How to be South Asian in America
Indian-American actress Tiya Sircar is revelling in the way the country of her birth has finally accepted her for who she isUpdated: Nov 17, 2018 21:51 IST
Tiya Sircar didn’t become an actress by chance. She’d been taking acting lessons since she was just seven years old, having already decided that it was her one true calling. But even before that, when she was just about three, she’d begun dance lessons. First Indian classical and folk dance, then ballet, jazz, lyrical and modern dance....
“When I started off, I would audition for lead roles, go through the entire drill, but at the end of the day, the role would always go to some Caucasian actress”
Performance arts was encouraged, but Tiya’s parents – both college professors from Kolkata – made it clear that graduation was a necessity. So Tiya got not one, but two bachelor’s degrees: one in business/marketing, and another in theatre and dance. And then, armed with all that training, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream.
Doc, software engineer, nerd
Today, at 36, apart from making her presence felt in films like 17 Again (2009), The Internship (2013), Walking with Dinosaurs (2013), Miss India America (2015), Tiya is a popular face on American television having been part of shows like Master of None, The Mindy Project, The Good Place, House MD, Hannah Montana, Moonlight, Numbers, Privileged, The Vampire Diaries, Betas and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Supergirl. She has also been the voice of the popular animated Star Wars Rebels series character Sabine. However, only this year has she achieved her pinnacle: her first lead role, as an Indian-American!
“It is exciting that we actually have come to a point where even bona fide Bollywood stars are being tempted by the roles American television is offering”
“When I was growing up, the only television character who remotely looked like me was Apu from The Simpsons,” says Tiya. “He was not the kind of character we were pushing for as a representation of the community. When I started off, I would audition for lead roles, go through the entire drill, but at the end of the day, the role would always go to some Caucasian actress. And then if I did get a role, the character would be ethnically ambiguous. The actor playing the role would just happen to be an Indian. It was not written as an Indian character.”
When they did write desi characters, they wrote them stereotypically. “The character would invariably be a computer scientist or a nerd, or a doctor delivering bad news,” says Tiya. “It is heartening to see that well-rounded Indian and South Asian characters are now being written into scripts. This has happened only in the past three years,” she says.
Tiya plays Rooni in Comedy Central’s show Alex, Inc. She plays a complex character, and being an Indian-American is just an aspect.
“She doesn’t exist in the show just as a non-white Indian character. There is much more to her,” explains Tiya. “We touch upon her ethnic background quite a bit, and we have an episode where they celebrate Holi, something I have never seen that on American TV before.”
“When I would go out for roles that were Indian and not Indian-American, I would try to replicate the accent of my cousins in Kolkata. And I would be told, ‘oh she was great, but she was not authentically Indian”
Ethnically ambiguous roles earlier used to be given to African-American actors or Chinese or Japanese actors. But now, South Asia is getting a look in. “It is exciting that we actually have come to a point where even bona fide Bollywood stars are being tempted by the roles American television is offering,” says Tiya. “Anupam Kher was here some months back shooting a pilot of a new show, and Priyanka Chopra played the lead in Quantico. What I love the most about her character, Alex Parrish, is that the show didn’t really trace her background and ethnicity. It was not central to her character, she just happened to be played by an Indian actor.”
American actors of South Asian origin are also doing well these days. “When I would go out for roles that were Indian and not Indian-American, I would try to replicate the accent of my cousins in Kolkata. And I would be told, ‘oh she was great, but she was not authentically Indian.’ It was a catch-22 situation. I looked Indian, I was an Indian, but I didn’t sound like one!” laughs Tiya.
But now, more and more Indian characters are being written in a way that they don’t need an Indian accent. “There are characters that are originally Indian but grew up in the US, so they are allowed to have an American accent instead, which works in my favour,” she quips.
An academic question
Tiya noticed that this change in the television scene began with Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari. “They were headlining their own shows, The Mindy Project and Master of None, and doing that without playing caricatures. Even though Mindy Lahiri is a doctor, which most Indian-Americans grow up to be, she is not playing it as a stereotype,” says Tiya.
“I think most of us first-generation Indian-Americans are always under great parental pressure to do well in everything... academics is an integral part of their American dream”
But not all stereotypes are baseless, she admits. “I am an Indian-American who chose a rather unusual career path. But most of my friends with a similar background did become doctors. So that’s spot on,” she says. “So is the stereotype of South Asian kids being studious and math nerds, although again, I am an exception. In fact, I played a character in Betas where the character is an over-achiever, and there was another character in the show who was pressurised by her parents to become one. I think most of us first-generation Indian-Americans are always under great parental pressure to do well in everything. My parents are professors, my family is full of PhD holders; there was a lot of pressure to excel in academics.”
The pressure over academics probably comes from the fact that most first generation migrants to the US moved here to study. “So academics is an integral part of their American dream,” explains Tiya. “They made sacrifices, saw tough times, and now they want a better life for their kids. And the only way they can think of ensuring that is through academics.”
Bring back my history to me
Even so, TV scripts are now looking beyond clichés and stereotypes. As a result, not only are there well-developed and nuanced characters, but also well-researched plots. Tiya is not ashamed to confess that these days the scripts are so well researched that she – a person who is born and raised in the US – has actually learnt a few things about her parents’ country during the readings.
“I was once offered a role in a film about the warrior queen, Rani Laxmibai. I was fascinated by her story. So much so that as soon as I finished reading the script, I called up my mother and told her. And to my surprise, she not only knew all about Rani Laxmibai but was in fact shocked to know that I didn’t. My mom teaches South Asian history in college. So, yes, this didn’t go down too well with her! To her, it was ridiculous that I didn’t know about it!” she laughs.
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From HT Brunch, November 18, 2018
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First Published: Nov 17, 2018 21:51 IST