He was born Aasif Hakim Mandviwala in Mumbai in 1966, and adopted his stage name, Aasif Mandvi, in Bradford in the United Kingdom where he was raised. He began his career as a performer at a Walt Disney resort. Later he moved to New York City and performed off and on Broadway. He became a household face after a breakout stint on the news satire programme The Daily Show.
The actor-creator-producer-author has also appeared in Hollywood movies such as Die Hard With A Vengeance, Analyze This, Spiderman 2, The Proposal and Million Dollar Arm. His equally extensive television work includes Law & Order, Jericho, Evil, and The Brink. Evil is being aired on the Zee Cafe television channel on weekdays at 2pm.
Speaking on the phone from his house in Los Angeles, Mandvi said that playing Ben, “the debunker of supernatural phenomena” in Evil, is a big step in the representation discussion. The part was originally written as a white Jewish character but was amended for Mandvi keeping his South Asian heritage in mind.
“The fact that they ultimately cast me in the part was exciting because it opened up a whole bunch of possibilities for show creators Robert and Michelle King,” Mandvi said. “Besides the script being very good, I have been a fan of the Kings and their work like The Good Wife and The Good Fight. It was great that they also liked me enough to make the part into a brown Muslim and explore that aspect.”
Mandvi was intrigued by the show as it dealt with the supernatural in a smart way. “Evil is not just a show about exorcism or ghouls or demons – it’s actually a show with psychological elements to it and evil exists in many different forms, not just supernatural,” he said. “There are a lot of things happening in the show and the palette is much wider than what you might originally think.”
As a trained actor who has worked in Broadway and Hollywood for close to 30 years, Mandvi believes there has been a definite shift in representation in mainstream entertainment. “It’s an exciting place for an actor and creator of colour to be right now,” he said.
Mandvi also credited some of the shift in the interest in diverse narratives to the popularity of streamers.
“We are at a point right now where you suddenly see a financial and economic boon in telling stories about people that are not necessarily white people,” he said. “I think representation depends on the leverage you have in the business. For example, Dev Patel is playing the lead in David Copperfield and you know that would never have happened 10 years ago, just like I would not have been cast as Ben in Evil 10 years ago,” he said.
The pandemic has made it even more evident how globally connected we are but, Hollywood and the entertainment business remain fickle, he observed. “It’s just really about what is in style and fashion today and hopefully the emergence of stories from a wider palette will continue,” Mandvi said. “It can happen partly because of technology, because streamers allow you to watch shows from India and Korea.” He cited the example of Indian Matchmaking: “It would not have had a market in the USA a decade ago.”
Using his own leverage, Mandvi created the series Halal in the Family in 2015. The four-episode series, about an American Muslim family, stars Mandvi and long-time friend and collaborator Sakina Jaffrey. She introduced him to the term “patanking”, which describes the sound of the Indian accent to Western casting directors.
“Sometimes we would come out of an audition and ask each other, did they ask you to patank, which means they would ask you to do the audition once in a normal accent and then they would ask you to do it in an Indian accent,” Mandvi recalled. “Even if I would ask why someone who grew up in America would have an Indian accent, they would still want me to try it that way. You just knew they were asking for the head wobble etc. So the rhythm of the accent is basically patank, patank, patank.”
This was no different from the minority representation of South Asians on British TV that Mandvi grew up watching.
“I grew up on British shows which very stereotypical and reductive characters – with the accent, head wobble and funny lines,” he said. “Even when I started out in the business, I played a lot of roles that were stereotypical, that were not multi-dimensional. But then, at that time, people were not writing for South Asian actors, there were no lead parts and no South Asian writers in the writers’ room. It was mostly white people, specifically white men. But that has changed and we are seeing much more diversity.”
That brings us to the epitome of patanking – Apu from The Simpsons. Mandvi believes that Apu was a character that could exist when the show was created, back in the early 1990s but would not have the same tone, texture or persona today.
“When The Simpsons came out, that was how Indians were represented on television,” he observed. “When I first started out in this business in the 1980s, there was not much more than Apu to depict Indians on television.”
Mandvi has also been in a few crossover productions, such as ABCD (1999) and American Chai (2001). These films were made by Indians and narrated stories of the Indian diaspora, as did Mandvi’s own 2009 film Today’s Special. Inspired by his play Sakina’s Restaurant, Today’s Special starred Madhur Jaffrey, Naseeruddin Shah and Harish Patel.
Mandvi recalls how those films resonated with Indian immigrants and the diaspora, who were seeing their own stories on screen for the first time. “Even when I did my one-man show Sakina’s Restaurant in 1998, there had never been a South Asian play in New York City, off Broadway,” he said. “Those were the first times you saw people telling stories like that.”
In his long and busy career, Mandvi cannot recall how many ethnicities he’s played. “Every kind of Arab, Persian, English, American, Indian, Hispanic – basically a whole bunch,” he said. “I have never counted. But as a brown actor coming up, you had to be able to juggle and dance a lot faster than white people. Since there were no parts, you had to pull out all kinds of things from your toolbox. I had to be ready to show that I can do drama, comedy, sing, dance, do improv. I could do it all. It was a great training ground.”