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India-themed comedies the new TV trend

The two comedies — Nirvana at Fox and Outsourced at NBC — have something else in common: they both are ensemble shows about Indians and Indian-Americans. Is it a coincidence or Slumdog Millionaire effect?

tv Updated: Feb 02, 2010 19:03 IST

OutsourcedThey are the two comeback stories of this pilot season, projects developed years ago that have been resurrected and have landed orders at the broadcast networks.

The two comedies — Nirvana at Fox and Outsourced at NBC — have something else in common: They both are ensemble shows about Indians and Indian-Americans.

A third project, a US version of popular British comedy The Kumars at No. 42, about an immigrant Indian family, also is poised for revival. Eight years after NBC took a stab at the format, the show’s British producers are shopping it to US networks, including FX.

Is it a coincidence or a delayed Slumdog Millionaire effect?

“I do think that Slumdog had a lot to do with it,” a TV studio executive said of India’s rapid emergence on the US pop culture scene. “It was boiling, hovering there, with the increasing popularity of Indian clothing, food and Bollywood movies, but with its mainstream acceptance and critical success, Slumdog pushed it over the tipping point.”

In Hollywood, consciousness grew exponentially last year with Danny Boyle’s runaway hit and Oscar winner as well as the $1.2 billion deal between Indian conglomerate Reliance and DreamWorks.

Reliance also is bidding for the MGM studio and has signed production pacts with eight A-list Hollywood actors, including George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

On the small screen, India’s growing impact has been dramatic as well, albeit more slowly developing.

Larger casting pool

When producer Gavin Polone brought Kumars to the US in 2002, its Indian roots were stripped away and it was remade as The Ortegas, a show about a Mexican-American family.

In 2004, when NBC shot two pilots of Nirvana, one starring then up-and-comer Kal Penn, and one starring creator Ajay Sahgal, there were only two Indian actors in primetime, Sahgal recalls: Ravi Kapoor on NBC’s Crossing Jordan and Parminder Nagra, who had just joined ER.

That is not the case anymore. Most successful shows launched in the past five years feature a prominent Indian actor: The Office, The Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and three hot freshmen: Community, Glee and The Good Wife.

24 also has regularly featured Indian actors, including one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Slumdog’s Anil Kapoor, who has a major role this season. Additionally, Penn co-starred on Fox’s House until he left to pursue a career in Washington.

“There are far more Indian actors today that can do this kind of thing than there were six or seven years ago,” Sahgal said.

To find them, he is launching an international talent search for Nirvana, an ensemble comedy about grown-up Indian-American brothers and their Indian immigrant parents, with casting taking place in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, London and Mumbai.

Outsourced — an office comedy about an American shipped off to India to manage a ragtag group of customer service reps — has hired casting consultants in Toronto and India.

That the film and TV industry are seizing on the growing popularity of Indian culture isn’t surprising, according to TV historian Tim Brooks. "Hollywood, and TV in particular, always tries to jump on a trend,” he said.

Another ethnic comedy making a comeback is ABC’s Funny in Farsi, about a family of Iranian immigrants living in Newport Beach. The single-camera project directed by Barry Sonnenfeld earned a green light this season after failing to secure a production order last year.

Hurdles ahead

Cultural momentum notwithstanding, Nirvana, Outsourced and Farsi all face long odds.

There have been only a couple of successful ethnic comedies on American television, mostly with Mexican-American characters, including the 1970s Chico and the Man and ABC’s George Lopez. Even with the phenomenal box-office success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the film’s Greek-American-themed series offshoot on CBS lasted only seven episodes.

“The American audience is very American-centered and not interested in other cultures for their own sakes,” Brooks said. “For a show such as these to succeed, it can’t be just about an (exotic) culture. Americans want things that they can relate to.”

Nirvana has what it takes to do it, said Polone, who attended the taping of the project’s second pilot in 2004.

“That show is the one that would work; it transcends the India-centered idea and is very accessible,” he said.

Director Ken Kwapis, who was the driver behind Outsourced in its first incarnation during the 2007-08 season and its new production, believes the series will have no problem connecting with American audiences either.

“This is really a show about America as seen outside of America,” he said. “It is unique and, at the same time, relatable. Unique, because how often do you get to see a comedy set in another country? And relatable because we all have experience talking with a call center worker. It’s an important aspect of our lives, but we don’t see what is on the other side of the phone.”

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