This Life with Gracie: ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ actress using paintings to empower women

Any time now, Tanvi Lonkar will begin work capturing the faces of South American and European women on canvas, hopefully, for the world to see.

She will first study their culture, then zero in on women’s history. If at all possible, she will interview a woman and then paint a mini drawing that incorporates what she learned to study and hopefully glean more ideas for the final piece.

This, the 22-year-old Georgia College & State University senior said, helps her come up with a composite of the larger painting, one in which women see themselves and, more importantly, their worth to society.

“Once I feel like I have a composition, I start the main painting,” she said.

To date, Lonkar has painted women from Tibet, women from Ethiopia, and women from her native Indian culture, enough to create “Women of the World” — a colorful collection on display throughout Women’s History Month at the Georgia College Women’s Center.

One of them, an 8-foot-by-4-foot drape of an Indian woman, is on display at the Metropolis restaurant, less than a mile from the Milledgeville campus. And come April, her art will be featured on the cover of Peacock’s Feet, Georgia College’s literary journal.

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Lonkar, you may or may not recall, played a beautiful, pre-adolescent girl forced into prostitution in the brothels of India in the Academy Award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire.”

As a child actor, it was difficult to fully grasp not only the importance of the 2008 film, heralded for drawing attention to harrowing conditions for children in the slums of Mumbai, India, but her role in it.

That changed as Lonkar, a psychology major, delved deeper into her studies and realized how demeaning, how damaging sex trafficking is to not just the soul but to humanity.

The more she learned, the more she realized she needed to do something, that she could use her celebrity and her voice to both empower women and change the way the world sees and values them.

It might not have happened had she not realized last year that she could minor in painting and the passion she’d held for the arts had remained dormant.

“It started me on this journey in my head that I need to do something that will empower women,” Lonkar said.

Painting had long been a favorite pastime of hers, but Lonkar’s focus shifted when an uncle learned of auditions in “Slumdog.”

“Before the movie, I’d never modeled or acted, but to be able to audition was super exciting,” Lonkar said recently. “Who doesn’t want to be famous?”

She would get six calls back before finally landing the part.

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Five years later in 2013, Lonkar graduated from high school, and after taking a year off, she decided she wanted to come to the States to continue her education.

When a cousin told her about Georgia College, that it offered good scholarships to international students, Lonkar decided to apply and in April 2014 was accepted.

She arrived on campus the following August, excited to live in a dorm, to pursue a bachelor of science degree in psychology.

When she signed up for an independent study class last semester, Lonkar’s only goal was to somehow take her passion beyond the classroom. She began researching women of the world and then painting them.

“I started out painting women from my own culture because that’s what I knew best,” she said. Lonkar then began researching women of African, Tibetan and Asian descent and putting them on canvas.

Not once did she imagine the paintings would get the attention they have.

“It just kind of happened,” she said. “I love doing faces, but I never thought people would actually think it was cool. The more attention my art gets, the more women I can reach and the bigger the impact of people’s perception of them.”

The reaction hasn’t surprised Valerie Aranda, Lonkar’s art professor.

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She discerned early on that her student had a critical eye toward consciousness-raising issues.

“Her artwork demonstrates an expressive use of color, emotional tension and a focus on women’s issues,” Aranda said.

And Lonkar’s sincere interest in and passion for art and social justice issues, she said, are having a ripple effect, encouraging students to learn about one another’s differences and commonalities and to think outside the box.

Although Lonkar is well aware her paintings won’t eliminate discrimination against women, she hopes they will at least help change the way women see themselves.

“When they see my paintings, hopefully they will see themselves as the strong, intelligent and content women they are,” Lonkar said.

Shy and nervous as a first-year student, Lonkar graduates as a young woman eager to make a difference in the world. She credits “Slumdog Millionaire” and Georgia College with shaping her into a “girlie” feminist, who’s ready to use her voice.

“College has not only changed me, it’s changed the way I think about the world and how I perceive things,” Lonkar said.

That includes women and her ability to speak for them and effect change on their behalf.

Find Gracie on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at

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