When Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal was a little girl, she loved being on stage.
But she set aside her passion for almost 40 years, out of respect for her father’s wishes.
The Mumbai, India, native whose family now resides in Gainesville, is co-star of “The Letters,” a feature film being released Friday about the life and struggles of Mother Teresa.
“This movie has been slated for release so long that I really didn’t believe it was being released on Friday,” Mody-Kotwal said. “It was supposed to be released two years ago.”
Mody-Kotwal plays Mother General, a complex character in the life of Mother Teresa.
“You don’t know whether to like her or to hate her,” she said. “She is the mother superior of the convent where Sister Teresa had taken her vows. When you take a vow at a cloister, you cannot step outside the wall of the convent.
“But Mother Teresa used to constantly look out the window and see the suffering on the road. And she would sneak out to help them, which was not liked at all by my character.”
The film will have a limited release beginning Friday and is showing at the AMC in Lawrenceville.
Though film and theater have “always been her love,” Mody-Kotwal avoided it for more than half her life.
“At a very young age, her father told her, ‘Decent women don’t get up on stage,’” said Nairika Cornett of Gainesville, Mody-Kotwal’s daughter. “So she gave it up for a while.’”
Mody-Kotwal first moved to the U.S. to study, and she acted in numerous productions in college. But she wound up working at a university in Indiana.
“She was extremely, extremely close to her father, but when he did pass away, she decided that she wanted to give into her first love, which was theater,” Cornett said.
Mody-Kotwal joined community theater and women’s acting groups, doing little productions, until something a bit bigger came along
“My brother came to the U.S. and was a theater major,” Cornett said. “In his first summer back home, he brought back a play and cast, and he cast her in one of the lead roles. That really ignited something in her.”
That was in 1988.
Today, she’s performed on West End, in Bollywood films, major motion pictures and all over the stage in India. She’s performed alongside Jane Fonda and Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei in the “Vagina Monologues,” which she brought to India from the U.S. and adapted in two Indian languages.
The off-Broadway play, originally written by Eve Ensler, is a series of monologues dealing with the feminine experience.
Mody-Kotwal has used the production, still running in India, to fundraise for women’s shelters in India.
“Her goal is ‘until the violence stops,’” Cornett said. “She won’t stop with these plays until the violence against women stops.”
Mody-Kotwal said acting, for her, is about the experience. She filmed “The Letters” in a small town on the coast of India called Goa.
“It’s a beautiful seaside town in India,” she said. “It has the most fabulous churches and cathedrals, so all the indoor shots were filmed there. And all the outdoor shots were in Calcutta.”
Mody-Kotwal was able to do much of the filming alongside the man who helped her get back into the career she loves so much.
“My son is also in the movie,” she said. “He acts as the archbishop of Calcutta. That was wonderful.”