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From Cab Drivers to Doctors: Indians on American TV

 It is not easy being a South Asian and an actor in the US. But things could be changing says Ashish Kumar Sen.   

 It is not easy being a South Asian and an actor in the US. But things could be changing says Ashish Kumar Sen.     


American TV is slowly taking on some shades of brown. Over the past couple of months a slew of South Asian characters have edged closer to nudging The Simpsons character Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu off his pedestal as the most recognizable Indian face on television. Anjul Nigam, Purva Bedi, Ravi Kapoor and Meera Simhan are all part of a group of talented, creative, motivated actors working towards finding their place in the sun on the silver screen. A recent guest appearance by Anjul Nigam on NBC’s hospital drama ER, was followed by Purva Bedi’s portrayal of Priya Shailendra, a medical student, on the same show.

Is this an indication that the South Asian community has finally got a foot in the door of the tough world of American television? “On ER, I was playing a character whose ethnicity wasn’t specified. There was nothing about, ‘Oh, she’s our Indian medical student’,” says Bedi, adding, “The trends are changing. It’s not so much about accents or immigrants any more.” The serial has been the highest rated television drama in America for the past six years. Asked if the community was slowly being portrayed in more positive roles, Bedi laughs, “The question is, are we now moving from cab drivers to doctors!”

The growing clout of the Indian-American community especially on the political front must surely bring about a shift in the way the community is perceived. Many viewers, largely Indian-Americans, complain of the stereotyped portrayals of Indian-Americans as department store clerks or taxi drivers in films and TV. Nigam however feels this criticism is misplaced. “I think it’s OK to play a convenience store worker or a taxi driver as long as there’s some integrity to the character,” he says. Nigam’s TV credits, besides a guest star role on ER, include similar roles on NYPD Blue and Nash Bridges. “Being ashamed of Indian-Americans playing such roles would mean being embarrassed of our people who play these parts in real life,” he says. “As long as the role is intelligently written and moves along the plot of the movie it’s fine. I think to a certain extent every actor is typecast, even the Al Pacinos and the Robert de Niros, they are often cast as a Mafia boss or an Italian character. I think the important thing is whether the character you’re playing is written with integrity.”

Indians on American TV
Anjul Nigam’s TV credits include ER, NYPD Blue and Nash Bridges

Born and raised in England and now living in the US, Ravi Kapoor is the first South Asian series regular on a prime time medical show.”I’ve got a five-year contract, but it is dependent on how well the serial does,” says the soft-spoken Kapoor who plays Dr Sid Shandar on the ABC drama Gideon’s Crossing. Dr Shandar is a second-year resident doctor at a teaching hospital in Massachusetts. He’s in it for the money and doesn’t care about being compassionate towards his patients. His ethnic background also makes him very insecure.”Being an actor, I can relate to this sense of insecurity,” says Kapoor.” With Sid, there’s always going to be that pressure about ‘This is not what we’re like’ or ‘This is how we should be portrayed’. The only time we’re going to get beyond that is if we have more South Asians on television, so that we can see the whole gamut.”

But it has taken these young artistes a lot of hard work and that extra bit of initiative to earn their share of the limelight. “Being a woman in this field is tough enough,” admits Meera Simhan, adding, “The fact that I’m a minority makes it a bigger struggle. There are less roles for women and fewer still for minorities.” Simhan, who plays Andrea Bhutto, an ambitious Washington Post reporter on CBS’s The District, says the part was not intended to be a role for an ethnic minority. “I just got the role. It’s one that has not been clearly defined by the producers,” she says. She also played Kapoor’s “arranged date gone awry” in an episode of Gideon’s Crossing.

Awareness of an existing situation and sensitivity to change is imperative if these actors are to find parts in scripts that mirror contemporary role models within the community. Somnath Sen, freelance director and creative head of Lemon Tree Films, recalls he had approached the directors at ER to try and get an Indian-American artiste on the serial. “At that time one of the producers, Babu Subramaniam, asked us: ‘Who is going to write your part?’ He was right,” reflects Sen, “We have to tell our own experiences as Asians in America, no one else can do that for us.” ER eventually gave in following criticism about the absence of Indian-American doctors from the show in spite of the fact that the community makes up for a sizeable proportion of the medical profession in the US. Bedi’s presence was the first step towards correcting this.

Bedi’s also played the role of trauma therapist Kaytha Trask on West Wing where her co-stars included Martin Sheen.

“Working on West Wing was great, I met a bunch of nice people,” she says. Her other credits include the Broadway run of East is East and, more recently, producer Gitesh Pandya’s college-based romantic comedy American Desi. She says while the film caters to the South Asian community her non-Indian friends have loved it. But this is obviously not enough. Bedi hopes there will be an Indian-American character on Friends and Ally McBeal. “That’s when everyone will really know that we have arrived,” she says.

Indians on American TV
Purva Bedi appeared in West Wing, ER, and East is East

“Parts are not really being written for Asians and it is very hard for people to do colour-blind casting,” confesses Kapoor. It has been a challenge, agrees Nigam. His more recent portrayal of Rehman, a Bangladeshi naval officer enrolled in a strenuous Navy Seals training programme on NBC’s Silver Strand, has won him accolades. “The more I work, the more doors open,” he says, adding, “Our roles also increase as the South Asian community becomes more visible.”

Nigam’s Rehman is constantly harassed by his chief over his ethnic background. “But the good thing is Rehman stands up for himself,” says Nigam who also plays the supporting lead in Speaking of Sex and the lead in Two Rivers, an independent film shot in India, Chicago and Mississippi. He also finished work on the feature film Sheer Bliss over the holidays. As one of the supporting leads of this romantic comedy, he plays Rajeev, a billionaire who thinks, erroneously, that he is the ultimate snowboarder. As he gets ready to launch his own company, he befriends the four lead characters who are young college grads living and skiing in Aspen while they try to figure out what to do with their lives.”I learnt how to snowboard for the movie… it wasn’t fun,” laughs Nigam.

Nigam is in the process of creating Colorblind Productions, a company focused on creating film and television projects utilizing the talent of artists, regardless of colour, “in a way that reflects the collective human experience.” Similarly Purva Bedi has set up Disha, an organisation whose main goal is to showcase work by South Asian artistes. Based in New York City, Disha is currently preparing an off-Broadway production of a new play at the Currican Theatre. “The general pressure has helped South Asians a lot,” she says.” The networks are open to filling in people of different colour, rather than just having Caucasian characters. There is a growing number of Indians in the country and TV is starting to reflect that.” 

According to Krishna Shah, the most successful of Indo-American filmmakers, these recent successes of South Asian actors has been “too late and not enough”. Famous for The Six Million Dollar Man, Shalimar and The Man from UNCLE, Shah says, “This is a very small gift. There are hundreds of Indian-American actors out there, just waiting for a break.”He feels the Indian-American community does not have an identity even though it does make a difference in everyday life. And, unlike the Latino and black community, there is no one to give it a voice. “We are considered foreigners. If at all we’re portrayed in films, they take a crack at our accent, or make us out to be characters from Jungle Book. But we must be ourselves.

Diversity is in. We do not have to blend into the mainstream. We are a distinct culture,” he adds. 

“Cinema is in our blood,” says Shah, ”people like Manoj Night Shyamalan, Tarsem and Shekhar Kapur are A-grade filmmakers.” But when it comes to the crunch do these producers often give struggling ethnic actors the much sought after break? “Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense did have two small roles for Indians and Tarsem also has an Indian music influence in his films. But I feel, since they have managed to get a break in Hollywood, they may not be too keen to ruffle feathers right now by overdoing the Indian-American roles,” Shah adds. Nigam agrees. “I understand their reservations,” he says, “these decisions are, on many occasions, influenced by the financial supervisors. It is a very tricky game. The American audience isn’t quite ready for us and films may not bring in as much revenue if an Asian-American got to play too prominent a part”.


This story was published in the May 2001 issue