In 2003, while filming "Mean Girls," Rajiv Surendra — aka Kevin G — was introduced to the book "Life of Pi" by a cameraman on set.
He learned that the book was being adapted into a film and thought it was the role he was destined for. Both he and the book's main character, Pi Patel, shared many similarities. It was "uncanny," as he explains on the Facebook page to his memoir, Elephants in My Backyard.
They both shared the same South Indian ancestry, they each stood 5-foot-5, and they also both grew up around animals. Patel grew up in a zoo in the book and Surendra lived next to the Toronto Zoo, where he could hear the elephants and lions every night as he went to sleep.
Soon after finishing his first year of college, Surendra booked a ticket to India to immerse himself in the culture in order to become Pi Patel.
He spent three months in the country, literally diving off cliffs and staring tigers in the eye. When he returned to Toronto, he thought he would find himself auditioning for the role in the M. Night Shyamalan-directed film.
However, it wasn't meant to be. Shyamalan backed out of the project and the studio started from scratch.
Different directors coming on board would be an ongoing trend for Surendra, as he attempted to land a part that he thought would end "with an Oscar in my hand," as he told A Plus.
As Yann Martel — who authored "Life of Pi" — told Surendra during their correspondence during this journey, movies are “in the hands of Vishnu and Hollywood.”
So, while Surendra knew failing was a possibility, he carried on with his journey. Instead of giving up or not even trying, he immersed himself even further into this "imaginative world" while trying to become Patel.
He traveled to Maine to befriend castaway and author Steven Callahan, who wrote Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, he learned how to swim even though he had a terrible fear of water, and later wound up living in Munich for two years.
As we know, the part of Pi Patel would go to actor Suraj Sharma. Even though Surendra failed to land the part, he achieved many victories he never even set out to accomplish. Instead of landing a movie role, he discovered so much more, which he thinks can help people cope and relate to their own lives.
“For a lot of people, that might sound disappointing, but ironically, I needed to go through this journey to realize that in life, it’s often the process that is the important part,” he tells A Plus.
That "process" led him to finding happiness, and his path in chalk art and calligraphy, which he picked up while working at a living history museum in Toronto as a kid. He then began chalking that up into a full-time gig and business, where he is at the director's helm, if you will, called Letters In Ink.
What started out as designing wedding invitations has now blossomed into doing art for cafés, the Newport Folk Festival, and his own book cover. He chose to design his book cover with chalk because of the process involved. It's "beautiful," "stunning," and "it gets put down on a board and then it gets wiped away."
He adds, "A lot of people think that when you reach the end result, you now have something you can keep, but you actually don't. Everything in life is fleeting …"
Compared to life itself, Surendra is trying to drive home the point that we will fail, but encourages us to take that chance and jump off the edge of the cliff because one day, we won’t have it anymore.
You can read our interview with Surendra below, where he talks about his journey, his chalk art and calligraphy, and finding yourself through the failures you may encounter in life.
Also, be sure to check out the debut of this behind-the-scenes video where he shows us the process of creating the cover for Elephants in My Backyard.
Jason Pollak: So what inspired you to write the memoir?
Rajiv Surendra: So, the book spans the course of 10 years, starting on the set of Mean Girls and ends with me creating this career as a chalkboard artist. I started on this journey, thinking I'd end up with an Oscar in my hand, and I ended up with a piece of chalk in my hand (laughs).
For a lot of people, that might sound disappointing, but ironically, I needed to go through this journey to realize that in life, it's often the process that is the important part. It's the journey, not the goal. I know we hear that over and over again, but I think each one of us has experienced that in our own way in order to begin to understand what we need to do in our lives to be happy with ourselves.
So, the message of the book is about going on an introspective journey to figure out what you want with life.
Tell me a little bit about the cover art.
Yeah, it was really wonderful to do that. I filmed it because chalk is an ephemeral medium. It's not like an oil painting or a mural you might find on the side of a building that is permanent.
I think the wonderful part of the video is at the end when the studio asked me to erase it because they were going to use that chalkboard for something else. Some of the people that have watched the video have commented that it was really hard for them to watch me erase it all.
That's why I think it's important people see it. That's the most important part. That's what is so beautiful and stunning, the process. A lot of people think that when you reach the end result, you now have something you can keep, but you actually don't. Everything in life is fleeting and I don't think there is anything better to speak to that message than chalk. It gets put down on a board and then it gets wiped away.
Some people can relate that to life. We live it and then it's over. I find it very inspiring and it pushes me to take chances. You know, jump off the edge of the cliff and take chances, because one day it will be over.
Did you pick up this artform and calligraphy while on this trip?
I actually started doing it as a kid. When I was 12, I got a job at a living history museum called Black Creek Pioneer Village and we reenacted a lot of 19th century trades. So, it was through my involvement with these trades that I started doing calligraphy.
When I graduated from college and I was trying to figure out my next career move, a friend suggested I started using the skills I picked up to start a business because it was a lost art.
I took her advice and slowly started doing invitations for weddings and parties, chalk art for cafes and restaurants, and it slowly picked up and became a big thing. I think you see it a lot more now. That's why I wanted to put it on the cover.
I definitely agree. I can see the symbolism with the chalk art form and how it relates to life. It’s nostalgic, but new and fleeting at the same time. Those are cool factors.
Yeah, I also wanted to take people into the imaginative world that I've lived in my whole life.
I was an actor and that forces you to completely suspend your world. The book is about me trying to land a role in the film, Life Of Pi, which was in my leather satchel for six years while I was on this journey.
I would pick it up, and read it, and dive right into the story. I felt like chalk captured living in this kind of world. You can sketch your own reality.
Definitely. So, this journey took place across a number of different countries. When did it first start? When did you leave to go to India?
Yeah, I was 18. It was my first year of college. I went to India for three months to immerse myself in the culture, thinking I would come back to Toronto to audition for the part. Unfortunately, when I got back, I found out that M. Night Shyamalan had left the project, so the studio started back from square one.
This was a process that lasted for six years. New directors came on, then backed out. So, over these six years, I went back to college and while I was at school I did even more research on the project, hoping it would happen. I didn't know how long it was going to take, but I learned so many things.
I had a huge fear of the water. I didn't even know how to float, but I learned how to swim and this part forced me to do it. I read books by castaways who somehow survived. One of them was named Steven Callahan, who lives in Maine. He wrote a book, Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea, about spending 76 days on a rubber life raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I tracked him down, flew to Maine, and became friends with him.
I was taking a chance investing all of this time into becoming Pi Patel. So, that's what this story is about. Don't be afraid about taking a chance. Even though there is no guarantee, you still should go for it. I didn't know how I would react to finding out I would not get the part, but the resolution is in the book. I'm not going to give it away! I will say though, that it resolves itself in an unexpected place, in Munich. It's kind of a medieval, fairy tale city, and I spent two years there.
Yeah, I find it particularly interesting because instead of having the one victory of landing the part, you had many victories in discovering who you were, traveled the world, and started a business. There was a lot you learned from your journey, even though that wasn’t the goal in the beginning. I feel like that is very relatable.
Yeah, totally. I think a huge part of that is learning how to take a failure and turning it around and making it a positive. While writing the book I actually got some great advice from Yann Martel, who wrote Life of Pi. We corresponded for six years while I was going after this role.
What he told me, really applied to what you just said. This story had to be a universal story, it couldn't be just my story. I had to write it in a way where people could look at their own lives and say, "That applies to me."
So, the key message in the book is that every single person in this world will encounter failure, but what can you make of failure and loss? How can you take a failure and turn it into a growth experience and something positive? How do we deal with negative situations in a constructive way?
I didn't get this part, however, I learned how to deal with disappointment. As an artist, I've experienced failure as well, but it doesn't hit me as hard because I know how to deal with it now.
I saw you did some art for the Newport Folk Festival and your video features some music from the festival as well. I’m actually reading a book about Bob Dylan and the moment he went electric at the festival called "Dylan Goes Electric!" It’s such a strange coincidence.
That is a really weird coincidence. How I got to the festival is also a weird coincidence. The music for my chalk video is by Maybelle Carter. She is considered the mother of country music and it was recorded at the Newport Festival in 1963. For those who don't know, she is June Carter's mother, who was married to Johnny Cash. I had been a huge fan of Maybelle's and I found this live recording of the song, but I needed rights to it.
So, when I asked the people who run the festival, they were like, "it just so happens we need a chalk artist...". They told me if I came to Newport and do some art for them, they'd let me use the song. To add to the coincidences of this story, when I was doing the artwork, there was someone performing a Maybelle Carter song at one of the workshops they had going on. I thought this was really creepy, but there you go, the Newport Folk Festival working its magic in a weird way.