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Arrival of the desi hero

With the Indian-Americans finally getting mainstream roles in American movies and on television, it looks like the breakthrough is here, reports Riddhi Shah.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2008 23:10 IST
Riddhi Shah

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a boy, brown of skin and dark of hair, decided to become an actor. But because he was amongst the first in his tribe to attempt this feat, he was ridiculed and mocked as he went from village to village, asking to be cast in roles that didn’t portray him as a taxi driver or owner of a convenience store. “Where’s your turban?” one village elder asked. “You just won’t work, you’re neither white nor black,” said another.



Our hero, a big believer in the equality of the land, took on a new name, and this led him to many new projects. The boy is now one of the most feted Indian American actors in America. And his name is Kal Penn. In the seven years that it has taken Penn to break into the American mainstream, much has changed. A brown face is no longer an oddity in that elusive land of dreams — Hollywood. And the role of the fresh-off-the-boat taxi driver is no longer the only one available to an ‘ethnic’ actor. “People are finally listening. Studios have realised that casting people from different nationalities also opens up many creative avenues for telling different stories,” says Sendhil Ramamurthy, 33, who plays geneticist Mohinder Suresh in the hit television drama

Heroes

.



This new attempt in diversity, however, is less the function of a belief in an egalitarian notion of entertainment, and more one of simple profitability. “Diverse shows are more saleable. Look at how successful

Lost

is,” says Ramamurthy, who struggled for eight years before

Heroes

turned him into a veritable demi-god. Agrees 23-year-old actor Sunkrish Bala: “Hollywood has realised that the international market is an important money spinner. When

Zee Café

picked shows for their new season, most of the ones they chose had an Asian character in them.”



Bala stars in

Notes from the Underbelly

, a new comedy about the lives of three couples who are dealing with pregnancy, and his role is important because his ethnicity is not central to that of his ambiguously named character, Eric. “When I auditioned for the show there were people of all races there — white, black, brown. They chose me because they liked me, nothing else. And there are no stereotypically Asian jokes in the script. That’s refreshing,” says Bala, who grew up in Mumbai’s Matunga area. But, by his own admission, “the industry is a very different place today than the one I walked into three years ago.”



However, the harbingers of this change are not just the large numbers of Indian American actors who have begun to make their presence felt in Hollywood. There are also the

desis

who work in the less glamorous areas of entertainment like casting, writing and directing — like Mindy Kaling, a writer-cum-actor of Tamil descent, who writes and produces hit comedy show

The Office

. “I feel completely free when I write for the character of Kelly Kapoor. She isn’t a nerd or a math whiz. She’s actually kind of a fool. That is really fun, to play against stereotype like that," she says of the character that she plays (and writes) in the series. Kaling recently wrote a special Diwali party episode for the show too.



While it is television that has shown the way, films aren’t far behind. The buzz is that

The Namesake

(in which Kal Penn had a significant role) is up for an Oscar nomination this year. And the actor also enacted a ‘non-ethnic’ role in the film

A Lot Like Love

. “This increased visibility is significant because a lot of

desis

in America still feel like outsiders. It’s comforting to finally see people you can relate to on screen,” says popular Indian-American blogger Anna John. “If the Oscar nomination happens, it’ll be a massive validation of our story.”



Though 2007 was the year of the Indian American (with Vikram Pandit’s appointment as CEO of Citigroup, and Bobby Jindal’s win),

desis

constitute a lesser known American minority. And the easiest way out of that for Hollywood aspirants is to simply change them. Mindy Kaling grew up as Vera Chokalingam, while Sunkrish Bala used to be better known by the last name Balasubramanium, and Kal Penn as we all know, is still legally called Kalpen Modi. “People would mangle Chokalingam, then feel sheepish about it. The last thing I wanted was for casting agents and producers to be hesitant to say my name,” explains Kaling.



But hey, if an altered name is all it takes to ensure that we see more brown ‘heroes’ on television, who’s complaining?