An India exclusive interview: The funny brown guy from Schitt’s Creek
When I reached out to Schitt’s Creek star Rizwan Manji on Instagram for this interview just a day after the show swept five Emmys, I honestly did not expect him to respond. But he did. “The year 2020 has changed a lot of things and checking the ‘Others’ folder on Instagram might be one of them,” he laughs.
Last year, when Schitt’s Creek was nominated for the Emmys, the entire cast was all dressed up and ready to win. “But, this year, when we did win, we had to celebrate from our bedrooms,” says Rizwan. “Though some of us – part of the cast who are in Canada – did get together for a small party!”
Big packages in small roles
The Indian-origin Canadian plays the irritating but lovable real estate agent, Ray Butani, in the series. “He’s just so naive and does not understand what is appropriate and what isn’t. He can get under your skin but is also funny and cute, so that did it for me,” he says.
When did he realise that his character might turn out to be a person we love to hate to love? “In season 1, episode 3, when the billboard is up and Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) questions me about it and I just don’t understand, in my mind, I was like, oh this is the guy!” he says.
And who is his favourite character on the show? “Eugene’s character, for sure! Not just on the show but in real life too: he’s such a serious person and he overthinks. I was lucky to work with these Canadian comedy legends.”
Rizwan did not audition for the part, but was called on the basis of his Outsourced tape, which made him feel a bit pressured. “I just did not want to disappoint them. So I was invited for a table read and that went well, plus they were all really sweet people and it’s sad there’s no season 7,” he discloses.
Incidentally, 2020 happens to be the 10th anniversary of Outsourced, which wrapped in 2010. All the cast members got together for a virtual table read of the pilot episode, says Rizwan. “It was so much fun and we realised that a lot could have come out of that show if there had been a second season. Also, the fact that we did this virtual conference at the start of the pandemic is a funny sight. It’s on YouTube for people to enjoy,” he laughs.
In the movie business for nearly two decades now, Rizwan has also starred in American Desi (2001), Transformers (2007), Wolf of the Wall Street (2013) and had done cameos in shows like How I Met Your Mother, Hannah Montana, 24, Glee and Lucky 7.
The Orient slant
American Desi and Wolf of the Wall Street got him noticed by the Indian audience. “I really cannot gauge if my shows or performances are being watched in India. I was backpacking in India in 2002-03 with my wife when American Desi came out and some people recognised my work then,” he says.
That backpacking trip was the first and last time he visited the country. “I’d love to come back with my kids. Last Christmas, we went to Tanzania where my parents and in-laws grew up and I really want to show my kids our ancestry. My great-grandparents are from Gujarat, mom’s side is from Jamnagar and my dad’s parents are from Kutch, but we really do not have close family there, just some distant relatives.”
He and his wife Taslim Manji do speak a little Kutchi; they believe it’s vital so they can talk behind their kids’ backs. “But we still have to say the big words in English so that gives us away,” he chuckles.
The last time Rizwan was in India, he visited Delhi, Mumbai and his hometown. Next time, he would love to visit Kerala and Punjab. “I love dosas and chhaach, so yeah! Oh, also, paan,” he says.
Growing up in Canada, Rizwan had to face much colour discrimination. “I grew up in Calgary, which does not have a major multi-cultural population and I remember a lot of name calling. I was called Gandhi or a Paki; their point was to make you feel different than the rest.”
However, he adds, the “outsider” feeling remains when he is in India too because of his NRI status.
When he started out in the business, he had to shatter several stereotypes. “I was often told I’d not be able to act a lot because I did not have typical Bollywood looks and even in Hollywood, no lead roles have been written for a brown-skinned guy. But I used comedy as a way to get my way up in the business,” he shares.
“We need more Indian representation in global cinema and I’m talking not just in front of the camera but also behind the camera. If you give opportunities to white writers, that’s the kind of shows or movies that they would write because most of them write from their experiences, right?” he says.
However, things are changing he adds, but they need to get better yet.
“Honestly, I love Schitt’s Creek, but they could have done better with diversity. They could have fleshed out the characters and given them lives, not just use them for comic relief. Now there are more diverse people in the business, as we can see in Never Have I Ever, Master of None and Criminal: UK, but I don’t know if three or four shows is enough representation. The networks need to do better too, but maybe with OTT, things will change. Honestly, my friends did not watch Schitt’s Creek until it got on Netflix, which was three years into its running,” he says.
This year has probably not been very bad for the actor, who is now in New York with his son to prep for the shoot of his next movie. His last outing was in Perfect Harmony, with his daughter who played his sister. That makes it three actors in the family. How’s Taslim dealing? “Well, she has a full-time job, so that pays for us small-time folks,” he laughs.
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From HT Brunch, October 04, 2020
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