Five questions with Daniel Ashwin Pillai – a celebrated producer, director, host, and media personality who wants you to be yourself, love yourself, and value yourself
Photo Credit: Agnes Kiesz of Pure Studios
What was it like growing up?
I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and growing up as a child had its good and bad memories as was the case for most of us.
Good memories are that I had a lot of love from my family and I knew that – there was a lot of love between all of us. My mother is the youngest of 14 children and her entire family lived in Toronto, so I grew up surrounded by all my loving aunts and uncles. I had a lot of cousins as well. In many ways, my family, both immediate and extended was my first step into the real world, it was the first society I encountered and the first human connections I built.
It was tough growing up because I felt different and often times ostracized from the rest of my family. I grew up in a very large family so my effeminate behavior was always compared to that of my male cousins. I was always told that the way I acted, spoke, the things I liked and my habits were not normal for a boy. As a result, I always felt odd and different in social settings because I was always scared of those abnormal qualities being highlighted in front of everyone and thus being made to feel humiliated or embarrassed because of it. My dad was very embarrassed about it, so I was always conscious not to ignite any discomfort for him in social situations.
My parents are from South India but born in Fiji as is all my family. We originally came from Chennai centuries ago. My mother is Hindu and my father is a baptized Christian. I grew up learning about both religions but today my religion is “self-love.”
How did you come out?
I don’t like to use the phrase ‘coming out’ because it implies that the first realization or social acceptance occurs only when you decide to be open about your sexuality. The truth is, there is a step and an entire process that comes before that – a journey of self-acceptance, self-acknowledgement, and the process to find the will, power and courage to acquire and move forward with a new sense of self and a newly formed identity. It’s tough work!
When I chose to tell my parents that I was gay, it was an “I thought I knew my son” kind of moment for both of them. It was the first time in my life where I was openly sharing myself with my family and the first time they would have to start defining me or looking at me as an individual existing outside of their social norms and expectations.
When I told my father, he had a very negative reaction. He has not disowned me and he continues to maintain a relationship with me though we don’t acknowledge my sexuality. My mother was very calm and supportive in her initial reaction and in many ways it allowed me to have the ‘beautiful moment’ that many wish to have when they come out to their parents. It wasn’t until the next day that I found out that she had cried herself to sleep and was very confused.
Later, I found myself explaining to my parents the difference between a gay man, a transsexual, a lesbian and a cross dresser – I realized that both of them never knew what being gay was or what it meant. My parents grew up in a very different time, and with a set of cultural and social standards and responsibilities that I cannot identify with – they need to be understood just as much as anyone else. Telling them I was gay acted as a catalyst, which led to conversations where we all started to discover one another. This discovery exists on a completely different level. It’s tough, but it’s beautiful at the same time.
Over the years, I have kept an ongoing dialogue with my mother and we have very light hearted and candid conversations about homosexuality. I encourage my mother and father to ask questions when they feel the need to. We’re open about it! I don’t have a negative reaction to anything they say and I don’t take things personally – I put myself in their shoes and I try to understand the world from their perspective so that it can be a productive and enlightening conversation for all of us.
What has been your inspiration in life?
My family inspires me – and it’s inspiration that I have only recently come to fully realize and acknowledge. We’ve all been through a lot together in our lives, individually and as a family. Now I feel that life has brought us back full circle – to each other. We all have a sense of acknowledgement and respect for each others individuality and how we function today as a family unit. Today, we look back at the things we have been through, the things we have said to one another and situations we have encountered and together, in that reflection we are inspired by one another.
With that said, I am truly inspired by my mother and grandmother. They are two very strong women and have shaped my journey as a person.
What has been some of your greatest achievements?
I truly think the struggle I faced in my life was finding self-love, self-respect and the will and power to be who I was. Once I was able to acknowledge that and find happiness, pride and love in it for myself, I was able to share myself with others. To me, that is an achievement. I was in the ‘dark’ for a very long time, and I saw the light and now I am fully bathed in it. Life is a struggle, but I conquered the biggest one, being myself. I am still on that journey today, but the rest of life I am sure will be a piece of cake…challenges and all!
What is your message to the world?
My message to the world is to be yourself, to love yourself and always value yourself. We face so many instances in life that put all of these into question in our eyes and in the eyes of others. It should be our mission to never let go of who we are once we find that comfort and that level of inner piece.
For those of us still on the journey to discover our true selves, just know its always a journey and it will never end. Once you find your inner piece and self-acceptance you will always evolve and I wish you all nothing but love and luck!
Daniel Ashwin Pillai is a celebrated Producer; Director and Host/Media personality whose passion for telling stories have landed him as one of Canada’s most sought after entertainment experts. Like many in the media and entertainment industries, Daniel’s passion for entertainment began as a young child while watching Bollywood movies with his aunts.
A strong writer and project manager from the onset, Daniel moved on to pursue English literature at one of Canada’s leading universities, the University of Toronto. After graduating with an Honours Bachelor of Arts, Daniel worked to obtain a Masters of Arts in Communication and Culture from the joint program at York and Ryerson University. Daniel’s educational pursuits didn’t end there, in 2010, Daniel graduated with a Graduate Diploma in Asian Studies from York University and in 2011, Daniel earned a Post-Graduate Certificate from the University of Toronto’s Public Relations/Publicity Marketing program. Daniel is also a certified ESL (English As A Second Language) Instructor and has dedicated his time to teaching the English language, both spoken and written to new migrants to Canada through various educational programs at University of Toronto and Centennial College.
With his commitment to education and desire to constantly learn, it is no surprise that in less than five years, Daniel Ashwin Pillai has quickly become one of the go-to experts for all things entertainment in Canada, especially Bollywood cinema. A notable figure on many red and green carpets across the world, Daniel’s energetic personality and commitment to fact finding and thorough research have landed him interviews with some of the Bollywood and Hollywood’s largest celebrities. Notable interviews by Daniel include: Hillary Swank, Freida Pinto, Adrien Brody, Alan Cumming, Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014), MASSARI, Celebrity Fashion Designer Naeem Khan, Nazneen Contractor, Sakina Jaffrey, Rob Stewart, and David Rocco. Daniel has also conducted interviews with notable Bollywood celebrities and personalities such as Aamir Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Rani Mukherjee, Priyanka Chopra, Neha Dhupia, Dia Mirza, Vidya Balan, Zeenat Aman, Parineeti Chopra, Anushka Sharma, and Jimmy Shergill – just to name a few.
Having taken over the helm at ANOKHI MEDIA as the Director Of Online TV in 2013, Daniel produces, directs and hosts two of ANOKHI MEDIA’s Online TV channels: Pulse TV and Spotlight TV while also training new on-air talent, and showing budding producers, directors, camera operators and editors the real deal when it comes to media and entertainment.
Daniel was also a regular contributor for OMNI TV’s hit National Entertainment show “Bollywood Boulevard” has published several celebrity interviews, movie reviews and editorial pieces for The Wall Street Journal. Daniel has been featured in well-known news outlets across Canada including The Toronto Star.
Daniel’s insightful interviews and energetic personality on camera have made him a must-have at every well-known red carpet across Canada. As a prominent media professional, Daniel lives in North Toronto and devotes his free time to various human rights initiatives.