Aishwarya Rai is, by most accounts, going to be a Hero. That may not mean much in India yet but, in the US, being a hero right now is just about the hottest thing going, thanks to the hugely successful television show Heroes.
Though her role has not been confirmed by her camp or by NBC, Hollywood insiders say Rai will likely appear in flashbacks as the deceased sister of one of the leads. And Rai will just be one of many of South Asian descent to be popping up on the small screen in the US this television season.
Local hero: Hollywood insiders say Aishwarya Rai will likely star in Heroes.
In the past five years, more and more opportunities have presented themselves for South Asian actors, but never before have the roles been so expansive, reaching far beyond the stereotypical cab driver, convenience store clerk and doctor.
On Heroes, the narrator of the show and potential brother to Rai, Mohinder Suresh (played by Sendhil Ramamurthy), hails from Chennai, and moves between his life as a college professor there and a man on a mission to discover humans with superpowers. But, once he is established as hailing from India, his race falls completely out of play. He is just another man struggling with the new world, like the other characters on the show.
Many shows are following suit.
“Going forward, every ethnic group has that same challenge. When you first appear in the US media, it is largely in stereotypical roles,” explains Gitesh Pandya, creator of boxofficeguru.com, a Hollywood watch site. “Twenty years ago, African-Americans had a much more limited scope of roles. Indians are going through the same thing. First it was Abu, now it is doctors and cab drivers. Eventually, the hope is that they will play just a regular collection of people, as a reflection of society.”
Navi Rawat, an actor starring on CBS’ Numb3rs, says: “Without minorities (on TV), it is not a realistic showing of what is going on in the real world. It is frustrating that stereotypes pervade our society. But I do think it is changing.”
Rawat is one of the first actresses to play roles outside the South Asian race. In The O.C., her character was of Latin heritage. In Numb3rs, she plays an Indian graduate student. But, she says, she has been lucky to get a lot of non-ethnicity specific roles.
Another large role that has pushed for change—one that Pandya thinks is most significant—is Mindy Kaling’s character Kelly Kapoor on the NBC show, The Office. Pandya says it is a noteworthy role because Kaling plays someone who is not connected to her own culture and knows little about her family’s traditions, a phenomenon many second-generation Americans can relate to.
In a classic scene that introduced Diwali to many American viewers, the characters on The Office are asked to learn about the festival. When the manager asks Kapoor what Diwali means, she says: “Diwali is awesome. There’s going to be food and dancing. And, oh, I got the radest outfit.” He presses her for the origins of the holiday, and she says: “Oh, I don’t know, it’s really old, I think.”
Adhir Kalyan stars in Aliens in America
This season introduces another South Asian character: Sadiq, the tech-support guy, played by actor Omi Vaidya. When asked his religion, he says: “Well, if you’re going to reduce my identity to my religion, then I’m Sikh. But I also like hip hop and NPR (National Public Radio), and I’m restoring a 1967 Corvette in my spare time.” The most buffoonish character on the show thinks Sadiq may be a terrorist, poking fun at the racist stereotype that men with turbans must be terrorists.
In a new premiere, Aliens in America, on the CW network, a Pakistani character, Raja Musharraf, played by actor Adhir Kalyan, is the best friend in this high school, coming-of-age tale. The character is a devout Muslim exchange student whose foster family expected someone from London—Musharraf changed planes in London. The high school comedy explores being Muslim, and just being different, in Midwest, middle class US. And the critics have been eating it up. The New York Times called it “fresh, funny and charming in a tart, sardonic way” and The Los Angeles Times said it is “consistently clever and lively, well played and directed.”
More starring Indian roles on television means more supporting roles as well. For every character, a background family can be hired. In The Office, the Kapoor family and friends made an appearance at a Diwali party Kelly invited the whole office to. On Heroes, Suresh thinks back to fights with his father, and often travels home to visit his mother. “The circle of potential roles expands,” Pandya says. “When The Office started, all my Indian actor friends in New York flew out to LA to audition for family roles.”
Movies have also started portraying Indians without reference to their race. Naveen Andrews, already famous for his leading role in Lost, scored a groundbreaking role in Jodie Foster’s new film, The Brave One. Andrews plays Jodie Foster’s fiancè and Pandya says: “It is almost impossible to find a major Hollywood film where a major Hollywood film heroine is involved with an Indian guy. [Andrew’s character] is just a regular New Yorker, there is really nothing about race at all, it is just two people who are engaged. That is very encouraging; 99% of the time, they would give that role to the white guy.”
Part of the growing awareness of Indian actors has to do with people behind the scenes as well. Sonia Nikore is a vice-president in charge of casting for NBC. Sunil Nayar produces CSI: Las Vegas.
With more Indians behind the scenes, Hollywood is likely to become more comfortable with having Indians in front of the scenes.
Kaling also writes for the show, The Office, so she can make her character more true to life as an American girl who happens to be of Indian descent.
It is also not just the starring roles that are being populated by South Asian actors. Nearly every major television show has walk-on side characters of South Asian descent, such as Anjul Nigam’s character on Grey’s Anatomy. His character, Dr Raj Sen, plays an intern outside the starring circle of interns on the medical show.
India is also on more US televisions, thanks in large part to Vin Bhat and his company Media. The company supplies American cable companies with more than 600 movies for On Demand services, a video system that supplies television subscribers with movies. Someone in California can simply press a few buttons on the remote and order Pirates of the Caribbean, Ice Age, or Rang de Basanti.
This type of exposure will make it far more natural for the mainstream audience to accept Indians as part of the normal make-up of American society.