South Asians in Hollywood: From fringe to mainstream

This is a significant leap for the Indo-Pak talent pool that’s been trying to break into the mainstream...

Laaleen Khan July 06, 2011


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.


Laaleen | 10 years ago | Reply Part 2:
reader | 10 years ago | Reply

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!

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