South Asians actors are really getting a chance to finally show off their talent on TV, thanks to a rise in desi characters this pilot season. By our count, there are 17 (!) pilots on the five broadcast networks that feature a character of South Asian descent. Clearly, this is the right kind of progress.
From the already big names like Aasif Mandvi, who will play a cop in ABC drama “The Mission” and Hannah Simone, who is playing the first woman of color superhero in the reboot of “The Greatest American Hero” on ABC, to relative newcomers like Vinny Chhibber, playing an openly gay high school teacher in CBS drama “Red Line” and Mouzam Makkar, who is donning the role of a District Attorney in “The Fix,” each of them are hustling it out there and have scored great roles. This also gives a spotlight to South Asians who are working hard behind-the-scenes, the writers and producers and directors, to get their work out there.
As much as I’m excited to see these shows and characters being crafted and I do hope they get picked up to series, there is one sort of cliched similarity that stands out among many desi roles. Any guesses? Yes, most of them do seem to be doctors. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s no secret that a lot of South Asians are, in fact, skilled in medicine. Why shouldn’t that be depicted on TV? FOX drama “The Resident” has Manish Dayal as one of its protagonists, legendary show “ER” had Parminder Nagra playing Dr. Neela Rasgotra. Kal Penn played Dr. Lawrence Kutner on “House.” Of course, Mindy Kaling played an OB-GYN in her flagship comedy, “The Mindy Project.” Even long-running medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” got a desi doctor this year, even if as a lowly intern.
This year, CBS has greenlit a pilot about a South Asian-American family called “Pandas in New York,” hailing from Ajay Sehgal and starring Nishi Munshi, Hina Abdullah, Dhruv Singh, Gita Reddy, Bernard White, and Ashley Tisdale. It’s about a family of Indian doctors who run a successful practice in New York City. They go to extreme lengths to keep the youngest son, Rishi, in the business because he’d rather work at a free clinic in the Bronx.
I absolutely love that an Indian-American family might finally get a spot on primetime television this fall if “Pandas in New York” gets picked up. However, the uncertainty remains: will it propel stereotypes about South Asians only being doctors or will it prove that despite being in this noble profession, it’s not the only thing desis are about?
When we posted our story about this show on Facebook, our readers reached out to us via emails and comments stating similar doubts.
Then there was this comment:
The verdict was debated and there is still no real solution, though there’s a lot to consider.
“Pandas in New York” has the ability to showcase multiple Indian-American characters as well-rounded human beings. We’ve seen it before in other comedies about minorities. ABC’s “Blackish” and “Fresh off the Boat” are prime examples of this. In “Blackish,” the central family busts the stereotypes about African-American families while also embracing their culture. Just like “FOTB” does with Chinese-American families. “Jane the Virgin” and “One Day at a Time” are carving their own spot in the hall of fame with nuanced portrayals of Latin and Cuban-American families. So we know it is possible to do this with a South Asian comedy, as well.
It’s not just “Pandas in New York,” though. Other pilots this year have cast several South Asians to play doctors. Bollywood veteran actor Anupam Kher has joined an untitled NBC medical drama about Manhattan’s Bellevue hospital. He’ll play Dr. Anil Kapoor, one of the more rigid doctors who opposes any form of change. Pallavi Sharda will play a compassionate forensic pathologist Dr. Parvati Agrawal in the CBS pilot, “Murder.” YouTube star Lilly Singh joins her first TV pilot, NBC comedy “Bright Futures,” as Dr. Sam. Amit Sharma has boarded the CBS comedy “History of Them” as Dr. Vikram Johar, the best friend of the female lead. Parveen Kaur will be in the NBC drama pilot “Manifest” as a brilliant medical researcher.
The questions is what constitutes as strictly typecasted when it comes to South Asian characters? Earlier, we only had “The Simpsons” Apu Nahasapeemapetillon to speak for us. His old-school accent, his conniving convenience store owner persona, his arranged marriage, all of it comprised of who an Indian person is to an American audience. To make matters worse, he is voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. Now, with Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem with Apu,” other desis in the industry have spoken up about, well, just how problematic Apu is and how he inadvertently hindered the growth of South Asian characters.
Maybe its a generational issue. In the days when Apu was a big deal, he might have even been adapted from what South Asian immigrants looked like to limited minds in the 80s and 90s. Not anymore, thanks to how successful South Asians are in different facets of life. Even now, with so many South Asians being cast as doctors, the creators aren’t fully tapping into what millennial, modern South Asian immigrants are like. Yes, many of us are doctors or lawyers or excellent with computers but many of us are also writers, singers, fashion experts, architects, athletes, what have you.
Again, there is nothing wrong with playing a doctor on TV (just ask Ellen Pompeo or Hugh Laurie!). It’s just that when a desi person is essaying the role, it comes with the responsibility of making sure they don’t bear the burden of being the ‘token Indian character.’ I guess we won’t know until these pilots take the form of a series.
Maybe this is a plea to the creators out there to give us the layered, complex, relatable South Asian characters we deserve; whether they’re doctors or superheroes or cops or lawyers or coders. It shouldn’t be this hard, right? And it’s not like we haven’t seen them before. Kaling and Aziz Ansari created “The Mindy Project” and “Master of None.” Simone’s Cecelia Parikh on “New Girl,” Archie Punjabi’s Kalinda Sharma on “The Good Wife,” Jameela Jamil’s Tahani Al-Jamil on “The Good Place,” are also nothing short of brilliant writing and acting on the show’s part.
In any case, this year’s pilot castings are a sign that not only is it a good time to be a South Asian actor in Hollywood right now, but that Hollywood is realizing the depth and vitality of its desi audiences. About damn time.