Aneesha Madhok stands behind the message of ‘Bully High’

Aneesha Madhok as Maryam Ali in Bully High. Photo credit: Bully High.

Aneesha Madhok stars as Maryam Ali in the Bill McAdams Jr. coming-of-age drama Bully High.

Bully High centers around a Pakistani exchange student, Maryam Ali (Aneesha Madhok), who proudly wears her hijab to her new high school, triggering bigotry and harassment from school officials and other students, particularly the class bully Scarlett Smith (Taylor Jabara) and the school’s Government teacher Bob Walker (Bill McAdams Jr.), whose traumatic pasts are the basis for their personal resentment toward Maryam. Bob’s son and star of the school baseball team Zack Walker (Cedric Begley) falls for Maryam, causing conflict between him and his Christian father. Meanwhile, Maryam’s new friend, a Christian lesbian named Nicole White (Caroline Stella), also fights to strip away stereotypes and stand up for her right to live in peace.

Written and directed by Bill McAdams Jr. (Gallows Road, Jose Canseco: The Truth Hurts), Bully High is both a love letter and a scathing commentary about the prevalent and controversial issues of religious prejudices, sexual orientation, and bullying.

The cast also includes Joseph Baena (son of Arnold Schwarzenegger) in his first significant film role, Moroccan fashion model Abla Sofy, Betsy Russell, Brent Anderson, Monet Weir, Grace Pippas and Duke Van Patten.

Check out our interview with Aneesha!

Aneesha Madhok as Maryam Ali, Bill McAdams Jr. as Bob Walker and Caroline Stella as Nicole in Bully High. Photo credit: Bully High.
For anyone who’s not really familiar with the story, how would you describe it?

Aneesha: I would describe the story as a Pakistani Persian Muslim girl who gets bullied in high school, but she defeats violence with love.

Short and sweet, I like it.

Aneesha: If I were to go into detail, the girl who wears a hijab is bullied, the main character that I play, Maryam, and she’s had girls tear off her hijab. And these are all events that are based out of true stories post 9/11 in America where minority groups were targeted, due to, you know, the consequences they bear from the extremists that come from their communities. As we all know, terrorism does not have a color, but unfortunately, if a person from a minority group commits a terroristic attack the whole group bears the consequences. 

That’s heavy stuff. What was it about this story that really drew you in to being a part of the project?

Aneesha: Looks like I’m getting vulnerable here, now. Okay, I was bullied in high school in India. My bullying was very interesting. The girls from my year didn’t like me because I was made the president of the dance club of my school and that caused a lot of problems in my life, like them, you know, spreading rumors about me, emotionally abusing me, and so forth, which made me a lot stronger and connected to the story at some points. I felt like I wasn’t even acting, just merely reliving my own past traumatic events. And one thing that really inspired me about the film was how women should come together and rise up and support one another instead of bogging each other down. And that’s what happens in the duration of the film and how my character wins everybody’s hearts through her love.

So what was it like playing a character that was very close to yourself?

Aneesha: Maryam is very close to me but also very different in many ways. Like now I’m the person that would stand up against violence and I’m the first to stand up for myself. Maryam starts out very scared in the beginning and she regains her strength in the middle of the movie. So we are quite different, but we’re also very similar. We’re similar in terms of all that we’ve dealt with in our environment, but we’re different as to how we deal with the consequences.

And also, you know, I don’t wear a hijab, and Maryam wears a hijab, and I just want to say that I respect myself for my values and beliefs, and I respect Maryam for her values and beliefs of wearing a hijab. And that is a choice that women should be given. It should come from the heart and should come with your honesty because you know, your religion is personal to you, how you pray to God should be very personal to you, and no one should ever be punished for the way that they pray to God. Because God wouldn’t ask us to do that and the recent events that we saw in Iran, I’m not sure if you heard about it, but a girl was beaten to death for wearing the hijab, Mahsa Amini. So it is unfortunate and the reason why I bring it up is because of the difference that Maryam and I have we’re both good people, we are not bad.

Yeah, all of that just makes this movie more timely, too. What does it mean to you to be able to represent all of this?

Aneesha: It means the world to me to be able to represent all of this. I’m never one who is silent and even the motto of our film is, “silence is not the answer.” I’m the first one who believes that. Standing up for whatever is unjust is of extreme importance to me. I wish I didn’t have to, but I have no choice. I like to empower other women, including myself. And I just want to make sure that this world is safe for our future generations, especially our young girls.

Bill McAdams Jr. as Bob Walker and Cedric Begley as Zach Walker in Bully High. Photo credit: Bully High.
What was it like working with Bill and Cedric and all of the cast to create this story?

Aneesha: Bill is an excellent director. He actually spotted me when I was performing in a play in Whitefire Theater called “Infidel.” That’s how I got cast in the movie, that’s how I entered the world of cinema. So Bill was like a nest and I was like a bird. And he really nurtured me and taught me the differences between theater and film, and he really worked with me on becoming vulnerable for this character and had me go back to reliving my past to bring that sense of realism into playing Maryam. It was such an honor to work with him and I’d love to work with him again. 

Cedric was an excellent co actor who was with me from the start. I think his calmness brought so much to our scene even when it was not his take. He is a very giving actor. And as far as Joseph is concerned, he’s the son of Arnold Schwarzenegger, having Joseph on set was like a breath of fresh air. You know, he came a little later, but the energy that he brought was so light and airy. It was a very tense environment so he really just lightened it all up. I would say his comedic charm was like the relief the film set needed.

What would you say was the biggest highlight for you in creating this movie?

Aneesha: The biggest highlight for me in creating this movie is telling a story that so many people can relate to. So many people who are Sikhs, Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Middle Easterners, even Mexicans that have dealt with racism that have dealt with being scrutinized in society can have an outlet to let out and have an ethos. This is a film that is for everybody that has been a victim of bullying of any kind of violence. This film is for you. This is my highlight. This is why we tell the stories that we do.

I love that! So now that Bully High is coming out, what’s next for you?

Aneesha: Oh, what’s next for me is there’s a TV show coming out called “Patel Motel” under a new streaming service that offers South Asian content called Cpics and I’m also producing my film, Aliza, which is a film adaptation of my play “Aliza-Free” and it is going to potentially star my friend who I’ve known for 10 years. Amir Tyson. He’s the son of Mike Tyson.

If people want to connect with you or stay up to date with your projects, where can we follow you?

Aneesha: You can follow me on Instagram, @aneeshamadhok.

Alright, before I let you go, is there anything about Bully High that you would like to add?

Aneesha: I would just like to let everyone know that I hope the message can travel to your heart. I truly believe that being silent is not the answer. So if there’s anything that is unjust around you, being a bystander is not going to help us move forward. And I think that as we evolve as human beings, we must take a stand up against any sort of violence.

Photo credit: Bully High.
Bully High just premiered at the Catalina Film Festival and Chicago South Asian Film Festival. The film will continue on the festival circuit before screening publicly.