Back in 1986, finding any sort of South Asian character on American television was a tall order. It’s why a sector of the population still remembers the Indian exchange student from the ABC sitcom “Head of the Class,” which premiered in the fall of that year.
This Throwback Thursday we’re looking back at the legacy of Jawaharlal Chowdhury, the fictional Indian exchange student played by actor Joher Coleman in the show. Billed as Jory Husain at the time, Coleman is credited for playing the first ever Indian sitcom character in the United States.
“Head of the Class” followed the life of teacher Charlie Moore (Howard Hesseman) as a New York City high school teacher in charge of an Individualized Honors Program filled with academically gifted students. His class included a young Robin Givens as student Darlene Merriman, future “Kenan and Kel’”actor Dan Frischman and Coleman as the brainy Jawaharlal.
Born in Wisconsin, Coleman was raised by his white mother and Pakistani father. “My upbringing was a combination of both Midwestern and South Asian cultural influences. I was born and raised in U.S. but spent a total of 2 ½ years in Pakistan,” Coleman told SAADA in 2012. “I’d attend a mosque on Friday then read about Jesus in my Baptist private school on Monday.”
Coleman also told SAADA that he was fully aware there had never been a character like Jawaharlal on television before “Head of the Class.” Additionally, because his father had been born in India, he wanted to insure that he was representing his background correctly.
According to the script, the character of Jawaharlal was a recently arrived exchange student. Coleman noted that the original character was a bit too stereotypical for his liking.
“What the producers envisioned was a sincere but very innocent, naive and maladjusted transfer student. I began to feel uncomfortable with this approach early on,” he explained. “It seemed to underestimated the intelligence, charm, and savvy of Indians and Pakistanis.”
While naming the character Jawaharlal probably indicates that the show’s producers did not know many Indian people and had to instead rely on history books, Coleman would do his best to make the character more realistic.
“It might be argued that I was doing a reversal of my own experience,” he would tell SAADA. “Rather than being a fish-out-of-water American kid in Karachi, I was a fish-out-of-water Indian kid in New York. The theme is the same.”
Oh, Wednesday night TV 30 years ago tonight…what to watch? We’ve got you! pic.twitter.com/7EDFiEGSob
— The 1988 project (@1988project) January 13, 2018
Along with his co-stars, Coleman would go on to be featured in teen magazines and posters throughout the late 1980s. While his character of Jawaharlal was originally written as an exchange student, he would end up studying at the fictional Monroe High School for three years. Jawaharlal would then “move to California” before the show’s fourth season.
Since leaving the hit show in 1990, Coleman has developed a career as a voice actor for several animated shows and continues to work as a character actor on screen. He credited his time on “Head of the Class” for helping him develop as an actor and a person.
“I remain very honored to have played the character,” he said to SAADA. “My time on Head of the Class provided me with invaluable skills that have since paid dividends in both life and work.”