Women of South Asian descent, when represented on television, are usually defined by tropes like arranged marriages, terrorism story arcs, or playing reclusive doctors. Of course, actors like Hannah Simone and Mindy Kaling have broken out of this one-dimensional mold with “New Girl,” “The Office,” and “The Mindy Project,” three major primetime comedies that put an Indian-American character in the forefront.
On the drama side, however, with thematic shows like “24” and even “Homeland,” South Asian characters, especially women, were reduced to playing either the evil Muslim or a silent trophy wife.
However, there are several actresses who are defying these stereotypes with their performances in these thrilling dramas. Even if some of these roles are those of a doctor or a villain, they’re layered, multi-dimensional, and flawed. Instead of doubling down on the stereotypes, these actresses play characters who are given atypical plots, even if some are doctors or villains, lending to some complex characters we’ve grown to love.
1. Sakina Jaffrey as Denise Christopher, “Timeless”
If you aren’t already watching NBC’s time-traveling whammy of a show, there is no better time to get involved. Jaffrey plays Homeland Security agent Denise Christopher. She’s after a corrupt organization named Rittenhouse and puts together a team of three individuals who are fit to travel through time and correct timelines Rittenhouse is trying to mess up, whether it’s the Watergate scandal, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, or the Salem witch trials. Denise is powerful, intelligent, and acts as the team’s moral compass. She’s also adding to the desi LGBT representation because on the show, she’s married to a woman and they are raising a daughter.
2. Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma, “The Good Wife”
For six seasons of this drama, British-Indian actress Punjabi played the fierce Kalinda Sharma, a private investigator for a law firm. Her performance was so thrilling, she won an Emmy in 2010 and was nominated for two more years after. Kalinda is bisexual, a leather-jacket enthusiast, and never lets anyone else decide what’s best for her. With this role, Punjabi set the bar for what nuanced, modern representation of South Asian women should be.
3. Summer Bishil as Margo Hanson, “The Magicians”
Say hello to High King Margo. That’s right, Bishil’s extraordinary character Margo Hanson in this wonderful and whimsical SyFy drama is a charming, sarcastic, fast-talking, pop-culture obsessed magician and ruler of her own kingdom, Fillory. At the start of “The Magicians,” Margo may seem like your average mean girl but she grows into a total badass with a heart, just the kind of friend and woman you want on your side. Bishil pulls this entire fantastical storyline off like a total pro.
4. Priyanka Chopra as Alex Parrish, “Quantico”
Who doesn’t love Chopra as the FBI agent Alex Parrish on this action-packed ABC drama, which just returned for its third season. Since 2015, the Bollywood actress has played Alex Parrish with a solid conviction, never letting a strand of hair fall out place (aka she looks perfect even while kicking bad guys to the curb). Alex is the definition of badass, because even when she is accused of plotting against the country or when her closest friends abandon her, she rises up like a phoenix. It’s no wonder Chopra turned into American media’s sweetheart with this role.
5. Tina Desai as Kala Dandekar, “Sense8”
“Sense8” is a remarkable show because it thrives on originality. This is evident with all the characters, including Desai’s Kala. For a majority of the two seasons, Kala’s story arc is based in Mumbai, India, where she lives with her family and works as a pharmacist for a large drug company. She is engaged to the CEO’s son Rajan. Her life gets way more complex when she realizes she is one-eighth of a cluster, people from different parts of the world who are connected mentally and emotionally despite the physical distance and have some dangerous enemies coming for them.
6. Nimrat Kaur as Tasneem Qureshi, “Homeland”
“Homeland” season 4 was set in Pakistan, which meant various South Asian actors like Suraj Sharma and Raza Jaffrey kept showing up throughout the episodes (albeit mostly playing corrupt folks). Kaur’s villainous Tasneem Qureshi, however, definitely leaves the most impactful memory for being probably the show’s best antagonist in its entire run. An ISI agent who secretly works for the Taliban, she plays a memorable role as she faces off against the show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Bollywood actor Kaur executed the slimy, manipulative role with excellence.
7. Indira Varma as Illaria Sand, “Game of Thrones”
Varma has appeared in her fair share of movies (“Bride and Prejudice,” “Basic Instinct 2”) and TV shows (“Human Target,” “Rome”). Her most celebrated role, however, is from HBO’s mammoth TV drama “Game of Thrones,” in which she played Illaria Sand, the paramour to Oberyn Martell, from seasons 4 to 6. Illaria is fiercely loyal to him and after his death, vows to seek revenge on the Lannister clan who wronged her own family. She is impeccably dressed, vicious, and Varma brought out her very best self for this role.
8. Janina Gavankar as Diana Thomas, “Sleepy Hollow”
Playing badass roles is not new to Gavankar, who has appeared on various shows like “The Vampire Diaries,” “Arrow,” “True Blood,” and “Mysteries of Laura,” playing powerful women. She also voices Iden Versio in the Star Wars Battlefront II video game. In 2017, she joined the cast of FOX drama “Sleepy Hollow” as special agent Diana Thomas, who partners up with 18th century war hero Ichabod Crane to rid the world of evil entities. It’s an intriguing concept and Gavankar, naturally, delivers in her role.
9. Parminder Nagra as Neela Rasgotra, “ER”
Dr. Neela Rasgotra became the antidote to Apu’s stereotypical representation in the early 00’s. From 2003-2009, right after her successful film “Bend it Like Beckham,” Nagra donned this character for the hit medical drama, eventually becoming one of the most important leads. During her run, Neela progressed in her career, had multiple romances, and ended up becoming the blueprint of accurate desi representation while also being a stunning, strong British-Sikh character. See, Indian doctors on TV don’t need to be typecast, after all.
10. Melanie Chandra as Malaya Pineda, “Code Black”
Since we’re on the subject of brilliant doctors, Chandra portrayed Malaya Pineda on this CBS medical drama for its first two seasons, exiting the show in 2017. However, her performance and the character were both remarkable. Malaya goes through a couple of traumatic events in the show like her ex-girlfriend dying in the hospital where she works or when she was assaulted by a man after he found out she’s a lesbian. Both of these tie into and give Malala meaningful story arcs, proving she is a reliable and strong woman and doctor. It’s a shame that before season 3, Chandra left “Code Black” due to a serious cast shake-up and retooling of the show.
11. Freida Pinto as Jas Mitra, “Guerrilla”
In this Showtime miniseries, Pinto plays a daughter of Indian immigrants, a nurse and a politically charged woman because the show is set against the politically explosive background of 1970’s London. Jas and her boyfriend Marcus begin a radical underground cell. Her character is inspired by British-Indian activist of the time, Mala Sen, who worked hard to combat racism during this era. Jas is strong-willed and ready to fight for what is right, especially when it comes to those she loves or even the color of her skin. In one of Pinto’s first roles as a series regular, she picked an excellent character and played her well.
12. Mouzam Makkar as Alexandria St. John, “The Vampire Diaries”
Makkar played a recurring role in this beloved and mystical The CW drama’s season 7. It’s commendable when a show like this one, in its seventh season, has seen all kinds of creatures like vampires, witches, werewolves, hybrids, that a human adversary leaves an impact. That’s exactly what Makkar’s crisp suit wearing Alex St. John does. She’s the head of an organization known as The Armory, which collects supernatural artifacts. While she seems tough despite her calm exterior, deep down she is fighting them all to rescue her sister, who is trapped in a centuries-old vault. Makkar currently plays a wildly funny character on NBC comedy “Champions,” and her current pilot on ABC, in which she plays a district attorney, shows she’s prone to choosing smart roles.