With the turn of the century, a new generation of South Asians came to the forefront of American media. Unlike media from white filmmakers, the media created by South Asians presents characters that the narrative asks the audience to relate to. For this article, we will focus on the most prominent TV shows and movies centered around South Asian protagonists.
With all the new South Asian children growing up, many new storytellers came out of many different disciplines.
In 1995, two mainstream movies came out that featured a South Asian American as the best friend to the hero: The Jerky Boys: The Movie and Indian in the Cupboard.
The Jerky Boys told the story of two unemployed slackers John and Kamal (John Brennan and Bangladeshi-American Kamal Ahmed, known professionally as Kamal) who prank call various people until they reach a powerful mobster (Alan Arkin). The film resembles an early Adam Sandler or Pauly Shore comedy. In this film, the story primarily focuses on John, with Kamal playing the role of the best friend. While John’s mother acts as a constant presence in the story, the audience never see Kamal’s parents or family.
The film also features middle eastern cab driver Ali Tarbash (played Caucasian actor John Norman Thomas). This character comes from the duo’s standup.
Indian in the Cupboard tells the story Omri (Hal Scardino) receiving a magical cupboard for his birthday. It features Patrick (Rishi Bhat), his mother Lucy (Sakina Jaffrey), and his baby brother Martin (Lucas Tejwani and Leon Tejwani). While the family is present, the story primarily focuses on Omri’s friend Patrick, who is interested in the cupboard.
Neither movies proved financially successful and did not create a wave of new roles for South Asian actors.
With the children of South Asian immigrants growing up, many new storytellers came out of many different disciplines. Through a trial and error process, many of their films and television shows became financially and critically successful.
Born Kalpen Suresh Modi, Kal Penn spent the first part of his career often auditioning for or playing roles he did not particularly enjoy. He first got noticed in Van Wilder (2002), in which he played an Indian foreign exchange student named Taj Mahal Badalandabad, who has come to America to have sex. He becomes assistant to campus Lothario Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds). The role was one of the many that Penn had reservations about taking or auditioning for.
Penn would later star in the direct to DVD sequel Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj (2006). He also produced the film under his original name. When Taj goes to the United Kingdom to complete his Master’s degree, he ends up leading a ragtag group of rejects against the most respected house on campus. The film portrays them as outsiders going up against the English system. In the making of documentary, the writer says that they made Taj into the Van Wilder character for the sequel. This includes making him more grounded and giving him a serious love interest (Lauren Cohan).
His next film after the first Van Wilder, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), would become the first mainstream American film to feature a second generation Indian as the lead (and would feature Van Wilder star Ryan Reynolds in a cameo). Penn starred as Kumar in Harold & Kumar go to White Castle (2004). In that film, Kumar still exists as the best friend role, but the jokes came less from Kumar’s status as an American and more from his behavior. However, the narrative sees Kumar as a figure of contempt rather than relatability.
The second movie, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), places Kumar front and center as the lead. However, it has Kumar learn to be a better person rather than making him relatable from the beginning.
Unlike many films involving South Asian characters previously, both Van Wilder and the Harold & Kumar franchise became financially successful. The sequel to Harold and Kumar was even more financially successful than the original film.
Penn would also appear in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006). It told the story of a 2nd generation Indian American man named Nikhil “Gogol” Ganguli (Penn) as he tries to navigate his place in two different cultures. Gogol decides to use his “good” name of Nikhil (which he shorten to “Nick”). He also becomes romantically involved with a white woman. This all changes when Gogol’s father dies. This causes Gogol to leave his old life behind and embrace his Indian heritage. However, this also proves to be more complicated than he originally intended.
The film was a co-production between Indian, American, and Japanese studios. An Indian American author named Juhmpa Lahiri wrote the original novel. She also appears as a small part in the film.
Unlike Penn’s previous roles, this role focuses on a distinct internal struggle between American and Indian culture. The end credits credit Penn with both his stage name for Gogol and his real name for Nikhil.
After a stint on the TV series House (2004-2012), Penn decided to take a position as the White House Associate Director of Public Engagement in 2009. Penn would go back and fourth between politics and acting for the next eight years before returning to acting full time in 2017.
As an actor, Penn has recently starred and co-created the upcoming comedy series, Sunnyside (2019). In the show, Penn plays Garrett Shah, a former New York city councilman trying to help immigrants. It marks the first-time Penn played the protagonist on a show and co-created a project he starred in.
On Television: Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari
The Mindy Project (2012-2017) and Master of None (2015-2017) featured second generation Indian Americans Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari.
Both Kaling and Ansari began in supporting roles in movies and television before moving on to play relatable leads failing at various tasks.
Born Vera Mindy Chokalingam, Mindy Kaling first appeared on The Office (2005-2013) as a cast member and writer. She also appeared in The 40-year-old Virgin (2005). From there, she worked on various show and movies for many years before creating The Mindy Project. It was the first show on TV created by and starring a South Asian American.
The Mindy Project started as a show principally about Mindy Lahiri, a OBGYN at a New York City clinic. The series began with Mindy being obsessed with romantic comedies and discovering how life did not function like one. Over time, The Mindy Project became more of an ensemble show and focused less on Mindy and more on the hospital staff. Season 4 involved Mindy having her first child and balancing work and motherhood at the same time.
The Series lasted four seasons on Fox before moving to the Streaming service Hulu, where it lasted another two seasons.
Recently, Kaling became the star of her own film, Late Night (2019), which she also wrote and co-produced. It is directed by Nisha Ganatra, a Canadian actress, director, and writer. She had previously directed Chutney Popcorn (1999). Since then, she has directed lots of television, including Brooklyn Nine-nine, Shameless, Mr. Robot, and one episode of The Mindy Project.
The film focuses on Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant worker who becomes a writer for struggling late night icon Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). In a Devil Wears Prada type situation, Molly helps Katherine work out her image problems and bring her outdated comedy into the modern era.
Both projects presents feature Kaling as the sole south Asian woman in a predominantly white work place. For Late Night, Kaling drew directly on her experience of being “the diversity hire” on The Office.
Aziz Ansari and ‘Master of None’
Aziz Ansari began his career as a comedian. He became known for his improv, stand up, and sketch comedy. This led him to become a part of the sketch show Human Giant (2007-2008).
The Netflix series Master of None focuses more on Ansari stand in Dev, a comedian and actor trying and failing to break into the industry. The show focuses more on how Dev reacts to an uncomfortable situation than how he gets along in a work environment. While the show does have some episodes that focus on Dev as an Indian American, it primarily tells the story of Dev’s various misadventures as a single man in New York city. An episode can focus on various subjects from parenting to romance to the influence of modern technology.
Many episodes also focus on the experience of being an Indian American actor. One episode (“Indians on Television”) focuses on Dev going through the entire casting process of being considered for a new sitcom and being asked to do a funny voice for the show. Another episode (“Parents”) examines the experience of Asian American parents in America. Both of these episodes examine how the characters figure out with difficult situations. “Indians on Television” examines how a second-generation South Asian man examines casual racism while trying to get hired on a show. “Parents” explores the stories that first generation immigrants never told their children. The series tends to explore the parts of life that American movies and TV tended to not explore before.
Born and raised in Queens, Hari Kondabolu has primarily been a comedian for most of his career. He had a small role in All About Steve (2009) and some other movies.
In 2017, The Problem with Apu appeared on TruTV. In the film, Kondabolu examines the effects of having the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons (1989- ) as the primary representation of South Asians in mainstream American culture. The film began production a year earlier.
The documentary presents Kondabolu as a Michael Moore type everyman who goes up against a giant institution that refuses to respond to him in a meaningful way. This includes trying to get an interview with Simpsons cast member Hank Azaria, who voices Apu. Unlike his peers, Kondabolu’s approach revolves more around commentary than dramaturgy. As a standup comic, he talks directly to the audience instead of just playing a character in a story.
Kumail Nanjiani worked for many years as a stand-up comedian. Unlike many of his peers, Nanjiani grew up in Pakistan and moved to America for college. His first media appearance came in a 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live (1975-), where he played an Indian reporter. Over the next decade, he would pop up in multiple small roles and cameos. He also became a regular on Silicon Valley (2014-), where he played a tech nerd.
In 2017, Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon received an Academy Award nomination for the The Big Sick. The film focused on a fictionalized version of Nanjiani’s relationship with Gordon. More importantly, it presented Nanjinai as a complicated relatable character dealing with a clash of Pakistani and American cultures.
After the success of that film, Nanjiani appeared in two 2019 projects as the lead.
In an episode of Jordan Peele’s 2019 version of The Twilight Zone, Nanjiani plays a comedian who has everything he criticizes disappear. Like The Big Sick, this episode presents him as a struggling comedian trying to make it.
The upcoming Stuber features Nanjiani as mild-mannered Uber Driver Stu. He picks up a Detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) chasing a dangerous terrorist. In this role, Nanjiani plays the more cautious counterpart to the crazier action hero. Much of the humor comes from how Stu’s actions interfere with Vic’s investigation. Although the trailers and promotional materials make it seem like Nanjiani stars as the lead, some of the early reviews suggest that the film actually focuses more on Bautista.
Terrorism and 9/11
Another event came to define the narrative of Middle Easterners and South Asians in America: 9/11. The first hate crime related to 9/11 was committed four days after the attacks when Sikh Indian Gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered. With these recent events, many portrayals featured an element of the story where people from these countries got confused for terrorists or had to prove that they loved their country.
In the first Kumar movie to focus on Kumar, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) has a plot that kicks in when a white woman mistakes Kumar for a terrorist on a flight. From there, the duo have to find a way to clear their name.
The Big Sick contains multiple scenes where Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani has to deal with living in a post 9/11 world. In one, Nanjiani and his brother feel the need to convince a Caucasian family that they love America while having an argument. In another, his ex-girlfriend’s parents ask him how he feels about 9/11. He gets heckled by an audience member who tells him to “go back to ISIS.” Although the film principally functions as a love story, the shadow of that tragic event hangs over the story.
In many of these movies and television shows, the South Asian protagonist ends up dating somebody of European descent. In many of these narratives, the relationship represents a conflict between American and South Asian culture.
Since almost every project in this article revolves around an interracial relationship, this section will focus on two: The Mindy Project and The Big Sick.
Both writers based their lead characters on themselves to some degree. Mindy Kaling discussed her love of blonde men in Us magazine. While writers Nanjiani and Gordon based The Big Sick on their own love story, they significantly changed Gordon’s family to contrast Nanjiani’s family. The film turns the Gordon family into the Gardner family.
Both stories invited some controversy. During this time, the show drew some criticism, as it involved Mindy being in relationships with predominantly white men instead of men of color. The Big Sick also drew some criticism for trashing Pakistani women to make the love interest look even better. However, both projects also represent some of the first projects written by and starring south Asian leads.
First Generation Immigrants
With new shows and movies about South Asians in America, Indian Americans chose to tell the story of their parents.
Ansari cast his real-life parents in Master of None, while Nanjiani added a more complex humorous spin to his family in The Big Sick.
Sakina Jaffrey played Mindy’s mother in The Mindy Project, while her mother Madhur Jaffrey played the mother of the lead character in the NBC sitcom I Feel Bad (2019). Both are more like traditional sitcom mothers. In both of the series, the jokes about the parents come more from their personalities and culture than their status as immigrants. Mindy’s mother Sonu is a great example of this. The show presents her as a passive aggressive community theater actress. In I Feel Bad, Maya Kamala acts more like Marie Barone (Doris Roberts) on Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005).
When South Asian Americans started telling stories about their culture and life, their movies and television show began to focus on relatable leads rather than cartoonish stereotypes.
This covers a small portion of the media created by South Asian Americans. There are so many more examples not covered here. There’s I Feel Bad (2019), which lasted for a season on NBC. There’s Meet the Patels (2014), a Romantic Comedy Documentary which covers Ravi Patel as he navigates his love and family life. The Funny or Die web series Halal in the Family (2015) focuses on the Qu’osby family, an ordinary Muslim family living in suburbia. It stars series creator Aasif Mandvi and Sakina Jaffrey. There’s the Netflix Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, in which Hasan Minhaj comments on many news stories.
- Along with the shows she stars in, Kaling has also co-created two other shows. One is Champions (2018), which she had a recurring role on. The other is the upcoming webseries Four Weddings and a Funeral (2019) for Hulu. It is an adaptation of the 1994 movie of the same name. Although it does not feature Kaling, it does have Indian cast members.
- Even shows that did not get picked up examine the relationship between first generation South Sian immigrants and their children. While the pilot for Rohitash Rao’s Rancho Cucamonga never got picked up, it focuses on the relationship between a son and his first-generation immigrant father.