South Asians in Hollywood: From fringe to mainstream

Published: July 6, 2011

Hollywood’s now including desis in films, sitcoms and TV dramas. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY

Hollywood’s now including desis in films, sitcoms and TV dramas. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY Hollywood’s now including desis in films, sitcoms and TV dramas. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY Hollywood’s now including desis in films, sitcoms and TV dramas. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY Hollywood’s now including desis in films, sitcoms and TV dramas. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY Hollywood’s now including desis in films, sitcoms and TV dramas. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY Hollywood’s now including desis in films, sitcoms and TV dramas. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY
ISLAMABAD: 

It seems that brown is the new black, and there’s no going back! The fast-growing South Asian-American demographic has led to some major changes in Hollywood studios. Motion pictures, sitcoms and TV dramas that started off featuring requisite African American, Hispanic and Asia-Pacific characters to represent diversity now also feature desis as bit part extras, token sidekicks, or prominent protagonists, not counting the production crew behind the scenes.

This is a significant leap for the Indo-Pak talent pool that’s been trying to break into the mainstream entertainment world, struggling to pay the bills while working in indie (independent) films on a shoestring budget.

Although there are several Hollywood heavyweights of South Asian ancestry working behind the scenes (M Night Shyamalan — born Manoj Nelliyatu Shyamalan, Tariq Anwar, Shekhar Kapur and Mira Nair), casting South Asians in mainstream Anglo-Hollywood projects has traditionally been limi-ted to projects set in the British Raj (Art Malik and Zia Mohyeddin), or with a backdrop of Third World squalor (Shabana Azmi and Om Puri), and even in soap operas, cast as randy Arab sheikhs (Kabir Bedi). Things have now changed, however; while actor Kal Penn (born Kalpen Suresh Modi) played teenaged Iranian-American terrorist Amer Ahmed on “24”, he also had the plum comedic role of Kumar in the Harold & Kumar films (the third instalment is out next Christmas).

It’s also likely that more and more desis are choosing film and theatre degrees as an alternative to traditional academic choices like medical, business, IT and law degrees. As a result, Hollywood’s new Indo-Pak breed is an eclectic group of trained, talented professionals whose craft humanises otherwise one-dimensional portrayals of South Asians as either insane terrorists in dram-atic features or goofy con-venience store clerks with an appalling accent in ensemble comedies (like Apu Nahasapeemapetilan on “The Simpsons”, as voiced by Hank Azaria). Although there are still plenty of computer geek and doctor parts for mocha-hued actors in mainstream Hollywood, they are now part of a wider spectrum of characterisations that include: The lovelorn co-worker (Kelly Kapoor, as played by Mindy Kaling, born Vera Chokalingam, in “The Office”); the geeky friend/colleague (Kunal Nayyar plays Raj Koothrappali on “Big Bang Theory” and Vik Sahey plays Lester Patel on “Chuck”); the boisterous college student (Kal Penn as Taj in Van Wilder 1 and 2); the rich playboy (Anil Kapoor as Brij Nath in Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol); the cancer-stricken surfer dude (Manish Dayal is Raj Kher on “90210”); the savvy British Asian doctor (Parminder Nagra as Dr Neela Rasgotra on “ER” and Reshma Shetty as Divya Katdare on “Royal Pains”); the pendu-but-likable Pakistani exchange student (Adhir Kalyan plays Raja on “Aliens in America”); the thwarted ex (Noureen DeWulf plays Melanie in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past); the attractive mathematician (Navi Rawat plays Amita Ramanujan on “Numb3rs”); the forbidden love interest (Bipasha Bashu is Tulaja Naik in Singularity); and the refreshingly non-Muslim comic-book villain (Irrfan Khan as Nels van Adder/Proto-Goblin in the upcoming The Amazing Spider Man).

In fact, actors with South Asian ancestry, including biracial ethnicities, are even getting cast for parts that could have been written for Caucasians, Hispanics or Italians: Aasif Mandwi played neurotic literary editor Bob Spaulding in Sandra Bullock’s The Proposal; Kal Penn was Dr Lawrence Kutner on “House MD”; Aziz Ansari  played Eugene in I Love You Man, Matty in Get Him to the Greek, and the hilarious Tom Haverford in “Parks and Recreation”; Aishwariya Rai Bachchan was cast as the feisty Mira in The Last Legion and Sonia Solandres in Pink Panther 2; Rhona Mitra’s savvy lawyer Tara Wilson moved from “The Practice” to “Boston Legal”; and Janina Gavankar, who played the Eva Torres in “The L Word”, is “True Blood’s” latest shape shifter in the form of Luna Garza.

International crossovers, between commercial Bollywood, the indie film festival circuit and mainstream Hollywood, create a more sophisticated global audience which appreciates — and expects — multiculturalism on the screen as well as behind the camera.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2011.

Correction: July 7, 2011

An earlier version of this article carried the incorrect spelling of Manish Dayal’s name.  The error is regretted.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • Ali
    Jul 6, 2011 - 8:44PM

    You also forgot Archie Punjabi on one of those american cia type dramasRecommend

  • fahim
    Jul 6, 2011 - 9:46PM

    95% of the names listed above are Indians and Bollywood… why are we trying to now be part of “South Asia” club ? Where is our contribution? shameless.. Recommend

  • Faria
    Jul 6, 2011 - 10:08PM

    Great piece Laaleen. Personally, I still feel there is a great deal of type casting though. Hollywood, unlike British media, does not reflect an integrated society.It has the token minority character – and now that black people and Hispanic community have their own channels of communication producers are going with the new exotic breed of Amreekan.Recommend

  • Paras Vikmani
    Jul 6, 2011 - 11:46PM

    Indians appear in Hollywood movies but which Pakistani has appeared?Recommend

  • Bushra Minhas
    Jul 7, 2011 - 12:00AM

    Pretty soon Ali Zafar will be the toy that Hollywood will be foaming at the mouth. There are rumors that Angie Jolie is researching a project to be able to cast him, But can he handle the sexy sultry damsel from Hollywood? Recommend

  • Ahad Malvani
    Jul 7, 2011 - 1:28AM

    @fahim: Because Pakistan is a part of South Asia. We’re all South Asian by ethnicity, and have lived together, in one nation, for centuries. South Asia (Pakistan-India-Bangladesh) forever!Recommend

  • Gheeli _Chuddi
    Jul 7, 2011 - 5:45AM

    Good!?Recommend

  • Rajesh Khanna
    Jul 7, 2011 - 7:31AM

    & Sreelanka also.Recommend

  • Jul 7, 2011 - 10:57AM

    This was an overview of South Asians making it in mainstream Hollywood. Stay tuned for part 2 of this series which focuses specifically on Pakistanis and the Muslim experience. Thanks for reading!Recommend

  • Thinker
    Jul 7, 2011 - 12:20PM

    Indo-pak doesn’t sound good…
    Afghan-pak Rockss\m/….Recommend

  • Jul 7, 2011 - 1:06PM

    Very well written, Laaleen. Thanks! Enjoyed the piece :)Recommend

  • Talha
    Jul 7, 2011 - 2:10PM

    @Paras Vikmani

    Just one search would have been able to provide you with the required results.

    I will do the work for you, I know you don’t want the answer, you just want to be an annoyance here.

    Faran Tahir (Iron Man, Star Trek)
    Dilshad Vadsaria (CSI, Bones)
    Iqbal Theba (Glee)
    Geoffrey Arend (Body of Proof)
    Gregory J. Qaiyum (Rescue Dawn)
    etc

    These are some of the current ones, there a good number of them from yesteryears too like Art Malik.Recommend

  • Jul 7, 2011 - 4:16PM

    Yes, please wait for Part 2 & 3 of this series, there’s a lot more! Thanks
    @Talha: I had all the names on the list except for Geoffrey Arend, good one–thanks for that.Recommend

  • Disco Molvi
    Jul 7, 2011 - 4:55PM

    @Talha: Good list, I only knew about Faran Tahir (son of actor Naeem Tahir). Also Art Malik, the bad guy from ‘True Lies’ and who recently starred in ‘The Wolfman’.Recommend

  • Disco Molvi
    Jul 7, 2011 - 4:59PM

    Oh my bad, you’ve listed Art Malik…it escaped me the first time.Recommend

  • Talha
    Jul 7, 2011 - 5:13PM

    @Laaleen

    Thank you, I look forward to the rest of this series.

    Keep up the good work.Recommend

  • Jul 7, 2011 - 5:28PM

    And thanks, FareenRecommend

  • Patrick
    Jul 7, 2011 - 6:17PM

    While having south asian actors in Hollywood films/serials is good, the real influence comes from wielding the financial muscle and in this the Indian Companies are streets ahead:

    Reliance (Ambani Group):
    The company has signed a $1.2 billion debt-equity deal with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG for 36 movies over six years, with 50 percent control.

    Indian media companies such as Zee, NDTV co-own a number of British and American production houses

    and conversely:

    Hollywood studios such as Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, Sony and Fox are already co-producing movies in India. in 2009, the international arm of the Motion Picture Association of America set up an office in Mumbai to represent the growing interests of Hollywood studios in India…

    It helps if you are percieved to be a responsible member of the world community !Recommend

  • Anwar
    Jul 7, 2011 - 6:56PM

    Why don’t you guys actually research something before writing it. There are many Pakistanis who have already worked in Hollywood and WILL be working in Hollywood soon.

    Farhan Tahir has risen to become a star today after he performed in one of the leading roles in “Star Trek” and “Iron Man”.

    Rahat Fateh Ali khan has done the music for Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”

    Sajid Hasan, Azfar Ali and Adnan Siddiqui have also been roped in to play roles in the Hollywood movie “A Mighty Heart”

    Mahnoor Baloch recently was in Hollywood shooting “Two Mothers” with Farhan Tahir

    Hajaz Akram had film roles in “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” and “Batman Begins”

    Mina Anwar has been in many British films and BBC sitcoms

    Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood screenwriter and director, most famous for writing the Showtime hit series “Sleeper Cell”

    Greg Qaiyum acted with the Manhattan Theatre Club in the hit London play, “East is East”. His film credits include “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”, “On The Line”, and “Drumline”.

    Christel Khalil is best known for her role as Lily Winters on the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless”. She played the role from August 15, 2002 until September 2, 2005.

    Would you like more? ET you’re losing readers everyday, I’m even joking. You love to shove your heads into india, a country where 79% of there population lives below $2 a day, give me a break. There is plenty about Pakistan you people never want to highlight. Please smarten up and do some investigative work for a change. Journalism in Pakistan is pathetic! We already have GEO TV to give us twisted and wrong information please don’t do the same. Recommend

  • indian guy
    Jul 7, 2011 - 9:03PM

    @ Laleen Khan

    sorry to prick your bubble. These are not pakistani actors. they are Indians (except maybe Tariq Anwar- who is he?)Recommend

  • Patrick
    Jul 7, 2011 - 10:55PM

    @Anwar:
    Talking of doing your research where did you come up with the ’79% of Indians live under $2 per day ?’

    But even if for the moment we accept your figures, the important thing is where the country is headed and for any development statistic you care to mention, India is going upwards while pakistan is stagnant or in some cases headed downwards!

    Also, since this topic is about movies and media, it is an undisputed fact that as far as film and media industry is concerned, Pakistan is not even in the same ball park as India !

    And It is no shame to admit that India is not in the same ball park as Hollywood either in technology and professionalism.

    But then do we really want to be like Hollywood anyway? or would we like our movies and stars to reflect our values ? Indian movies are popular from Turkey to Malaysia and even Japan and Korea because they respect certain values and sensibilities that west does not!(western movies are full of nudity, explicit sex, rude and uncouth language by leads no respect for elders …)

    I personally have no problem if no Indian actors made it big in Hollywood we have our own industry and audience (as Amitabh Bachan once said). We do not need Hollywood except to learn about technical aspects of movie making.Recommend

  • jimmy
    Jul 12, 2011 - 7:03AM

    @Ahad Malvani: i think u misread his statement, he meant the most of the actors(acting in hollywood) mentioned in the article or either indian born americans and bollywood actors.

    Recommend

  • jimmy
    Jul 12, 2011 - 7:14AM

    @Anwar: yes the poverty in india is true. i agree. lol what abt pakistan, even pak has high levels of poverty, terrorism, religion clashes, war bw shia and sunnis, and who can forget , hiding osama for years right under the nose of the pak army. i am not disrespecting pak origin actors who acted in hollywood they too are really good. But the real influence comes from wielding the financial muscle and in this the Indian Companies are streets ahead:

    Reliance (Ambani Group):
    The company has signed a $1.2 billion debt-equity deal with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG for 36 movies over six years, with 50 percent control.

    Indian media companies such as Zee, NDTV co-own a number of British and American production houses

    and conversely:

    Hollywood studios such as Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, Sony and Fox are already co-producing movies in India. in 2009, the international arm of the Motion Picture Association of America set up an office in Mumbai to represent the growing interests of Hollywood studios in India… . Google these information , if you dont believe it.

    Recommend

  • jimmy
    Jul 12, 2011 - 7:30AM

    @Patrick:
    while i agree with 90% of wht u hve said. Let me tell you thtat just because hollywood has sex, nudity etc. it does not mean tht its a vulgar industry. They hae variety of stories for different age groups. B/w bolly and hollywood. hollywood is way superior, most of bollywood films are copied from hollywood/other countries. Out of 100 bollywood films every year only 10-14 does well. While its good to hear that bollywood films are popular in turkey, malaysia, uae etc. hollywood films get more revenue than bollywood even in those type of countries. Reagarding skin show: lol ever since murder became a big hit in 2004, majority of bollywood films have now either a kiss scene, skin show, bikini, item number wth skimpy background dancers.. so wht culture are u talking abt !! i am nt trng to be a moral police. I dnt mind if these elements are there in a film or not. Its important for bollywood to keep changing during different times. Otherwise there may be an unfortunate day where hollywood will overtake bollywood in india itself. You may disagree with me now, but wait and watch :)

    Recommend

  • reader
    Jul 15, 2011 - 2:59PM

    these are all indian actors.. where are pakistanis? if there was a part 2 & 3 u shud have mentioned it in the article before hand.. or change the title to blah blah bllah part 1.. otherwise people will keep criticizing this article.. which i must say was misleading!

    Recommend

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