KOOTHRAPPALI A ND THE BIG BANGIN DIANS
Indian actors go mainstream on American television, eschewing stock characters of the store owner, lawyer and doctor
Kunal Nayyar, the Los Angeles- based Indian actor famous for playing scientist Raj Koothrappali in the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, recently ran into an admirer at a restaurant, who promptly made a predictable request: “OhmyGod, Raj,
Big Bang Theory, canI get a picture?” Nayyar pointed out the problem: They were standing side by side in the washroom. Undeterred, the fan took out his phone and clicked. “I guess you’re famous when someone takes a picture of you in the urinal,” recalls Nayyar with a laugh.
Come September, Americans will reconnect with Raj and several others. Among the most anticipated new seasons of high- profile US TV shows are several featuring Indian actors and characters. Has Raj finally kicked his inability to talk to women without alcoholic aid? Will Dr Mindy Lahiri find Mr Right? Will Kalinda Sharma’s new love interest be male or female? Who’s interested in Rent- a- Swag, the business started by Tom Haverford, the ludicrously renamed Indian- American?
Feverish speculation on these questions attests to the mainstream appeal of Indian characters on various hit shows. Mindy Kaling, whose comedic talent in The Office won rave reviews, now has her own show, The
Mindy Project, on Fox. Stand- up comedian Aziz Ansari so impressed the writers of Parks and Recreation that they created his character just to get him on the NBC show. Reshma Shetty adds dollops of oomph to Royal Pains on USA Network. British- Indian ac- tress Archie Panjabi has won an Emmy for her role in the CBS drama
The Good Wife. Her compatriot, Dev Patel, is in HBO’s The Newsroom. Hannah Simone, who is partly of Indian heritage, is the lead character’s best friend on the Fox sitcom New
Girl. Other actors of Indian heritage, including Adhir Kalyan and Danny Pudi, have been noticed in shows like
Rules of Engagement and Community. Indian actors are not exactly new to American television— Kal Penn on
House, Naveen Andrews on Lost and Sendhil Ramamurthy on Heroes are some recent examples— but the current crop is certainly more high profile. Part of it may be due to the growing visibility of the Indian community in the US. “Going to a supermarket, a law firm or a doctor’s clinic, you’re going to see Indians as we’re part of this culture now,” says Nayyar.
The television industry is taking note. “You have networks, studios and different people pushing for diversity in shows, saying this is what the world now looks like, and so we have to be open to populating the shows with a much more realistic world,” says Bela Bajaria, executive vice- president of NBC’s Universal Television and head of the studio producing hit shows such as Parks and Recreation, The Mindy Project, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Even as Indian actors are becom
ing more visible in US TV shows, their roles are a far cry from old stereotypes such as Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the convenience store owner in The
Simpsons. They have also managed to avoid newer stereotypes of being doctors or cab drivers. Nayyar’s Raj
Koothrappali is a socially awkward astrophysicist at Caltech; Shetty’s Divya Katdare is an assistant to a doctor practising in the upscale Hamptons near New York; Ansari plays a Muslim Indian American city official who has changed his name to a more politically palatable Tom Haverford; Panjabi is Kalinda Sharma, a cynical, sexually mysterious private eye; The
Newsroom’s Patel is blogger Neal Sampat; Simone is Indian- American model CeCe Meyers; and while Kaling does play an obstetrician/ gynaecologist in The Mindy Project, her ethnicity is incidental to the plot.
Says Bajaria, who was instrumental in getting The Mindy Project on air, “Mindy happens to be Indian but she’s essentially Bridget Jones— the show is not about being Indian, she just
happens to be Indian.” Shetty believes the same is true of Divya in Royal
Pains: “She’s in the show because of who she is. Being Indian is just a fabric, it’s not the essence.” Adds executive producer Michael Rauch, “Her background allows viewers a peek into a culture they may not know well. Her conflicts, while often specifically Indian, are also often universal.”
The Indian- American community has now established itself well enough for the current generation of American TV writers to have often known Indian children at school. “Divya was based on a childhood friend of mine, who always seemed trapped between ambition and tradition. And it seemed like a promising internal conflict for a character in this world of the Hamptons,” says Andrew Lenchewski, also an executive producer of Royal Pains. The writers are familiar and comfortable enough with Indian- Americans not to feel the need to exaggerate. “The reason I love being on Big Bang, and its writers, is that they make fun of everyone— Jews, whites, blacks, Indians, Americans,” says Nayyar.
Still, while several Indian characters on recent shows have been wildly popular both with audiences and critics, Kaling is the only one with the lead role— and she writes and produces her own show. That may soon change, with new shows being penned by Indian writers. Bajaria’s studio is now considering two such shows, one by Aseem Batra, and the other by Sanjay Shah, based on his own experiences in an Indian- American family. If they get made, both are likely to have a wider cast of Indian characters.
Bajaria, who is the only Indian executive to head a major US television studio, believes the audience is ready to accept Indian characters as part of the mainstream. “Just as the Cosbys or the Jeffersons were once mainstream hits, I think there’s definitely going to be a time when an Indian show does that,” she says, referring to
The Cosby Show and The Jeffersons, successful sitcoms that portrayed African- American characters from the mid- 1970s to the early 1990s. With the current cast of characters, and more waiting in the wings, it appears that the Indian- American community, which makes up just about 1 per cent of the US population, has a happily disproportionate presence on the small screen already.
Aziz Ansari ( left) in Parks and
Recreation on NBC Born in Columbia, South Carolina, to Tamil parents; lives in Los Angeles.
Character Tom Haverford is a small- town parks and recreation official. AMuslim, he changes his name to succeed in local politics.
Season 6 premieres on September 26 in the US.
Other Roles I Love You, Man, and Observe and Report. Dev Patel ( centre) in
The Newsroom on HBO Born in London, lives in Los Angeles.
Character Neal Sampat is a journalist; he covered the London subway bombings with a cameraphone; writes a blog.
Season 2 is on air in the US.
Other Roles Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Kunal Nayyar ( left) in The
Big Bang Theory on CBS Born in London; grew up in New Delhi; lives in Los Angeles.
Character Raj Koothrappali, from New Delhi, is an astrophysicist at Caltech.
Season 7 premieres on September 26 in the US.
Other Roles Guest appearance on NCIS.
Mindy Kaling ( right) in
The Mindy Project on Fox Born in the US to a Tamil father and Bengali mother; lives in Los Angeles.
Character Dr Mindy Lahiri is an obstetrician/ gynaecologist, successful at work, but unlucky in love.
Season 2 premieres on September 17 in the US.
Other Roles The Office; The
40- Year- Old Virgin; author of 2011 NYT bestseller Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
Reshma Shetty ( right) in Royal Pains on USANetwork. Born in Manchester, UK; grew up in England and the US; lives in New York.
Character Divya Katdare is a beautiful and smart physician’s assistant who calls off an arranged marriage to friend Raj.
Season 5 finale is on September 11. Other Roles Lead role in musical Bombay
Dreams; 30 Rock and CSI: Miami.