In­dian ac­tors go main­stream on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion, es­chew­ing stock char­ac­ters of the store owner, lawyer and doc­tor

India Today - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Indira Kan­nan

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.

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