Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Stars of South Asian descent are on the ascent

By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY

It's not just Apu anymore.
After years of relative anonymity, performers of Indian heritage are establishing a small but growing presence in TV and film, breaking stereotypes along the way. From Sanjaya Malakar of American Idol to actors on some of TV's most popular shows, U.S. viewers are seeing a broader range of performers who trace their roots to the world's second most populous country.

"Things are opening up — very slowly, but it's definitely happening," says Sendhil Ramamurthy, who plays genetics professor Mohinder Suresh on NBC's Heroes, TV's biggest freshman hit.

Navi Rawat, a native Californian of Indian and German heritage, encountered a first when seeking the role of mathematician Amita Ramanujan on CBS' Numb3rs. "It was the first time I was cast in a role specifically written as someone who was Indian," she says.

Other actors of at least partial Indian descent on network TV include Naveen Andrews, ABC's Lost; Parminder Nagra, NBC's ER; Mindy Kaling, NBC's The Office; Ravi Kapoor, NBC's Crossing Jordan; and Aasif Mandvi, CBS' Jericho. Kal Penn, who stars in the film The Namesake, appeared this season on 24 and is in an ABC pilot, The Call.

Rawat says it's good for audiences to see that actors who share the same heritage can represent a range of birthplaces, backgrounds and appearances: "They don't fit one stereotype."

For decades, people of South Asian descent rarely were series regulars. (Kavi Raz held that status in the 1980s on St. Elsewhere, and Apu is a long-running animated character on The Simpsons.) In 2002, CBS' Presidio Med, a medical drama set in San Francisco, premiered with no doctors of Asian heritage.

That many of the characters have a medical or scientific background shows TV is starting to reflect a reality in which many doctors are of South Asian heritage (not to mention medical correspondents, such as CNN's Sanjay Gupta), says Karen Narasaki of the Asian American Justice Center, a civil rights organization that has studied diversity on TV.

Oddly, acting opportunities grew in the aftermath of 9/11 as films and TV cast actors of Indian heritage as Middle Eastern characters, says Ramamurthy, a Chicago native who speaks in Indian-accented English on Heroes.

Narasaki wants to see Asian-Americans getting to play all roles, such as Penn's stereotype-defying stoner in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and not just those that fit a newer stereotype, such as "the model minority." TV also needs more diversity on its writing staffs, she says.

Kaling, also a writer on The Office, called on her knowledge to write "Diwali," an episode that featured the Hindu festival of lights. Says Mala Chakravorty of the online Indian-American magazine NRIPulse.com: "It brought about this sense of cultural sensitivity and acceptance."

No comments: