“Is the new Mr. Right an immigrant Rom-Com hero?” asks a recent article published in The New York Times. The article profiles Pakistani-American actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani ahead of the semi-autobiographical romantic comedy The Big Sick, which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V Gordon. Nanjiani, who moved to the United States of America from Pakistan when he was 18, plays the lead role in the film, which has been produced by Judd Apatow. The film also stars Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter and Anupam Kher and will be released in the US on June 23.
Nanjiani represents a growing acceptance of South Asian actors in the American entertainment industry. Actors who were restricted to diaspora productions such as American Desi (2001) are now creating and headlining mainstream projects. In 2012, on the eve of the premiere of Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, who often comments on South Asian representation in Western media, said, “There’s more Indians in the public eye than ever before. There’s 14 of us now...Now, there’s enough Indian people that I don’t need to like you just because you are Indian.”
Aziz Ansari has co-written and starred in the Netflix series Master of None. British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed made waves for his performance in the HBO miniseries The Night Of (2016). More recently, The Daily Show correspondent, Hassan Minhaj, took on Donald Trump at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. British-Indian actor Kunal Nayyar has amused audiences as Rajesh Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory since 2007 and became the world’s third-highest paid television actor in 2015, according to Forbes.
Mindy Kaling, the creator of The Mindy Project and a cast member of The Office, summed up the progress perfectly in a tweet.
Nanjiani has done voice work in numerous productions, including the popular children’s show Adventure Time. Since 2014, the 39-year-old actor has played the uber-geeky Dinesh Chugtai on the sitcom Silicon Valley, whose fourth season was premiered on April 23. The Big Sick is based on his real-life courtship, and according to The New York Times, what makes the film remarkable is its matter-of-fact treatment of race and religion.
“You just don’t see Muslims being matter-of-fact Muslim,” Nanjiani told the newspaper. “They’re always defined by their Muslim-ness. We’re either terrorists, or we’re fighting terrorists. I remember seeing True Lies and going, why are we always the bad guys?”
Much of the Pakistani-American’s comedy draws upon his mixed cultural heritage. In an appearance on Conan’s talk show in 2016, Nanjiani described how the Muslim cleric who married him disapproved of his American bride to be.
Even though South Asian actors and filmmakers have made their presence felt in Hollywood, every time one of them moves to the A-list, they are greeted with different versions of The New York Times article. But The Big Sick could indeed prove to be a refreshing antidote to the typical Caucasian rom-com hero.
“Everyone knows what a secular Jew looks like,” Nanjiani told The New Yorker. “Everyone knows what a lapsed Catholic looks like. That’s all over pop culture. But there are very few Muslim characters who aren’t terrorists, who aren’t even going to a mosque, who are just people with complicated backstories who do normal things. Obviously, terrorism is an important subject to tackle. But we also need Muslim characters who, like, go to Six Flags and eat ice cream.”