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Disney Channel’s first Indian American lead plays a teen DJ, hears the music in everything

Bollywood star Abhay Deol and breakout actor Avantika discuss “Spin” and Disney’s first Indian main character.
Avantika, Abhay Deol.
Avantika, Abhay Deol.Disney; NBC News

It’s the dinner rush scene at a crowded, family-run restaurant Spirit of India. The food is hot, customers are waiting and orders are ready to go out. Sixteen-year-old Rhea works at the restaurant with her father and is up to the task, as she puts on her self-made mix to set the mood for the night.

To the tune of the classic Indian tabla blended with contemporary pop music, she dances from table to table. In “Spin,” the first Disney Channel Original Movie with an Indian American main character, Rhea — played by actor Avantika, who uses only her first name professionally — is guided by her music.

Her love for it is embedded in her multigenerational family, with her grandma dancing to Bollywood tunes at the family’s restaurant.

Even a receipt tearing from the printer or a spoon clinking a glass makes her ears perk up. That love of sounds and knack for how they fit together eventually lead Rhea into new territory: DJing. 

Breakout star Avantika, 16, says getting to play an empowered lead with friends, a central conflict and a passion is something she wishes she saw more on screen as a kid.   

“Growing up, I didn’t have much to look up to on screen,” Avantika told NBC Asian America. “To be at least one person on screen who little girls like me can look up to and see someone who looks like them, that’s really important to me.”

The film follows Rhea as she navigates her dreams and the feeling of being torn between social life and family. A naturally musical person, Rhea’s passion fizzled when her mother, played by Agam Darshi, died before the events of “Spin.” Having to fill in at the restaurant constantly, she hardly has time for a social life. 

But a new friendship with classmate and DJ Max, played by Michael Bishop, reminds her of the musicality her mom instilled in her as a kid. “Everything is music,” her mother says in a flashback.

When Max introduces her to a soundboard and DJ equipment, Rhea instantly realizes she has a talent for live mixing. After hours of practicing (and, to her father’s dismay, a few missed shifts at the restaurant), Rhea feels like she’s ready for something bigger. But when she starts helping plan the playlist for a schoolwide celebration of Holi, her social life and family responsibilities clash. 

The Disney Channel Original Movie "Spin."
The Disney Channel Original Movie "Spin."Disney

Avantika said Rhea’s tight-knit family dynamics remind her of her own, especially the loving but overprotective father — played by Bollywood actor Abhay Deol — who projects his dreams onto his daughter. The actress said she appreciates the way these relationships are represented and noted that Rhea’s Indian identity is just a given in her story, not the central point.

“Rhea is a character dealing with conflicts outside of being Indian,” Avantika said. “She’s very embracing of being Indian, and she’s dealing with conflicts just as a normal person. I want to reiterate to Desi youth that you can be comfortable with your culture.” 

Particularly meaningful to Avantika were the scenes where her character was shown eating home-cooked food in the cafeteria, something she knows can be a sore point for young South Asian Americans. Beyond the lunchroom, “Spin” features plenty of food scenes, with Arvind, Deol’s character, running around the family’s restaurant managing things with a tight schedule and short staff. 

The Bollywood star, known for films like “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara,” said this movie doesn’t necessarily mark his complete transition to Hollywood, but he was drawn to the story and the potential for representation.

“I have family in the U.S. My sisters live there, my nieces and nephews grew up there, so I could relate to it from their perspective,” he said. “I thought it was important to represent that we as a community are inhabited by all sorts of personalities and people.”

Deol said “Spin,” at its core, is about the unique role family plays for third-culture kids growing up in the U.S. and life in a multigenerational household.

“At the root of it, it’s about family and family values and generational gap,” he said. “It’s about a girl who has dreams and who’s growing up and finding new ambitions and desires, and about a father who does not see that happening.”

Avantika said seeing these stories told on screen would have given her more confidence to embrace her identity as a kid. Few Indian American characters have appeared on Disney before her, and being that person for today’s youth thrills her, she said. 

“I just feel really happy to be that person,” she said. “I feel very honored that I was chosen to be that person for young little girls. I’m really excited to see their responses, and I hope they connect with Rhea.”