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The rise of Indians on American TV

With the likes of Aziz Ansari and Priyanka Chopra playing lead roles, Indian characters are finally breaking into the mainstream American TV

It’s early days yet, but 2015 could be the year that changed the game for Indian actors in mainstream American media. This is the year where Indians have been part of three of the top five performing movies globally: Irrfan Khan had a meaty supporting role in the worldwide smash hit Jurassic World, which is sitting at a pretty global box office of $ 1.6 billion, Ali Fazal had more than just a blink-and-miss-it appearance in another blockbuster, Furious 7, which raked in $1.51 billion, while Mindy Kaling was among the lead voice cast of Inside Out, the Pixar animated film that’s made $831.7 Million. Spy, in which Nargis Fakhri appeared briefly, didn’t rake in as much money as the rest, but with a $236.4 million box office, she’d have certainly been well-noticed in the comedy herself.

Then there’s television, where Indian actors have played supporting roles, minor and major, in cult shows over the last few years – Nimrat Kaur and Suraj Sharma in Homeland, Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory, Hannah Simone in New Girl, Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife, Dev Patel in The Newsroom and Danny Pudi in Community. Comedian Mindy Kaling has long been the first and only Indian to front her own show, the sitcom The Mindy Project, but by the time this year ends, she’ll be part of a considerable list.

With two months to go in this year, there have already been four TV shows to feature Indian actors in prominent leads. Tina Desai in Sense8, Avan Jogia in Tut, Karan Soni in Other Space and Raza Jaffrey in Code Black have all been starring roles, but it is Priyanka Chopra and Aziz Ansari, two global icons in their own right, who are all set to make the kind of impact that the others haven’t so far: to finally entrench Indians truly and deeply in international pop culture.

Chopra, who plays the feisty and self-assured Indian-American FBI Agent Alex Parrish, in ABC’s fall TV series Quantico, has had a slow but steady rise to the top. She was already a National Award winner and a superstar in India before she looked west, to perhaps truly be the Miss World that she was crowned back in 2000. Debuting internationally as a pop singer with the single In My City, for which she worked with Will.i.Am, Chopra then collaborated with Pitbull, sang live at the NFL, voiced a character in the Disney movie Planes and also became the first Indian brand ambassador for Guess internationally, featuring in a campaign shot by Bryan Adams.


When she decided to do a TV drama instead of looking for a movie, it was looked upon by Indian critics as a misstep. But Quantico was a script that the sharp actress had handpicked from 26 scripts that were pitched to her by ABC, and a month since its debut, the thriller series, about a terrorist attack on New York soil, has proved all naysayers wrong by turning out to be one of the channel’s big hits this season. And the American public and critics can’t have enough of her: The New York Times called her ‘charismatic and commanding’, Variety called her an ‘arresting lead’ while The Wrap said she had a ‘poise and sexual spark as FBI agent Alex Parrish’.

Where Chopra is only just finding her calling as a global sensation, comedian Aziz Ansari has already been there, done that. He made his way onto the radar of American audiences with the sitcom Parks and Recreation, where he was able to hold his own in a cast featuring the who’s who of comedy, including Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman and Aubrey Plaza. This led to roles in movies like Funny People, Get Him To The Greek, 30 Minutes or Less and This is The End, and made him a force to reckon with.

It was his comedy specials, Dangerously Delicious and Buried Alive, both runaway critical and commercial hits, and his stand up tours that really got the American public to sit up and take notice of the quirky, weird and fiercely original first generation American-Indian comedian. His success has already led him to many laurels, including a BFF in Kanye West, but 2015 is the year he’s really taking it to the next level.

In June, Ansari came out with a book called Modern Romance: An Investigation, which explores how the internet and technology have affected modern relationships. And in November, Netflix will premiere the comedy Master of None, which Ansari has written, produced and starred in, and which follows the romantic travails of his alter ego, ‘Dev’, in modern day New York.

aziz ansari - parks and rec

Ansari’s clout will be on show here — his own parents have been cast in supporting roles, and a bunch of celebrity cameos are expected. But more than that, along with Quantico, the show will also be a testament to changing times in American media, where race and colour are becoming less relevant. As more Indian actors look for wider canvasses and bigger platforms to showcase their talent, expect your TV screen to be crowded with familiar faces sooner than you think.