There is a renaissance of sorts going on in American comedy for Indian and Indian-American actors. We have come a long way from the time when the only Indian characters found in American film and TV were deep-accented and exaggeratedly clownish minstrels whose entire purpose was to entertain audiences by mercilessly mocking Indian culture.
Even worse, the characters were sometimes played by white actors wearing heavy brown makeup, such as Peter Sellers in the (admittedly entertaining) 1968 film The Party. This was in form with Hollywood’s penchant in decades gone by for casting white actors into Chinese roles such as Charlie Chan or the Native American Tonto. Those days are now over, and the characters played by today’s Indian stars such as Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Russell Peters, and Jay Chadrasekhar sport American accents and mainstream western behavior completely in line with their white or black castmates. This transition says more about how America has changed than it does about the actors themselves.
The transition did not happen overnight. For example, before Kal Penn starred as a normal American dude with only passing references to his Indian-ness in the Harold & Kumar trilogy of movies, he took his turn in the minstrel role as Taj in the Van Wilder movies: the stereotypical Indian nerd. Russell Peters must attribute his initial success on the stand-up circuit with memorable lines where he made fun of ethnic minorities, including his own Indian family members. These are still the backbone of his shtick. And there is no question that these types of roles are still reliable for a laugh from American audiences, as demonstrated by the NBC prime time show Outsourced that ran in 2010 and 2011. A large reason this show was short-lived is probably because making light of Indian culture, or any other for that matter, can only stay funny and fresh for so long.
Memorable roles by Indian comedians since then have little to no references to Indian accents or culture at all. Mindy Kaling had an absolutely hilarious cameo as the ex-girlfriend to Paul Rudd’s character in 40 Year Old Virgin. Aziz Ansari plays a plain Midwestern small-town bureaucrat with an ambiguous name, Tom Haverford in the highly popular and critically acclaimed Parks & Recreation. Jay Chandrasekhar is just another guy in the Broken Lizard comedy troupe’s films- such as a dopey cop in Super Troopers, or an accident-prone waiter in The Slammin’ Salmon. Arj Barker was just another stoner in the Marijuanalogues stage show. And in what stands till today as the most successful leading comic role by an Indian-American actor, Kal Penn played Kumar in the Harold & Kumar films as a frat-boy type who just happens to be brown.
All of this points to the new profile of today’s America. In most towns and cities, a majority of Americans know Indian friends, neighbors, colleagues or classmates, whereas their parents probably did not. Many of them grew up in the United States and have normal American accents. Indians seem to be less and less exotic in pop culture as well as in real life.
Indian-Americans and Asian-Americans in general still face enormous hurdles in the acting business, because they experience relentless typecasting and pigeon-holing in Hollywood. Available roles are often as computer scientists, cab drivers, or terrorists which are what still makes sense to many Americans. But this trend is slowly changing.
The next step in the natural progression, and we are not there yet, is for Hollywood and the rest of America to see Indian actors simply as actors, even outside of comedy. Kal Penn tried his hand at a more dramatic role (Superman Returns) as did Russell Peters (Source Code), while Frieda Pinto sure looked good as a heroine in Immortals. But all were tiny roles. There have been other stints like this, especially on TV, but none has launched any of these Indian actors into A-list, leading role territory in a dramatic film or action film as a major American mainstream release. M. Night Shyamalan and others have already achieved this behind the cameras as directors.
When that does happen in front of the camera, the transition of Indians onto the pop-culture conscience as a completely normal piece of Americana will be complete. Till then, we can look forward to the renaissance taking place in comedy to continue. We know there are many other comedians we haven’t mentioned here today who are breaking onto the scene.
We have one example that has remained to this day the gold standard of an Indian acting in Hollywood: the British-Indian Ben Kingsley, whose portrayal in Gandhi stands as one of the great acting performances of our time. The path has been paved for the next Kingsley to come along.
Mahanth Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor.com