Just a few years ago, it seemed as if the more prominent Asian American faces in Hollywood were more likely to be Korean American than not: John Cho (Star Trek), Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica), Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), James Kyson Lee (Heroes), Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim (Lost), Rex Lee (Entourage), Leonardo Nam (Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants), Aaron Yoo (Disturbia), Justin Chon (Twilight) and my fellow Offender Sung, among others. But these days, the prominent Asian faces you’re likely to see are Indian American.
While most of the Korean American actors I mentioned above are mainly known for dramatic roles (though there are hilarious exceptions like Ken Jeong, Bobby Lee and Margaret Cho), the young Indian American actors coming up now are mostly making their marks in the world of comedy (more on this below). Following are some of these actors (and one new TV show):
Although Penn has played dramatic roles in projects like The Namesake and House, he’s probably best known for his comedic work in the Harold and Kumar and Van Wilder franchises. After his current stint working for the Obama administration ends this summer, he’ll be back to shoot the third Harold and Kumar film.
A stand-up comedian, actor and star of the hilarious cult MTV series Human Giant, Ansari’s on a roll. He’s starring in NBC’s Parks And Recreation, recently signed a three-picture deal with Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and is hosting the 2010 MTV Movie Awards next month:
Kaling first caught Hollywood’s eye by portraying actor Ben Affleck (you heard right) in a play she also co-wrote entitled Matt & Ben (one of the funniest plays I’ve seen, BTW). She is currently executive producer/writer/star of NBC’s The Office.
Pudi, who is Indian/Polish, stars as the film-obsessed Abed in NBC’s freshman hit Community. If you haven’t yet, check out Blowout Sale, the very funny short film he made (along with partners Timothy Kendall and Chris Marrs) for our Interpretations Film Initiative:
Pancholy has recurring roles on two acclaimed series: Showtime’s Weeds and NBC’s 30 Rock (just realized all four of the comedies on NBC’s Must-See Thursday features Indian American actors in regular or recurring roles).
Speaking of NBC, this is a new comedy series premiering on that network this fall; revolving around a white dude who is sent to India to run a call center. I know there are some in the community who are concerned the show may wallow in stereotypes, but I’m going to reserve judgment until I see it. At the very least, the series looks like it will feature more South Asian actors than probably all other previous network series ever produced combined (at least shows not featuring terrorists) so I’m looking forward to it for that reason. Here’s a preview:
I do want to point out that there are also actors of Indian descent who are known for more dramatic roles including Dev Patel and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), Naveen Andrews (Lost), Aishwarya Rai (Bride And Prejudice) and Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes). Though I think it’s interesting that all of the dramatic actors I just listed are foreigners while the comic actors are Indian American.
I’ve argued before that the Korean American wave resulted from the children of the post-1965 Korean immigrant surge coming of age coupled with a new focus on the Korean American community after the 1992 L.A. riots. So what’s behind this recent rise in Indian American comedic actors?
Immigration patterns are again partially responsible. Like Koreans, Indians have been in the U.S. for over a hundred years, but a significant portion of the population are also recent transplants. With the technological boom of the 1990s, the largest influx of Indians came to our shores between 1990-2000. It makes sense that the next “Americanized” generation would be pursuing less traditional career options, like entertainment, at around this time.
I think the other reason involves the fact that Indian American artists haven’t been as integrated or accepted by other Asian American communities i.e. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc… I’ve been involved with Asian American theater/performing arts in Los Angeles for a long time now and rarely have Indian or other South Asian artists mixed in significant numbers with their East Asian brethren. Part of this is due to the physical differences—for ex, there are enough basic similarities for a Korean or Vietnamese actor to play a Chinese or Japanese character, but a South Asian usually looks too different to tackle the part. Whether it’s intentional or not, these and other differences might have led to the general exclusion of South Asians from the Asian American arts community.
If you look at the backgrounds of the Indian American performers above, they didn’t come up through the community arts like many of their East Asian counterparts. Instead, they mostly cut their teeth directly in the mainstream. This might also explain why so many of them have taken the comedic path—if you’re funny, you’re funny. It matters less what your race or ethnicity is. You can make a mark through comedy in a way that might not be possible via drama. I would even say that for these performers, the fact that they bypassed the traditional Asian American community might have been to their advantage.
I’m not suggesting that working your way up through the ranks of the Asian American arts community is a disadvantage. I ran an Asian American theater company for the past ten years so I know how important having that community behind you is. But it can also be a crutch and even an obstacle. It’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond and sometimes finding a comfortable niche within the community might not provide sufficient motivation to risk moving beyond that. But because our Indian American artists have not had that community support, they don’t have the same option to find a “comfortable niche” within the community. Their choices are more limited. They have to sink or swim in the mainstream with everyone else. They have to be at the top of their game to be successful.
That’s one theory. Would love to hear any other thoughts our readers may have and any disagreements. I want to make it clear that by no means am I suggesting that Indians (or Koreans) have made it in Hollywood—we still have a long way to go. But I think there’s definitely an interesting pattern emerging and Indian American artists are doing some fine work regardless of their ethnicity. The people I mentioned above would be hilarious whether they were Indian or not. And that puts a smile on my face.