Soumia Meiyappan: one of the last Canadians to make it to Jeopardy

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Fathers and daughters

Nurtured and encouraged by their families, Soumia Meiyappan and Sakshi Kanda, are each Movers and Shakers whose dads told them to simply go for it. I believe a woman’s first hero is her dad and when your hero tells you to grab a fistful of stars, you don’t question.
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Brampton’s Soumia Meiyappan, 30, seen here with Alex Trebek, the iconic host of Jeopardy, a popular game show. The Toronto desi may be among the last batch of Canadians to take part in the show as Jeopardy has changed its eligibility rules.

I met Soumia and her wonderfully warm family days before a momentous event was set to unfold: Y’see, Soumia had finally made it to Jeopardy and the episode featuring her was about to be aired.

Soumia sat on her father’s knees watching the American game show Jeopardy since she was five or so. Since then, all she has wanted was to become a contestant in a show that has cult-following status here in North America.

Coincidentally, Soumia will be among the last few Canadians to participate in the show as Jeopardy’s not accepting Canuck participants anymore.

To anyone that’s unaware of the steps involved to get into Jeopardy, trust me, it’s not easy. The threshold of intelligence and general knowledge needed can be daunting.

Although Soumia did not win big bucks, she gamely shared her experiences of the process, behind-the-scenes, the thrill and the lessons (life).

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The show begins

By day, Soumia works as a research associate in family medicine at the University Health Network. Currently, she’s co-leading a study examining the barriers patients face in following up with their family doctor after they have been discharged from the hospital.

When she’s not doing that, she’s aspiring to check off few items from her bucket list.

Last month, when the iconic theme music announcing the start of Jeopardy blared and the stage lit up, viewers saw a smiling and confident Soumia ready for the challenge.

As the fast-paced game show began, hundreds of Canadians cheered for Soumia.

Soumia was initially a strong contender, until she got the category every Canadian dreads- American history. Many said afterwards, it was unfair, but a philosophical Soumia believes since Jeopardy is an American show, it understandably features U.S. centric content. Canadians, she said, are expected to go the “extra kilometre” when preparing. The American history proved to be her undoing. She lost in Jeopardy, but won in life.

“I have been watching Jeopardy since I was maybe 4 or 5,” Soumia said. “It was my dad who introduced me to the show and it soon became a weeknight ritual where we would watch and keep score between the two of us. I think it was that initial friendly competition between my dad and I that sparked my interest in the show.”

So, when she received the invitation to an in-person audition in Boston in September last year (after passing a rigorous online screening test), Soumia was ecstatic. She had auditioned for the show six years ago, but failed to make the cut.

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This painting of Soumia as a Jeopardy contestant was rendered by her talented sister Pavi, an artist extraordinaire. Soumia Meiyappan is one of the last Canadians to participate in the American game show Jeopardy.

“This time around, I had had six more years of Jeopardy-watching and an audition under my belt, and I was a whole lot more confident,” she said.

Squeezing the buzzer on time requires quick reflexes and that’s a critical skillset to have in Jeopardy. Soumia practiced on ballpoint pens. She also schooled herself in ensuring her answers were in a question format because the Jeopardy rules demand that.

The audition

At the in-person audition in Boston, Soumia and 30 others had to answer a written test of 50 questions. Then, in groups of three, they engaged in a mock game with buzzers.

“This was really to see how we all played the game: did we project our voices well? Did we remember to phrase our responses in the form of a question? Did we seem nervous?” she said. “The coordinators let us know that they will keep us in the ‘contestant pool’ for about 18 months and that only if they wanted to call us to be on the show would they give us a call.”

Lights, camera, action

Less than two months after her audition, Soumia received the nod to appear on the show. Before she left for Los Angeles, her friends and family gave her a piece of advice: just have fun and remember, it’s the experience of a lifetime.

“I loved every minute of the actual taping, which took place in Los Angeles in mid-January,” said Soumia who someday wants to travel and write a screenplay. “The show’s coordinators were all so enthusiastic and amazing at pumping us up and getting us ready for the show. We did not know who we would face, as that was determined right before each show started. However, unlike at the audition, where conversations between contestant hopefuls was cordial at best, there was a real camaraderie between us in the green room, now that we all knew we had reached our goals of being on the show.

Alex Trebek, Jeopardy’s host is a fellow Canadian and it’s said many star-struck contestant that gawked at the host instead of answering  the questions were doomed. Our hometown gal Soumia is made of sterner stuff. She focused on the game, but nevertheless admits to being thrilled when Trebek introduced her as a “fellow Canadian.”

“I was so mesmerized by the beautiful studio lights and couldn’t believe how fast the game went by,” she told Toronto Desi Diaries.

Life after and the show

Soumia’s life, post-Jeopardy carries on. Even though she now knows how the “secret sauce is made,” she was afraid, the show would lose its magic. That has not happened.

“I am also fortunate in that not only do I have a Jeopardy-watching family, but can also count a number of colleagues as fans of the show – namely, Dr. Jeff Bloom, who is the chief family physician where I work,” she said. “Every morning, our conversation starts with ‘so, did you get Final Jeopardy last night?’ it’s akin to sports fans asking each other if they caught the game last night.”

On a side note: Soumia loves collecting snow globes. Her favourite  was the one she found in Sri Lanka. Who knew you could find snow globes there, she asks.

That’s life.

Stay tuned. In the next blog, Sakshi shares her secrets.

 

 

 

 

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Puja Amin: The passion, the promise and the pursuit of excellence

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Puja Amin, artistic director/founder of Sanskriti Arts Ensemble (SAE).

Puja Amin, artistic director/founder of Sanskriti Arts Ensemble (SAE).

 

Well, you can always spot the impassioned souls with a look into their eyes.

Puja Amin’s are sparkling and alive when she talks all things dance.

I think it may also have to do with the fact that as a Yogi, Puja’s mind and body are in sync with her spirit and that inner calm radiates outwards as well.

Coincidentally, as a child, Puja’s dad bribed his daughters to sit through the yoga sessions at home. The girls were understandably restless and did not care much for promise of enlightenment, but they stuck around.

Today, Puja, 37, can’t thank her dad enough because having an intimate knowledge of Ashtanga Yoga, classical dance and human physiology (she has a degree in physiotherapy), has allowed her to help students and clients find relief from pain, depression and other ailments relating to the mind, muscle and joint.

Dancer, choreographer, yoga teacher and volunteer, Puja’s hat rack is crammed. Her life, much like the dance she choreographs has had ebbs and flows, but right now, there’s just serenity.

“I have never looked back,” Puja says about her life’s journey. “I never regretted anything that has come my way. Every single thing in my life–whether right or wrong– has made me who I am today. I live in the moment. I don’t tend to look too far into the future.”

The student who loved to dance

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Puja Amin, artistic director/founder of Sanskriti Arts Ensemble (SAE) is a well-known Kathak dancer.

Puja, the artistic director/founder of Sanskriti Arts Ensemble (SAE), a dance and yoga academy with over seven branches across the GTA, has a coveted spot in the competitive “dance school” market in the GTA.

If her dad inspired her to pursue yoga, she credits her mom Daksha Shah with instilling in her the love for arts–both visual and performing.

As a young girl, Puja balanced the rigours of dance training and academics well. She excelled in both. Years ago when a six-hour dance session and a crucial exam fell within days of each other, Puja sought her mom’s permission to skip the rehearsals.

Daksha looked her daughter in the eye and said, “you knew about the dance and exam in advance and committed to both. So, now, you have to handle them both. No excuses.”

That’s why Puja’s students know better than to beg off from classes because of schoolwork. It won’t fly. She expects nothing but 100 per cent from them and in return she gives them all.

“By God’s grace, the path has come to me,” she said of her life as a dancer/yoga teacher. “I have never gone chasing anything. Life has led me to what I have become today and I accepted what it offered…”

Having worked with Bollywood heavyweights like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, a creative maverick with a Midas touch, Puja understands the demands of the profession.

“Working with creative minds is not easy,” she said. “When I worked with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, we would work for hours on a project and he would scrap the entire thing in a second to come up with something entirely different. He’s a creative genius.”

An uncompromising attitude towards work and a thirst for learning are not just traits, they are her signature. Puja who’s currently pursuing her master’s in Kathak hopes to attain an Alankar (PhD) sometime.

Through dance, she equips her students with empowerment, confidence and life skills.

“I tell my students they have to be something (pharmacist/doctor/accountant) and a dancer because you need a backup,” she said. “Degrees give you lot of insight, experience and knowledge and that never goes waste.”

The SAE (Sanskriti Arts Ensemble) has performed in concerts and music videos for Falguni Pathak, Boman Irani, Lisa Ray, Jonita Gandhi, Sukhwinder Singh, Lata Mangeshkar, Priyanka Chopra and Shahid Kapoor amongst others.

Puja Amin, artistic director/founder of Sanskriti Arts Ensemble (SAE).

Puja Amin, artistic director/founder of Sanskriti Arts Ensemble (SAE). Photo by Dinesh Shettigar of life in lens photography.

 

Dance Diaries

They say, your travels define you. At 16, a young Puja embarked on a 90-day trip to U.S. U.K. and Europe, alone. It was both frightening and exhilarating. The trip would prove to be significant in other ways too. When she returned, she made up her mind to pursue physiotherapy. All through her undergrad and work life, dance chugged along on a parallel track.

When Puja Shah became Puja Amin through marriage and moved to Canada, she worked in the field of Kinesiology for a year, but decided to pursue something that was fulfilling – teaching dance. She set up her school in 2003.

In a new venture, SAE has collaborated with Imagebuilderz to launch Dance Diaries, a workshop with Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan.

Starting March 25, Saroj Khan will be leading a couple of half-a-day workshops in Mississauga and Ottawa including a special one-on-one sessions with SAE students. The Toronto workshop will take place at the Sanskriti Arts Dance and Fitness Studios, 2249 Dunwin Dr. in Mississauga. The four-day sessions will end with a show on Monday, March 28 at the Maja Prentice Theatre in Mississauga.

“The main motivation behind this (workshop) is to provide a cross-cultural dance platform for kids and adults in Canada and learn from the best of the best in the industry,” said Renu Mehta, president of Imagebuilderz. “And who better than Saroj Khan whose name is synonymous with choreography and Bollywood, to provide that training.”

Puja’s excitement about the upcoming Dance Diaries is palpable. Saroj Khan’s contribution to choreography will go down the history of Indian cinema as path breaking, she says adding the inimitable Khan contributed to the success of actors like Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, Kareena Kapoor and others.

“I want my students to have the real experience,” she explained on why she was bringing Saroj Khan to Toronto. “Most people just dream of Bollywood. I want the students to know the process, the madness and the hard work that goes on behind the silver screen. And that’s where SAE is different. I don’t want us to do the technical stuff. I want them to dance to express.”.

Interested in taking part in the workshops? Visit here.