Many of the actors of South Asian origin now on American television have made a point of avoiding the ethnic stereotypes that prevailed for years – the convenience store owners like Apu from The Simpsons, the kooky cab drivers, the mystics full of ancient wisdom.
In one episode of his show Master of None, comedian Aziz Ansari’s character does not get a callback for the role of an “Unnamed Cab Driver” after refusing to fake an Indian accent – a stance the actor and writer has taken in real life. Priyanka Chopra, the star of Quantico, travelled to America only with the promise of playing full-fledged, ethnically ambiguous characters. “I didn’t want to do a big fat Indian Punjabi family, that’s so expected from a Bollywood actress,” she told Daily News & Analysis. Actor-writer-producer Mindy Kaling set out to “create what is a totally original character” in her sitcom The Mindy Project, and “show diverse talent” rather than pander to existing stereotypes.
But Omi Vaidya, who shot to fame as Chatur Ramalingam, aka “The Silencer” in the blockbuster hit 3 Idiots, hasn’t shied away from Indian characters – even buffoonish ones. He says he hopes to make them less caricatured and more real.
Vaidya stars in Brown Nation, a slice-of-life comedy about an Indian-American family in Queens, New York.
The 10-episode series follows the life of Hasmukh, a miserly Gujarati owner of an information technology consulting firm who lives with his struggling artist wife and nagging, hypochondriac father-in-law. Vaidya plays Balan, a first-generation Tamil-Brahmin Indian immigrant office manager, complete with a thick South-Indian accent, Salman Khan obsession, smelly lunches, and plans for an arranged marriage.
In real life, Vaidya has no such accent. Born and brought up by his Indian immigrant parents in Yuca Valley in rural California, the comic actor had short-lived roles playing South Asians in popular American sitcoms, including The Office and Arrested Development, prior to his breakout hit in India.
Vaidya, whose parents are Maharashtrian, auditioned for the goofy South Indian role in 3 Idiots during a trip to India, and got the part. Acting alongside the Bollywood giant Aamir Khan, Vaidya emerged from the hugely popular movie a well-known face in India himself. His journey was turned into a documentary, Big in Bollywood, releasing on Netflix on January 1.
In a conversation with Quartz, Vaidya explains that he sees some merit in playing to – and against – stereotypes.
After returning to America, why did you agree to play Balan, a South Indian character with an unusually heavy accent, despite the glaring stereotypes associated with him?
Although there are Indian tropes and all that, Brown Nation was more sophisticated than much of the comedy that I was seeing in India. And it was a character where I could really see the thought, rather than the typical taxi driver, convenience store owners, Indian doctors that you constantly see on American television.
My character is supposed to be an idiot but he works extremely hard and improves the business even though he makes many mistakes along the way. You think he’s going to be this stereotypical character, but you really start feeling for his issues and wants and needs. Once you start doing that, all of that cookie cutter type of stuff that we think of when we think of a South Indian goes out the window, and he just becomes a person that you care for.
How do you get the balance right between making ethnically charged jokes that could be funny to an American and global audience, without ridiculing Indians in the process?
There was a show like this maybe five years ago, Outsourced, but that show was fabricated by a studio and it was directly appealing to all American audiences. They shot a show about an Indian call center in LA and faked it. They had to use a lot of jokes that South Asians found offensive at times. We don’t want to do that.
If you’re used to your typical American television show, you’ll still be able to enjoy our show because there’s typical family issues – what to get your wife for your five-year anniversary and so on. But you can also enjoy this new realm of characters you may not be familiar with, other cultures and identities that you may not be familiar with. Like, Fresh Off The Boat is about Chinese immigrants living in America, but their struggles are something that Americans can relate to.
Similar to FOTB and Modern Family, Brown Nation shows the struggles of daily life, daily work. These are things that people can relate to. Now, showing a different culture while you’re doing that – I think you can get away with that and still succeed.
So why screen it on Netflix? Why not get it a slot on mainstream American TV like the other shows you mentioned?
Just look on the screen, man. Majority of the roles – they’re white, they’re Caucasian. It’s difficult and disheartening when you see that, but at the same time, it is slowly changing. Ultimately, we need to get to a place where we are a “Greg.” And maybe once they cast us, they’ll give us an Indian name, of course. I would hope so.
The writers have to really think about us. When I did The Office, my role, he’s a Sikh guy. They didn’t care whether I had a beard or a kadda [religious bangle], and I really had to bring those items with me. And they gave him a Muslim name, Sadiq, so they didn’t really do their research. I think actors really have to be active themselves and help get to the next level. And I think we will, with Aziz Ansaris and Priyanka Chopras – and also Brown Nation, hopefully.
How come a show like Empire, with a non-white cast, can live on American television but Brown Nation can’t enter that space?
[Empire] is not about African immigrants, it’s about African-Americans in the music industry. There’s a lot of Caucasians that may not even know black people but they listen to rap. You have BET, you have channels from 20 years ago that have broken ground, so that a show like Empire can really succeed in the mainstream. I don’t think we really have that with South Asians – we don’t have our own mass media channel that non-Indians are watching.
It’s great that you embrace your Indianness, but don’t you want to be able to play something more than a South Asian comic trope?
Growing up, I was the least Indian person you knew. I hid my identity and just tried to be like anyone else. But I found out that I wasn’t like anyone else. So ultimately, I found my identity as an Indian and I started valuing those things that I had run away from. And when I did that, I was appreciated more.
I think that of course there’s always a level of assimilation we need to do as Americans in a global society, but at the same time, we also need to stand up for who we are and be proud of it.
Actors such as Priyanka Chopra, Aziz Ansari, and Mindy Kaling look for roles that are not explicitly bound by ethnicity. Are you not?
Yes, the actors you have mentioned have done a great job in developing characters that don’t have to be Indian. But there is also great value in showing and explaining one’s culture to an audience outside of your community.
I believe, in these times when nationalism is rising in much of the world, it’s important to display ethnic cultures in a friendly and non-abrasive way, so people can understand and enjoy “the other” and see there’s nothing to be alarmed about.
Maybe some viewers will find that “the other” isn’t that much different than themselves.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This article first appeard on Quartz.