientists, mathematicians, or engineers, I know many people who would instantly think those are men’s jobs and that not many women are interested in those types of things. Personally, I’m interested in math and science and all different fields, and there are so many other girls just like me.
There are still many stereotypes regarding that issue. Did you know that Nora Twomey, the director of The Breadwinner, is one of the only female directors in the animation field? That just goes to show that gender stereotypes and inequality are still issues.
Q: How has playing this heroine, Parvana, influenced your own approach to challenges or obstacles?
A: I’ve adored this character and this book since I was 9 years old, when I first read The Breadwinner. I admired her determination and her strength. Whatever challenges I face, I think about her and how she is so positive in the circumstances that she’s in.
Q: At 13, you’re already well on your way as an actress and performer. Has confidence ever been an issue for you? What do you say to yourself if you’re feeling self-doubt?
A: I feel like I’ve always been a confident person. My older sister and mother are both very confident and accomplished women, and my dad has always told me that I can be whatever I want to be.
So my family’s encouragement has helped to make me confident, but we all face self-doubt. There’ve definitely been times when I’ve doubted my choices and felt less confident, but I think the key is to recognize that and work hard to overcome it.
It’s important to really take time to believe in yourself and make sure that self-confidence is something that you’re aware of, and keep telling yourself that you can do anything and recognize that you’re special.
Q: What’s been the best part about having a role in The Breadwinner? What’s been the most challenging part?
A: This whole project has been a dream come true. I got to meet Deborah Ellis before I knew the book was being turned into a film. When she came to my school for a presentation and was taking questions, I raised my hand and asked her, “Hey, is there a chance that this book would turn into a movie?” and she said they were still figuring things out.
Later, I got a call from my agent to say there was an opportunity to audition for The Breadwinner. When I got the role, it was definitely a “pinch me” moment. Also, working with Nora Twomey, a strong woman who is our director was fantastic, and meeting Angelina Jolie [one of the film’s producers] along the way was fantastic. She’s such a strong woman and someone I look up to as a humanitarian.
The most challenging part was understanding my character. Parvana and I are similar in many ways, but also very different. I come from Canada where I’m a privileged young girl and she comes from Afghanistan where she faces many different issues.
I read The Breadwinner as well as the whole trilogy and the follow-up book called My Name is Parvana. That was very helpful in understanding her and her different relationships; seeing her grow up through these four books, I felt like I really knew her and was really close to her. I guess that’s what happens when you emotionally connect to a book.
Q: Do you have any advice for girls your age when it comes to pursuing their goals and dreams?
A: I know this sounds very simple, but it’s something that I have been told many times growing up, and that I try to live by, which is to never give up and keep trying. And most of all, to believe in yourself.
In this industry, rejection is something you have to deal with. There have definitely been times where I’ve been really upset because there was a role that I loved but wasn’t the right fit for. But you have to just keep moving on. Now, when I go into auditions, I try my absolute best and when I walk out, I forget. If I get called again it’s wonderful, and if I don’t I keep on trying. It’s been a really helpful strategy to not get worked up over certain auditions or roles, and to not give up hope in acting.
Q: Do you have any future goals or projects that you want to talk about?
A: Right now, I’m on a show called Dino Dana, on TVOKids and Amazon Prime, that encourages young girls to get involved in STEM. I am also writing a couple of episodes for Dino Dana. It’s about a young girl who is extremely interested in dinosaurs. She’s not your average young girl, she’s a tomboy, and she is in love with science and so confident in what she does. I play her older sister, who is a typical teenager, yet in the end she always vouches for her sister and helps her with her dino experiments.
I also sing in a band called Girl Pow-r, which involves girls from age 11 to 16. We sing songs that are empowering and inspiring; we just launched our first single called KRISI, and it’s about dealing with school bullies and trying to understand people’s motives when it comes to bullying.
I’m trying to explore all different fields of the industry that I’m in, like writing and hopefully directing. I’m pitching some different show ideas; one is about what young girls go through in middle school. I feel like there’s not much material out there for young girls like me to watch and if there’s something I can do through film that may help other girls to improve their self-confidence and overcome obstacles, that would be incredible.
Q: How would you finish this sentence: “My dream for women and girls in Canada is ….”?
A: That they are respected as equals. That’s something I’m passionate about, and something I’ve worked to raise awareness about.
The Breadwinner is now playing in theatres across Canada.