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Coming of age for South Asian stars in Hollywood

By Salim Rizvi
New York

Aasif Mandvi at the UK premiere of Today's Special, in London 16 October 2009
When I started out as an actor there were no roles for Indians in Hollywood films or TV
Aasif Mandvi

American actors of South Asian origin have never had it so good, and it is only getting better for them in the land of opportunities.

Indian American creative talents in particular are increasing their presence both off and on the screen in the US television and film industry.

Until just a decade ago, there were only a few actors of Indian descent in the US - and most had no choice but to accept roles that played to the stereotypes.

In the early 1950s, India-born Noel De Souza studied theatre in California, where his schoolmates were Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, now Hollywood veterans.

But Indians were so foreign to American viewers that De Souza had to play Latinos in Hollywood films for many years.

He switched to journalism and is now a member of the elite Hollywood Foreign Press.

New generation

Fast forward to 2009 and things are rapidly changing, with actors and actresses successfully demanding challenging and varied roles in films and TV programmes.

Pakistani origin actor Ahmad Rizvi played the main role in Man Push Cart.

Babar Ahmed, who was also born in Pakistan, has directed two Hollywood films - Royal Kill and Genius - and taught a film-making course at George Washington University in Washington DC.

INDIAN-ORIGIN ACTORS
Kal Penn (House, 24, Harold and Kumar)
Aasif Mandvi (Daily Show, Jericho)
Reshma Shetty (Royal Pains)
Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes)
Navi Rawat (Numb3rs)
Pooja Kumar (Flavors)
Parminder Nagra (ER)

The Bangladesh-born film producer and entertainment executive, Anadil Hossain, also collaborates with major US and Indian film companies.

Most of these professionals are US-born.

Kalpen Modi, also known as Kal Penn, is considered the most successful. He began as an actor and now works in the White House, where he is an outreach director in the Obama administration.

Penn acted in popular TV serials including 24 and House, as well as comedy film series Harold and Kumar and crossovers like The Namesake.

Mumbai-born actor and writer Aasif Mandvi has done well on the popular American TV comedy series The Daily Show.

He is also acting in The Last Airbender, a movie by Indian American Hollywood director M Night Shyamalan.

"When I started out as an actor there were very few of us," says Mandvi, who began his acting career in America in the 1980s. "There were no roles for Indians in Hollywood films or TV.

"But acting was something I always wanted to do, and there was nothing else I was very good at. I just had to sink or swim. I did a little bit of both along my way."

Fresh content

Pooja Kumar
Pooja Kumar starred in Flavors, a film about Indian immigrants in America

Actress Pooja Kumar has acted in TV serials and films including Flavors and the musical comedy Bollywood Hero.

American screenwriter and film-maker Tracey Jackson has been attracted to Indian subjects - she wrote the film Guru and has written and directed her latest film, Lucky Ducks, in Mumbai, India.

Sunil Nayar, Sri Rao and Mindy Kaling are some of the other leading writers of Indian origin.

Sri Rao, a writer-director-producer based in New York City, has been involved in writing serials like General Hospital: Night Shift and What Goes On. He is also working on projects for HBO, MTV and Bravo.

"The biggest opportunity for South Asian writers, actors and producers is in American television now," Rao says.

"There is a tremendous amount of content being produced and there is much interest on the side of the networks and studios to make sure that their casts are more diverse and that the stories they are telling are unique and different from what were told in last 10 or 20 years."

Recent years have seen rising numbers of South Asian origin executives leading entertainment organisations as well.

And Hollywood and Indian film companies have started to team up on projects.

Family support

Several factors have led to a seemingly insatiable appetite for all things South Asian - the rise of the Indian economy in the global marketplace, and the success of films like Slumdog Millionaire and those by directors Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta.

Indian Americans, a population of about two million people, are considered one of the better educated US ethnic minorities.

Kalpen Suresh Modi in the White House, 14 October
Kalpen Modi has a new role co-ordinating White House functions

Traditionally, they preferred their children to take up medicine, law and management. But acceptance of the media and entertainment as career options is growing.

For US-born Suchir Batra - who works as an executive at the leading American entertainment company William Morris Endeavor (WME) Entertainment - the encouragement started at home.

"There is a big cultural, social shift and acceptance of working in the entertainment industry," Mr Batra says.

"While the talent has always been there, it's now coming to the fore more and more because people see the opportunities and they are willing to take their chances. And parents and families are more supportive of doing that."

Overall, South Asians are still under-represented in the US entertainment industry.

But many Indian origin actors have strong hopes to take up leading roles in Hollywood films - some day.



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