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?
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.
But according to Karen Narasaki, who heads the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, the rise in primetime Asians is also the result of advocacy. Her organization and its partners have been working with the networks to develop diversity initiatives for the past decade, ever since 1999's infamously "whitewashed" primetime season, in which not a single freshman show had a leading minority character.
Narasaki's group doesn't track all the various Asian-American subgroups, so it's hard to tell if Indians are rising in Hollywood at the expense of, say, Chinese and Koreans. But there are a few reasons why Indian actors might have more opportunities. America's growing fascination with Bollywood—and relative ignorance of entertainment industries in other Asian countries—may be opening some doors. Narasaki notes that TV executives tend to have a mental barrier that prevents them from seeing Asians as "stars" who can carry shows. But "Hollywood is intrigued by Bollywood," she says. It's not so much that Los Angeles wants to start aping Bombay's storytelling style, but when executives are thinking about diversifying their shows, the allure of Bollywood—and, more recently, the runaway success of Slumdog Millionaire—may mean that Indians seem more attractive than members of other Asian groups.
To float another, more radioactive theory: Are Indians getting a boost from America's interest in the Middle East? Do Indian characters—and it does seem to be mostly Indians, as opposed to Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis, or Nepalis—function as what film actor Satya Bhabha jokingly called "diet Muslims"?
Whether or not Indian characters are a way of safely avoiding the specter of other, more "dangerous" brown people, the fact that South Asian actors can easily pass for Middle Easterners may very well be contributing to their professional development. Performance historian Brian Herrera theorizes that South Asian actors may have gotten a boost from the flurry of terrorist-type roles that followed in the wake of Sept. 11. A one- or two-episode arc as a featured character on, say, 24 would represent a solid credit line for a young actor, potentially opening the door to more interesting opportunities down the line. It's a trend Herrera has noted with other minority groups, though in less-accelerated forms. "So many of the elder statesmen of Latino actors got their start doing gang stories in the '80s," he notes.
With the possible exception of Outsourced, there are no shows with true South Asian leads yet. It's therefore hard to completely dismiss the sense that mere tokenism is at work here—that Indians are just the newest a la carte option for making TV casts more colorful. But the optimist in me notes that there's an encouraging range of character types emerging. (I'm closing my eyes to things like this.) Yes, there are lots and lots of doctors and the occasional cab driver. But there's also a low-level government worker; a middle-American high-school principal; and a tough-talking, leather-boot-wearing, possibly bisexual Chicago investigator. If that's not progress, I don't know what is.
It's also heartening that many of these new characters are not defined by their ethnicity. Mindy Kaling's Kelly Kapoor is a blithering, slightly manic woman-child—she just happens to be Indian. On Parks and Recreation, Tom Haverford's ethnicity is similarly backgrounded, though the writers have occasionally used his ethnic identity, and the way it's misread, as the basis for humor. Tom was born in Bennettsville, S.C.—like Ansari himself—and changed his name from Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani to further his political career.
Ansari and Kaling, both writer-performers, are far and away the biggest stars of the bunch: He hangs out with Kanye West and hosted this weekend's MTV Movie Awards; she's a beloved Twitter star with a book deal, a movie deal, and a two-year, seven-figure development deal with NBC. Their own comic material has never really been about being Indian, and that's almost certainly being reflected in their TV roles.
The characters on NBC's upcoming Outsourced, on the other hand, are flagrantly Indian. The sitcom is about an affable Midwesterner who heads off to India to run a call center. Zany high jinks ensue as he tries to train his Bad News Bears-esque team of Indian employees to sell cheap gag gifts to Americans. You can't really judge a series from a four-minute trailer, but so far, I've smiled and gnashed my teeth in roughly equal measure. On one hand, the show traffics in some of the lamest, most shopworn punch lines imaginable. Indian food gives you diarrhea! Indian names sound funny! But even after I'd watched it a few times, I was still laughing at Sacha Dhawan's rendition of Glengarry Glen Ross and Parvesh Cheena's excellent comic timing. If my worst fears are realized—if the show is a mess of stereotypes that stokes American hostilities about outsourcing, or if the series fails and winds up a cautionary tale about how Americans don't want to watch shows with large Asian casts—I guess I'll at least be able to find solace in the fact that my Indian tally will have doubled overnight. If it succeeds, the very notion of keeping such a list might finally seem antiquated.
Click here to see a slide-show essay on Indians on TV.