Indian-American actor and musician Utkarsh Ambudkar tries to break the stereotypical mold South Asians are cast into with nearly every role he does.
From his breakout role as the flirty beatboxer Donald in “Pitch Perfect,” his recurring appearance as rapping newbie Rishi Lahiri in “The Mindy Project,” to playing Raj, a sports announcer on the critically acclaimed “Brockmire,” Ambudkar has decidedly left a mark on Hollywood.
2018 has been a good year for Ambudkar so far. In addition to his work on television, he was cast in Disney’s highly anticipated live-action film “Mulan,” in which he will play a con artist. He also starred in Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs’s hit indie drama “Blindspotting.”
On top of that Ambudkar — who is also known UTKtheINC — has been working hard on his upcoming album, which is titled “Vanity.” He’s dropped the title track as a single earlier this summer and will follow that up with a second track on September 14.
We had the chance to talk to Ambudkar about his very personal new album, his exciting role in “Mulan,” and how the South Asian diaspora can help elevate representation.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on your role in “Mulan.” That must be so exciting to work on. It’s this big-budget Disney live-action film but more importantly, this one highlights diversity and representation. How does it feel to be a part of something like this?
Utkarsh Ambudkar: Thank you! I’m honored and ecstatic to be supporting my Asian and Asian-American brothers and sisters in “Mulan.” It’s an incredible story of acceptance, strength, and identity and I’m proud to be a part of it. It makes me hopeful for a next wave of films in which South Asian stories are featured and celebrated. It’s an exciting time, albeit long overdue.
TTM: What can you tell us about your character Skath and how he’s entwined into Mulan’s world in the film?
Ambudkar: Unfortunately, I can’t share anything with you! All I can say is that Chum Ehelepola, who plays my cohort Ramtish, is a scene stealer. I can also tell you that, from top to bottom, only the best-of-the-best are working on this project, which is incredibly exciting. From the costumes, lighting, set design to the animal trainers and stunt team, Mulan is the real deal. Just wait until 2020. It’s going to be incredible.
TTM: Recently, you also starred in “Blindspotting,” which was this big hit at Sundance. It’s such a great film with such an important and timely message. Is that why you think it resonated with audiences?
Ambudkar: I think “Blindspotting” succeeded for a few reasons. Aside from the subject matter which you just alluded to, the performances of Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs, Jasmine Cephas-Jones and Janina Gavankar ground the film and allow it to change course and weave between genres. That’s another reason I think people responded to the movie, it doesn’t sit in one place. It moves between comedy, spoken word, rap, thriller and drama without explaining itself or dumbing down for its audience. In fact, working with Rafael and Daveed on this movie directly influenced and inspired me to begin work on the “Vanity” album.
TTM: Let’s talk a little bit about “Vanity.” It’s a personal record of sorts about your first-generation immigrant experiences. What can you tell me about this project?
Ambudkar: After we completed “Blindspotting,” Rafa, Diggs and I set down to start working on some music for the soundtrack. Out of that exercise came the single “Vanity,” which Rafa and Diggs both encouraged me to release as a solo venture. That inspired me to begin work on the album. I really wanted to represent the themes and ideas that we’ve also talked about in this interview, but musically. I was blessed to have several South-Asian and Asian-American musicians on the album, including Heems (Das Racist, Swetshop Boys), Dante Basco (Def Poetry Jam), Brooklyn Shanti and Kaly. Other artists featured on the album include longtime friend and collaborator Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, Sex and The City 2), Rafael Casal (Blindspotting, Def Poetry Jam), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting, Hamilton), Samora Pinderhughes (August Greene), and Lean. It was a labor of love and I’m really excited for everyone to hear it. The first single, “Vanity” is available now and the second Single “Rufio” will premiere on September 14th, 2018.
TTM: You’ve done some great TV roles, like “The Mindy Project” and “Brockmire,” plus films like “Pitch Perfect.” Each of your characters are varied and not the stereotypical Indian American we often see in pop culture. How important is it for you to have that and how do you ensure it?
Ambudkar: I was taught early on that the most important word to learn how to use in my career is “No.” I understand that people have to make a living, that sometimes we compromise our own beliefs for the sake of financial security. Many South-Asian artists have had to take the roles we all now know as stereotypical in order to put food on the table. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to win roles that weren’t written as South-Asian specific, whether it’s “Pitch Perfect,” “The Muppets,” or “White Famous,” and to work with artists like Mindy Kaling, Rafael Casal and Hank Azaria, which may be ironic, but true nonetheless. They’ve sought to actively explore new avenues and present fresh and exciting characters who exist independently of their ethnicity.
TTM: In the same vein, I want to talk to you about the film “Basmati Blues.” It had kind of a mixed reaction on whether it perpetuates the ‘white savior complex’ or whether it’s actually helped increase representation in film. What was your outlook on this?
Ambdukar: A great question. Dan Baron, Monique Caufield, and Jeffrey Dorchen who provided the lifeblood of “Basmati Blues,” they truly love India. They sought to tell a story of a white woman coming to India and turn the “Eat, Pray, Love” mentality on its ear. The story is in fact one of a “white savior” coming to India to make things better, only to learn that India doesn’t need her help. That she stands to learn a lot more about her work and herself by taking a step back and realizing that the thousands of years of rich culture and history she is trying to change doesn’t need her at all.
You can absolutely constructively criticize the execution of their message, but their hearts and minds were definitely striving to tell a new story that celebrated India. Personally, this job presented A) the food on the table scenario we discussed and B) The first and up until now, only opportunity to play a romantic lead in a movie opposite a fantastic Hollywood talent like Brie Larson and C) a chance to do a movie in India and see my family. I got paid to go home and see my grandmother. Maybe that’s a basic way to look at taking a job, but I felt proud to say that I was in India working on a movie that I had a lead role in. My family in India visited the set, they were embraced with open arms, and that is a rare and joyful memory that I am grateful we can all share.
TTM: In your appearance on Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem with Apu,” I loved so your story about your own character on “The Simpsons” in particular. As an actor of South Asian descent, how do you feel now that people are finally appreciating the need for accurate representation?
Ambudkar: I think it’s long overdue. I also think it is now our responsibility as South Asian artists and creatives to be prolific. To tell our own wildly diverse and engaging stories across all platforms and to support one another in doing so. Unconditional support. Within the blanket category “South Asian” live literally billions of completely different people. Can we strive to represent and celebrate them all? Can we lift each other up? Can we support the new voices in our community without ego and criticism? Can we build together? My belief is that we can, and we will. And for anyone telling new stories out there, please reach out to me. I am here. Ready and willing to help in any way I can. Let’s go!
TTM: So, you’re a rapper and an artist. What motivated you to pursue your passions? It’s obviously outside the norm of what South Asians are perceived to be by many.
Ambudkar: I never sought out to be an artist. I stumbled upon theater in High School and was surprised to find that it spoke to me. I fell in love with it. Similarly, I didn’t know I was a rapper until I was one. I would freestyle at parties in high school for fun, then continued the hobby in college. At some point, the hobby became a passion, then an obsession, and finally a vocation. My parents are both PHD Biochemists, and though at first they may have been weary of my decision to go into the arts as a profession, slowly but surely they came to both believe in and support my journey. I think when they saw me freestyle rap for the first time on stage at Freestyle Love Supreme, the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal in 2008 or 2009, they realized that lyricism, musicality, complex vowel sounds, compound syllable rhyme structure and, of course, punchlines are all happening spontaneously, in real time. That is pretty scientific in its own right. They gave me a PhD brain, I just use it in a different way.
TTM: I know you’re working on “Mulan” at the moment but what are some of your future projects that you’re excited about?
Ambudkar: The “Vanity” album is where most of my excitement is. It takes months to craft and build a sound, and the perfect storm of artists working together to create that vision. I am so grateful to have so many talented people on the project and I think it is a great big first step in a new direction for me. In January 2019, I’ll head to New York to start a 2-month run of shows with Freestyle Love Supreme, the improv-freestyle rap collective I’ve been a part of for well over a decade. The members have been busy chasing dreams so we haven’t performed together in almost 2 years. It will be an amazing reunion and I can’t wait to spend some extended time in NYC.