Do you remember the butt-dialer?
In early 2009, T-Mobile began airing a commercial for the BlackBerry Pearl Flip. In the spot, a woman chastises her husband for his annoying habit of sitting on his phone and inadvertently calling her. The husband was gangly and brown-skinned, with a proud, prominent nose. I called my best friend. "Dude," I said. "I think the butt-dialer is Indian!"
Here's a little secret about me: I like to count Indians. Ever since I was little, I've kept a running tally of the South Asian people I've seen on American television or in the movies. In the '80s and '90s, the pickings were slim. I remember being deeply disappointed to learn that Fisher Stevens was not, in fact, Indian, despite the fact that his head-wagging, malaprop-laden turn in Short Circuit was a blitzkrieg of cringe-inducing clichés. But did you know that the pretty bald woman in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born in Mumbai?
On television, things weren't much better. There was—and seemingly always will be—Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the lovable but polarizing Kwik-E-Mart owner on The Simpsons. And in the late '80s you had Jawaharlal Choudhury, the exchange student from New Delhi on Head of the Class, a sitcom about a rainbow-coalition honors class in Manhattan.
But around the time the T-Mobile commercial first aired, I started noticing that the ranks of South Asian TV stars had swelled. Several of last season's most talked about new series—Glee, The Good Wife, Royal Pains, and Community—feature a South Asian performer. (The last stars the butt-dialer himself, Danny Pudi.) The Office has Kelly Kapoor. Parks and Recreation has Tom Haverford. CBS's massive nerd-hit The Big Bang Theory has Rajesh Koothrappali. 30 Rock has Jonathan, Jack Donaghy's fawning assistant, who—after 68 episodes with no mention of his ethnicity—was finally outed as an Indian this season.
According to my count, primetime TV now has about a dozen South Asians in regular or recurring roles—and that's after the loss of Kal Penn on House, Parminder Nagra on ER, Naveen Andrews on Lost, and Sendhil Ramamurthy on Heroes. Meanwhile, a handful of newSouthAsian faces are waiting to make their debut next fall, and NBC is about to out-Indian everyone with its new sitcom Outsourced, based on a low-budget 2006 film about an American novelty company whose call center gets relocated to India. Why are there so many Indians on TV all of a sudden?
In part, it's a simple matter of demographics. Immigration from the subcontinent didn't begin in earnest until the late 1960s. So it's only now that U.S.-born Indians—who make up about half of the current crop of South Asian performers—are starting to gain a critical mass both in front of and behind the camera. Writer Ajay Sahgal has witnessed the boom firsthand. Back in 2004, he was having trouble casting the lead in Nevermind Nirvana, a semi-autobiographical sitcom about an Indian-American guy, his immigrant family, and his white fiancee. Sahgal explained to me how difficult it was at the time to find an Indian actor with the right mix of qualities: a good-looking, funny leading man with experience on a multicamera show. NBC shot the pilot with a pre-Harold and Kumar Kal Penn, but apparently he didn't test well. They recast the role twice—eventually with Sahgal himself—and rewrote and reshot the pilot, but the show didn't get picked up.
This spring, Sahgal shot a new pilot of the show—now called Nirvana—for Fox. With the appearance of guys like Adhir Kalyan on Rules of Engagement and Dileep Rao from Avatar, Saghal suddenly had a pool of actors on his radar with the right kind of experience: He didn't have to resort to "looking through the list of every million-dollar Indian movie with the word Masala in the title," as he put it. (The role eventually went to Ravi Patel, who was on Fox's Past Life this spring.)
But that's the supply side of the equation. The trickier question is one of demand. Why are Indians suddenly the "it ethnicity," as Ravi Patel put it to me?
This, too, is at least partially a function of changing demographics. More Indians in the fabric of American life means we're more likely to be a source of inspiration for non-Indian writers, like the two Jewish guys from suburban New Jersey who wrote Harold and Kumar—the title characters are based on their friends. Reshma Shetty, who stars as Divya on USA's hit dramedy Royal Pains, told me that her character was based on a Divya that creator Andrew Lenchewski grew up with on Long Island.
But according to Karen Narasaki, who heads the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, the rise in primetime Asians is also the result of advocacy. Her organization and its partners have been working with the networks to develop diversity initiatives for the past decade, ever since 1999's infamously "whitewashed" primetime season, in which not a single freshman show had a leading minority character.
Narasaki's group doesn't track all the various Asian-American subgroups, so it's hard to tell if Indians are rising in Hollywood at the expense of, say, Chinese and Koreans. But there are a few reasons why Indian actors might have more opportunities. America's growing fascination with Bollywood—and relative ignorance of entertainment industries in other Asian countries—may be opening some doors. Narasaki notes that TV executives tend to have a mental barrier that prevents them from seeing Asians as "stars" who can carry shows. But "Hollywood is intrigued by Bollywood," she says. It's not so much that Los Angeles wants to start aping Bombay's storytelling style, but when executives are thinking about diversifying their shows, the allure of Bollywood—and, more recently, the runaway success of Slumdog Millionaire—may mean that Indians seem more attractive than members of other Asian groups.
To float another, more radioactive theory: Are Indians getting a boost from America's interest in the Middle East? Do Indian characters—and it does seem to be mostly Indians, as opposed to Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis, or Nepalis—function as what film actor Satya Bhabha jokingly called "diet Muslims"?
Whether or not Indian characters are a way of safely avoiding the specter of other, more "dangerous" brown people, the fact that South Asian actors can easily pass for Middle Easterners may very well be contributing to their professional development. Performance historian Brian Herrera theorizes that South Asian actors may have gotten a boost from the flurry of terrorist-type roles that followed in the wake of Sept. 11. A one- or two-episode arc as a featured character on, say, 24 would represent a solid credit line for a young actor, potentially opening the door to more interesting opportunities down the line. It's a trend Herrera has noted with other minority groups, though in less-accelerated forms. "So many of the elder statesmen of Latino actors got their start doing gang stories in the '80s," he notes.
With the possible exception of Outsourced, there are no shows with true South Asian leads yet. It's therefore hard to completely dismiss the sense that mere tokenism is at work here—that Indians are just the newest a la carte option for making TV casts more colorful. But the optimist in me notes that there's an encouraging range of character types emerging. (I'm closing my eyes to things like this.) Yes, there are lots and lots of doctors and the occasional cab driver. But there's also a low-level government worker; a middle-American high-school principal; and a tough-talking, leather-boot-wearing, possibly bisexual Chicago investigator. If that's not progress, I don't know what is.
It's also heartening that many of these new characters are not defined by their ethnicity. Mindy Kaling's Kelly Kapoor is a blithering, slightly manic woman-child—she just happens to be Indian. On Parks and Recreation, Tom Haverford's ethnicity is similarly backgrounded, though the writers have occasionally used his ethnic identity, and the way it's misread, as the basis for humor. Tom was born in Bennettsville, S.C.—like Ansari himself—and changed his name from Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani to further his political career.
Ansari and Kaling, both writer-performers, are far and away the biggest stars of the bunch: He hangs out with Kanye West and hosted this weekend's MTV Movie Awards; she's a beloved Twitter star with a book deal, a movie deal, and a two-year, seven-figure development deal with NBC. Their own comic material has never really been about being Indian, and that's almost certainly being reflected in their TV roles.
The characters on NBC's upcoming Outsourced, on the other hand, are flagrantly Indian. The sitcom is about an affable Midwesterner who heads off to India to run a call center. Zany high jinks ensue as he tries to train his Bad News Bears-esque team of Indian employees to sell cheap gag gifts to Americans. You can't really judge a series from a four-minute trailer, but so far, I've smiled and gnashed my teeth in roughly equal measure. On one hand, the show traffics in some of the lamest, most shopworn punch lines imaginable. Indian food gives you diarrhea! Indian names sound funny! But even after I'd watched it a few times, I was still laughing at Sacha Dhawan's rendition of Glengarry Glen Ross and Parvesh Cheena's excellent comic timing. If my worst fears are realized—if the show is a mess of stereotypes that stokes American hostilities about outsourcing, or if the series fails and winds up a cautionary tale about how Americans don't want to watch shows with large Asian casts—I guess I'll at least be able to find solace in the fact that my Indian tally will have doubled overnight. If it succeeds, the very notion of keeping such a list might finally seem antiquated.
Click here to see a slide-show essay on Indians on TV.
The character was played by Mr. Stevens, a Caucasian actor in brownface. Rather than cast an Indian actor, the filmmakers had Mr. Stevens sit every morning in a makeup chair and get painted an “Indian color” before going on set and doing his “Indian voice.”
As a child, I thought the villain of the film was Oscar Baldwin, the banker who tricks Johnny 5 into helping him commit a jewel heist. As an adult, I thought the bad guy was actually Mr. Stevens, who mocked my ethnicity.
And now, here I was, a real Indian man, talking to the actor who played a fake one almost 30 years ago.
After a long conversation, I can confirm Mr. Stevens is not a villain, but was, when he took the role, a well-intentioned if slightly misguided young actor who needed a job during a more culturally insensitive time.
At first, he was remarkably casual, cooking dinner as we talked, seemingly happy to recall his days with Johnny 5.
“Originally, the role of Benjamin was a white grad student, and then the director and co-writer of ‘Short Circuit’ changed the character to Indian,” he told me. They then went to Mr. Stevens and asked, “Can you play Indian?”
It was 1987, so we were all a little less savvy about the things we were doing that were actually hurtful to large groups of people, and the answer, for a 21-year-old struggling actor, was yes.
What surprised me was how seriously Mr. Stevens dedicated himself to “becoming Indian.” He went full Method, studying with a dialect coach, reading R. K. Narayan’s “The Guide” and Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” “I started taking yoga and immersed myself, because I really wanted to be as real as possible,” he said. He even lived in India for a month before shooting “Short Circuit 2.”
Mr. Stevens’s efforts to make the character real, and not a full-on ethnic cartoon, are admirable, despite the underlying insult of his being cast. Toward the end of the conversation, it seemed to fully hit him how insensitive his casting may have been, and he said several times that he believed the role should have been played by an Indian and that he would never take it today.
These days, Indian people, real Indian people, pop up way more in film and television, but fake Indians are still around more than you think. I loved “The Social Network,” but I have a hard time understanding why the Indian-American Harvard student Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor. More recently, “The Martian” was based on a novel with an Indian character named Venkat Kapoor, who in the film became Vincent, a character portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian origin. (The Indian actor Irrfan Khan was reportedly in talks to take the role, but couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict.)
My efforts to get responses from people who made these decisions were unsuccessful. But I don’t want to judge them before knowing the full story, especially because I know that both films made at least some attempts to pursue Indian actors. I auditioned for “The Social Network,” and I was horrible. I tried to improvise and make the role funny. I was a young actor who didn’t understand what he was doing. I was also asked to audition for a part in “The Martian” (not Kapoor), but I skimmed the script and — no offense — it seemed like a boring movie about a white guy stuck on Mars for two hours who gets fired up about plants, so it didn’t seem worth taking a break from my own projects. (I’ve heard the film is fantastic.) So, I know the filmmakers made an effort to cast Indian actors, but how hard did they try?
I had to cast an Asian actor for “Master of None,” and it was hard. When you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: “You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!” But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options, and with each of them, something was off. Some had the right look but didn’t have comedy chops. Others were too young or old. We even debated changing the character to an Asian woman, but a week before shooting began, Kelvin Yu, an actor from Los Angeles, sent in an audition over YouTube and got the part.
So I get it: Sometimes you’re in a jam. Every time I’ve played a part that required stunts, they’ve been done by a white stuntman who has had to brown up. In those cases, the ethics didn’t seem quite as dubious. Training an Indian to do the stunts wasn’t practical, and a stuntman is not mocking Indian people; he’s tricking people into thinking it’s me, a real Indian. (If there is a heartbroken Indian stuntman reading this now: Dude, I’m so sorry, and you really need to get a better stunt agent.)
But I still wonder if we are trying hard enough.
Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.
Sure, things are moving in the right direction with “Empire” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” But, as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season. And whatever progress toward diversity we are making, the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low. (The numbers for women are depressing as well.) In 2013, according to a recent report produced by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at U.C.L.A., only 16.7 percent of lead film roles went to minorities. Broadcast TV was worse, with only 6.5 percent of lead roles going to nonwhites in the 2012-13 season. In cable, minorities did better, getting 19.3 percent of the roles.
For me, as a modern American consumer, these numbers come as zero surprise. Here’s a game to play: When you look at posters for movies or TV shows, see if it makes sense to switch the title to “What’s Gonna Happen to This White Guy?” (“Forrest Gump,” “The Martian,” “Black Mass”) or if there’s a woman in the poster, too, “Are These White People Gonna Have Sex With Each Other?” (“Casablanca,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Notebook”). Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an “everyman,” what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man. The “everyman” is everybody.
When we were looking for an Asian actor for “Master of None,” my fellow creator, Alan Yang, asked me: “How many times have you seen an Asian guy kiss someone in TV or film?” After a long hard think, we came up with two (Steven Yeun on “The Walking Dead” and Daniel Dae Kim on “Lost”). It made me realize how important it was not to give up on our search.
But I wouldn’t be in the position to do any of this, and neither would Alan, unless some straight white guy, in this case Mike Schur, had given us jobs on “Parks and Recreation.” Without that opportunity, we wouldn’t have developed the experience necessary to tell our stories. So if you’re a straight white guy, do the industry a solid and give minorities a second look.
And to anyone worried that it may be “weird” to cast someone who looks a certain way to play a certain part, because it’s not what people are used to, I say: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s true. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an unsung pioneer for minority actors. Look at “The Terminator”: There had to be someone who heard his name tossed around for the role and thought: Wait, why would the robot have an Austrian accent? No one’s gonna buy that! We gotta get a robot that has an American accent! Just get a white guy from the States. Audiences will be confused. Nope. They weren’t. Because, you know what? No one really cares.Continue reading the main story