Spring 2022 Cover Story: The Path Less Traveled

Photo by Annie Princivalle and Becca Baker

On a night like any other in Harrisburg, PA, 8-year-old Ritul Katoch was watching a Bollywood movie with his parents who had recently moved to the U.S. from a small, rural town in the mountains of India. As Ritul watched the actors on the screen, he felt his heart beat hard inside his chest and fantasized seeing himself up there on the big screen, transporting viewers to another world, a place outside of the sleepy suburbs of Harrisburg.

Back then (and even to this day) Ritul’s parents were having a dramatically different fantasy for their eldest child, their only son. His father worked at software companies while his mom studied in community college until they both found work in the medical field when he was in high school. They dreamed Ritul would grow up to pursue a profession that promised a practical and financially reliable future, such as medicine. They had worked so hard to bring their two children from Himachal Pradesh, the village in India where Ritul was born, to the promised land of America, with its world-class education and endless opportunities. They were sure Ritul’s quick mind and eagerness to help others would naturally lead him to be a doctor, and besides, who ever heard of a rich and famous Indian American actor?

Where It All Started

There is something to be said about carving your own path in life. Ritul Katoch, a warm, kind and driven person is doing just that. He has taken every opportunity to look at life the way he chooses and to carve the path that he thinks is best for him, despite the strict road his parents had him on and all of the diverging roads that have attempted to stray him from that path. 

Growing up he always loved to play pretend. His parents would take him to events put on by a local organization called the Asian, Indian Americans of Central Pennsylvania (AIACPA), where participants would have the opportunity to share traditional dances and songs with the group as well as network with other families. In this close-knit and open-minded group, Ritul found his chance to become an entirely different person: a host, the master of ceremonies of sorts. 

He auditioned, got the gig and stood up on stage in front of a community full of people that he felt comfortable around — thus beginning his journey as a performer. Of course, when he got up on that stage for the first time it was all about the nerves. He wondered if he was any good or if he would fumble his words and make a fool of himself, but he didn’t. 

“I did that all through high school till senior year. And I was like, ‘I really like this, but I mean it’s not acting,’” says Ritul. “At least I got to be up on a stage and see if I was comfortable with a bunch of people staring at me.” 

Once he realized that he was comfortable with performing on some level, he began looking for more ways to get involved; scouring his high school for chances to get in front of a camera or on stage. He joined the speech and debate club his freshman year, which was another chance to get used to speaking in public. But his real niche was the dramatic interpretation portion of the competitions that his club would attend.

That was the door that opened for him, finally letting him set foot in the acting world for real.

At this point his parents weren’t seeing this as anything serious. They were just happy that he was a part of a club and building his resume. 

After memorizing a 10-minute monologue, he walked into a small classroom that had only three people seated in it. His heart pounded and his hands got clammy. On his first attempt he stumbled with his words and asked to start again. The judges nodded politely and waited patiently for him to perform. He didn’t reduce anyone to tears, but since he was the only one signed up, he won by default. But still, a win is a win. 

That win got him to regionals, where he was put up against kids who had years of acting experience and knew their scenes inside and out. He unfortunately lost that time around, but in doing that, he saw the world that he could be a part of some day. Ritul was able to gain advice from those people and he was struck with the thought that he could be the one giving advice to young actors one day. 

“I loved it. I didn’t do many extracurriculars so I was able to dedicate a lot of time towards it,” says Ritul. “You know in high school you have to do presentations, which is totally different cause you don’t have to put any emotions into it, but for this you do. It’s an actor’s job to put emotion behind the words that are there, you know, the subtext.” 

Now he realized it was time to bring this up to his parents, but they were set in their ways. There were no pats on the back, no encouragement to follow his dreams, just a stern look and a harsh reminder of the reality that acting isn’t ever going to make you any money.

Photo by Annie Princivalle and Becca Baker
Mom and Dad, This Isn’t A Phase

Ritul was a son who always followed in his parents’ wake and walked on their path, but life had other plans. He knew that his parents weren’t going to be the most supportive when it came to switching up his life and pursuing a career that most consider unstable and unattainable and the lack of support that his parents blatantly showed put a damper on his plans. 

“Whenever I put myself in front of a camera, like vlog on my little iPhone 3 or something, my dad hated it. He thought I was a clown, which obviously, I’m sure I was at the time,” says Ritul. “But he would always shut me down and would tell me I didn’t have any talent so why was I even trying.” 

His mom, concerned for his and their family’s reputation, focused on what others in their community would say. Since most people in their close circle of friends all had kids going into very prestigious fields, like being a doctor, it was hard for her to wrap her mind around the fact that her son no longer wanted to pursue medicine. His mom continuously pushed for it to be an after-medical school endeavor and his dad vetoed the idea in any capacity — point blank. 

“I said to her, ‘I don’t really care what other people say as long as you guys are supportive, that’s all that matters to me,’” says Ritul. “My big thing was, even if I failed, at least I did it and can say that I tried. I won’t regret anything.” 

But for a time he believed what his parents said and put acting on the backburner. By the time he got to Penn State he stopped dreaming of being an actor. He had let his parents’ words echo in his ears, but only for a short time. 

“I just kind of lived on autopilot and with that doubt for a long time,” says Ritul. 

However, once COVID-19 became the frontrunner in our world, Ritul took his chance. He started taking his courses online, like the rest of the world, and threw in some theater classes. He also did a few auditions through school for student films and plays, just to throw his hat into the ring. 

As Ritul became more and more enthralled in the acting process, he started looking for role models in the entertainment world, especially if those actors didn’t have their family’s support. He noticed there weren’t many Indian American leads in the film world. Where was the Indian American Indiana Jones, Spider-Man or Luke Skywalker? Maybe he’d have to take matters into his own hands and blaze his own adventurous path in that world.

Life Is Art

The more Ritul went down his chosen path of acting, the more he loved it. Once school started back in person, he started auditioning for anything and everything. He auditioned for Penn State films such as “Player Piano” and “The Door.” He’s done a few student films, “Burnout,” “Where Your Treasure Is” and “Almost Heaven.” 

Stage acting was a familiar and exciting experience for him. He started with a small play that was being done at Penn State, just to get his feet wet. His acting professor pushed him to start small and take the chance, otherwise he might have been too nervous to get started. As it turned out, that particular piece was exactly what he was looking for on multiple levels, opening even more doors. This led Ritul to his other passion — helping people. 

“Art can be used as a means of getting away from the harsh realities of the real world, but at the same time it’s also a mechanism that can be reflective of what’s going on in the world too,” says Ritul. “This sometimes means that these are issues that need more light shed upon them.” 

The play was called “Dry Land” and it was about a high school girl forced to do DIY abortions. He played a small role in it, but the overarching message was something that Ritul found extremely important — women’s rights. 

That particular issue is something very close to Ritul’s heart. He is a founding member of the Student Pad Project at Penn State. The club started by raising funds towards helping women in rural villages in India, since many of them don’t have access to menstrual products. A nonprofit called the Praise Foundation that is located in a southern village in India was the direct recipient of the funds that were raised by the club. Raising even more than they anticipated led them to be able to start a pad-making site in that village. Women are now paid to operate the site and there are finally menstrual products available to all the women in the village.

“A lot of women in Indian villages are stay-at-home moms, but they obviously have aspirations as well outside of that,” says Ritul. “And of course it’s okay if they don’t either, but it’s really hard for them since they grow up in poverty and I’m very sure being a mom is hard too. So now working at a local pad site can give them a daily sense of satisfaction towards a goal that can directly benefit themselves, they sometimes don’t experience at home or feel as if they are missing outside of their day to day life.” 

Alongside his work for women in underdeveloped countries, Ritul also wants to be a voice for people who come from a similar background as him and want to pursue acting. It’s something that he believes not a lot of people who come from conservative Indian families get to pursue. 

In India there are a lot of lower-class communities and watching films is what brings them all together. A lot of people either watch them after long days of work with their families, if they can afford a television, or instead they go to a community theater to watch.

“It’s an escape from the harsh reality that they’re facing. That’s something I really felt a sense of similarity to. Like although I wasn’t working 15-18 hours in a day, this was also still an escape from the real world and the issues it brought for me. ” says Ritul.

Photo by Annie Princivalle and Becca Baker
Leaning Into The Escape

There was a time in his life when Ritul would sit in his mom’s lap and watch movies on his dad’s desktop computer. Circumstances of life would be swirling around outside of his dad’s office, but he would find himself immersed in the world that he was witnessing. 

Ritul’s parents had him when they were young, and only a few years later they moved to America, completely alone. It was a struggle for them to go somewhere new, especially with a kid, and have to adapt to an entirely new culture. These movie nights became a solace, an escape for him.

“I reached a point at a certain age where I just started to watch as many as I could in a week on my own,” says Ritul. “Stuff with high rotten tomatoes ratings, classic movies from the 70-80’s, as well as following certain actors and seeing how they developed into their persona through their movie history.” 

Over the years of being an avid movie lover, he has noticed one thing missing from most of those films — people who looked like him. 

There are a few films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” or “Harold and Kumar,” which showcase people like Ritul, but not nearly as many as there should be. There are lots of stereotypes and clichés in those movies, but that’s not what he wants to deal with. He wants to be in a role that has nothing to do with race or gender. It’s just an “anyone can play that person” role, and he wants it to be him. 

What keeps him on this chosen path is the hunger that there is nobody there yet. No one that really looks like him and has the background that he does. Nobody has taken that spot yet. There are the actors from most every walk of life out there, but there aren’t many that represent him yet. He can count on his hand the number of people that would be his competition in the industry today. 

“It sounds ambitious, but I feel like I have to do that,” says Ritul. “I have to be overly ambitious.” 

For him, there’s not much in the industry that shows an accurate description of what it’s like to grow up as an Indian American. Few have found a proper way to tell that story yet. 

He also wants to lean into the struggles that come with this life and this passion that he has chosen. There are no shortage of roadblocks for him but that’s what makes it worth it. Struggling is what makes a person better at things and that’s what Ritul appreciates about this path. 

“If you’re not experiencing real life then what you create is gonna be superficial,” says Ritul. “Your art suffers when you’re not out living.”

Forging A New Path

Taking the leap and making the change to a different path is easier said than done, but Ritul knows it’s worth it. There is a time to take risks, and doing it in college is one of the best of those times. 

Now that Ritul has made himself a home in the world of acting, he knows that he’s got nothing else to lose. Having thought it through and been given alternate paths to take, Ritul’s comfortable with the one he’s on. That being said, looking back to his past self, he does wish he’d started earlier. The earlier you start, the more mistakes you get to make. 

Despite being a humble Penn State boy, Ritul still has big dreams. He hopes to get a few big awards under his belt, perform both on stage and on screen and bring more representation to his community. 

“I hope to see more people that are younger, who saw me and wanted to do what I do,” says Ritul. “Individuals of color for sure, but if I can particularly hit the conservative south Asian American families then that’s the gold. That’s what I hope for.” 

Most of all, he strives to be the person that other people that look like him are chasing. The few people that he can count on his hand that look like him in movies are who he’s fighting to get to, but he wants to be that for someone else  one day. To be the stepping stone for a more inclusive world. 

“I want to be a voice to show them that you can do it,” says Ritul. “I’m not gonna be someone who’s like, this is my struggle and my struggle alone. I want to help more people work towards a career in the arts, in any arts, it doesn’t have to be exactly what I’m doing, but if there is a kid who loves to sing or dance or draw comics, and his parents don’t necessarily support that, I want to be an example that it can be done.”

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