Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and the sudden rise of Indians on television.

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June 9 2010 7:08 AM

Beyond Apu

Why are there suddenly so many Indians on television?

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Do you remember the butt-dialer?

In early 2009, T-Mobile began airing a commercial for the BlackBerry Pearl Flip. In the spot, a woman chastises her husband for his annoying habit of sitting on his phone and inadvertently calling her. The husband was gangly and brown-skinned, with a proud, prominent nose. I called my best friend. "Dude," I said. "I think the butt-dialer is Indian!"

Here's a little secret about me: I like to count Indians. Ever since I was little, I've kept a running tally of the South Asian people I've seen on American television or in the movies. In the '80s and '90s, the pickings were slim. I remember being deeply disappointed to learn that Fisher Stevens was not, in fact, Indian, despite the fact that his head-wagging, malaprop-laden turn in Short Circuit was a blitzkrieg of cringe-inducing clichés. But did you know that the pretty bald woman in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born in Mumbai?

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On television, things weren't much better. There was—and seemingly always will be—Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the lovable but polarizing Kwik-E-Mart owner on The Simpsons. And in the late '80s you had Jawaharlal Choudhury, the exchange student from New Delhi on Head of the Class, a sitcom about a rainbow-coalition honors class in Manhattan.

But around the time the T-Mobile commercial first aired, I started noticing that the ranks of South Asian TV stars had swelled. Several of last season's most talked about new series—Glee, The Good Wife, Royal Pains, and Community—feature a South Asian performer. (The last stars the butt-dialer himself, Danny Pudi.) The Office has Kelly Kapoor. Parks and Recreation has Tom Haverford. CBS's massive nerd-hit The Big Bang Theory has Rajesh Koothrappali. 30 Rock has Jonathan, Jack Donaghy's fawning assistant, who—after 68 episodes with no mention of his ethnicity—was finally outed as an Indian this season.

According to my count, primetime TV now has about a dozen South Asians in regular or recurring roles—and that's after the loss of Kal Penn on House, Parminder Nagra on ER, Naveen Andrews on Lost, and Sendhil Ramamurthy on Heroes. Meanwhile, a handful of new South Asian faces are waiting to make their debut next fall, and NBC is about to out-Indian everyone with its new sitcom Outsourced, based on a low-budget 2006 film about an American novelty company whose call center gets relocated to India. Why are there so many Indians on TV all of a sudden?

In part, it's a simple matter of demographics. Immigration from the subcontinent didn't begin in earnest until the late 1960s. So it's only now that U.S.-born Indians—who make up about half of the current crop of South Asian performers—are starting to gain a critical mass both in front of and behind the camera. Writer Ajay Sahgal has witnessed the boom firsthand. Back in 2004, he was having trouble casting the lead in Nevermind Nirvana, a semi-autobiographical sitcom about an Indian-American guy, his immigrant family, and his white fiancee. Sahgal explained to me how difficult it was at the time to find an Indian actor with the right mix of qualities: a good-looking, funny leading man with experience on a multicamera show. NBC shot the pilot with a pre- Harold and Kumar Kal Penn, but apparently he didn't test well. They recast the role twice—eventually with Sahgal himself—and rewrote and reshot the pilot, but the show didn't get picked up.

This spring, Sahgal shot a new pilot of the show—now called Nirvana—for Fox. With the appearance of guys like Adhir Kalyan on Rules of Engagement and Dileep Rao from Avatar, Saghal suddenly had a pool of actors on his radar with the right kind of experience: He didn't have to resort to "looking through the list of every million-dollar Indian movie with the word Masala in the title," as he put it. (The role eventually went to Ravi Patel, who was on Fox's Past Life this spring.)

But that's the supply side of the equation. The trickier question is one of demand. Why are Indians suddenly the "it ethnicity," as Ravi Patel put it to me?

This, too, is at least partially a function of changing demographics. More Indians in the fabric of American life means we're more likely to be a source of inspiration for non-Indian writers, like the two Jewish guys from suburban New Jersey who wrote Harold and Kumar—the title characters are based on their friends. Reshma Shetty, who stars as Divya on USA's hit dramedy Royal Pains, told me that her character was based on a Divya that creator Andrew Lenchewski grew up with on Long Island.

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