The final installment in the history of South Asian Artists in American Entertainment
“The Chronic(what?)les of …”
To cover in detail the notable roles and works from 2000 to the present would take a lot more space on the blogosphere than I’ve been allotted (I know, way too late) so let’s take a quick look at some of the notable highlights from 2000 on in the following timeline (Note, many of the actors mentioned may have appeared in multiple works. This timeline is just meant to capture a snapshot of various artists continuing to create opportunities, as well as significant milestones and events):
Gurindar Chadha’s “Bend It Like Beckham” introduces us to Parminder Nagra and Archie Panjabi. Nagra would go on to appear in “ER” and “Alcatraz,” and Panjabi would deliver an Emmy winning performance in “The Good Wife.” Grossing in excess of $76M, the film may have been at that time the most successful film with a South Asian female lead taking in 10 times more than “Mississippi Masala” and more than double that of “Monsoon Wedding.” Veteran Hindi Film actor Anupam Kher was also in the film. Chadha previously directed the 1993 film “Bhaji on the Beach”
Jimi Mistry stars in “The Guru” which grossed approximately $24M. Mistry got his big break in 1999’s “East is East” also starring Om Puri and Archie Panjabi. East is East was followed by the 2010 sequel “West is West.” Mistry would go on to have roles in films such as “Blood Diamond” starring Leonardo DiCaprio
Screen legend Naseeruddin Shah joined Sean Connery in “the League of Extraordinary Gentleman”
Tanveer K. Atwal and Tharini Mudaliar were part of the eastern influenced “Matrix Revolutions,” which rolled its credits to the sounds of Sanskrit Slokas
Kal Penn plays chronic loving Kumar in “Harold and Kumar.” 2 sequels would be made over the next 8 years and many will point to this role as the moment that South Asian characters in non-stereotypical commercially successful lead-roles would prove worthy of a larger Hollywood presence
Gurindar Chadha presents “Bride and Prejudice” starring Aishwarya Rai, Anupam Kher, Namrata Shirodkar in what would accompany a worldwide media blitz trumpeting what was to be the beginning of the “Bollywood” crossover in mainstream media. Rai would appear on Letterman and 60 minutes as a part of the marketing campaign and would go on to act in “The Mistress of Spices,” “The Pink Panther 2,” and “The Last Legion.” It would appear that neither her media campaign nor her films came with quite the commercial or critical payoff that we all hoped it would deliver, but she continues to be one of the brightest stars in the celebrity universe. Rai (as are Freida Pinto and Priyanka Chopra) is represented in the US by CAA and I’m sure she’ll continue to be a presence in the States. In 2005 Rai was reported to have landed a role in Michael Douglas’s “Racing the Monsoon” which was to be the sequel to 1985’s “Jewel of the Nile”
Bipasha Basu appears in Jay Sean’s “Stolen” video
Waris Ahluwalia cast in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Ahluwalia would later appear in “the Darjeeling Limited” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Actress Navi Rawat is cast on the TV show “Numbers”. Rawat’s career includes 2002 roles in “Roswell” and “24”
Mindy Kaling and Gerry Bednob appear in “The 40 Year Old Virgin”. 2005 would also mark Mindy Kaling’s debut in “The Office” where she is also a writer and has directed episodes as well. Kaling would go on to appear in many films and has a new show called “The Mindy Project” hitting airwaves in 2012
Omi Vaidya appears on “Arrested Development.” Omi would go on to stardom in “3 Idiots”
Sunkrish Bala appears in 4 episodes of the show “Barbershop”
Aasif Mandvi joins “The Daily Show.” As previously mentioned Mandvi’s career dates back to the 90s including a role in 1995’s “Die Hard with a Vengeance” and includes roles in big budget films such as “Spiderman 2” and “The Last Airbender,” which was directed by M. Night Shyamalan and also starred Dev Patel
Bollywood actor Gaurav Chopra along with Jimi Mistry appear in “Blood Diamond”
The multi-talented Janina Gavankar appears as Papi on “The L Word.” Gavankar would go on to star in “True Blood” and “The Mysteries of Laura” and also has a burgeoning music career while remaining an active player in the technology field
Vikram Sahay appears on “Chuck.” Sahay’s career includes roles in films such as 2012’s “American Reunion”
Kunal Nayyar stars as Raj in “The Big Bang Theory”
Sarayu Rao appears in “Lions for Lambs.” Rao’s career includes roles such as her 2011 appearance in “Franklin and Bash” and on “Sons of Tucson”
The versatile Irrfan Khan appears in “A Mighty Heart” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” Khan would go on to appear in many high profile projects such as “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Namesake,” “In Treatment,” and “The Amazing Spider-Man”
Bollywood legend Anil Kapoor produces “Gandhi My Father.” Kapoor would go on to appear in “Slumdog Millionaire,” “24,” and “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol”
“The Last Legion” releases starring Aishwarya Rai, Ben Kingsley, and Colin Firth
Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” releases starring Kal Penn, Tabu, Irrfan Khan, and also features an appearance by Rupak Ginn who would go on to have roles in “Royal Pains” and films like “Friends with Benefits”
Paul Varghese appears in Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham.” Paul was also a regular on “Last Comic Standing”
Jaffar Mahmood directs “Shades of Ray” a film about American Born Confused Pakistanis starring Zach Levi of “Chuck” and Sarah Shahi of “Fairly Legal” & “Person of Interest”
“Slumdog Millionaire” starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, music by A.R. Rahman winner of 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Though the film is from a British director as was “Gandhi” and “Passage to India,” “Slumdog Millionaire” achieved the rare feat of delivering a commercial and critical success staring a South Asian cast including veteran Hindi Film stars
Noureen DeWulf lands a supporting role in “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” Her career includes the award winning 2005 film short “West Bank Story” and roles in “Oceans Thirteen” as well as the 2012 series “Anger Management”
Deep Katdare’s future wife, Reshma Shetty, stars in “Royal Pains.” The series also features appearances by Rupak Ginn, Ajay Mehta, Anna George, and Poorna Jagannathan
Chicagoan Sonal Shah lands the role of Dr. Sunny Dey on “Scrubs”
Adhir Kalyan appears on “The Rules of Engagement” and would go on to become a series regular.
Aziz Ansari appears in “Funny People” starring Adam Sandler. Ansari would go on to star in the hit TV show “Parks and Recreation” as well as films such as “30 Minutes or Less”
“Outsourced” (TV Show) hits the air with a cast that includes Rizwan Manji, Chicagoan Parvesh Cheena, and Anisha Nagarajan
Chicagoan Ajay Naidu presents his own production, “Ashes” whose cast includes Samrat Chakrabarti
Satya Bhabha appears in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”. Bhabha, like Chakrabarti would also appear in 2012’s “Midnight’s Children”
Aarti Mann joins the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” and would go on to appear in an episode of the hit show “Suits”
Archie Panjabi wins an Emmy for her role in “The Good Wife”
Poorna Jagannathan appears on Royal Pains as Saya Katdare. Poorna would also go on to star in the film “Delhi Belly”
Anil Kapoor appears on “24”
Irrfan Khan appears in “In Treatment”
Tarsem Singh directs “The Immortals”
Hannah Simone co-stars in the hit TV show “New Girl”
Kumail Nanjiani co-stars in “Franklin and Bash”
Anand Rajaram guest stars as Ray on “Suits”
Anil Kapoor appears in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”
Dev Patel co-stars in the hit film “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The cast include Lillete Dubey. Patel would also land a coveted role in Sorkin’s new HBO hit “Newsroom”
Freida Pinto co-stars in “Trishna”
Seema Biswas, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sugandha Garg, co-star in Chicagoan Prashant Bhargava’s critically acclaimed “Patang.” The film would receive four stars from Roger Ebert as well as his Golden Thumb Award. “Patang” would also receive rave reviews from the NY Times and the LA Times. The NY Times would name “Patang” its Critic’s Pick. Nawazuddin would go on to be one of the fastest rising stars in Bollywood, marking perhaps the first time a Bollywood star was discovered via an American made “indie” film
Satya Bhabha, Shriya Saran, Anupam Kher, Shabana Azmi, Seema Biswas, Rajat Kapoor, Soha Ali Khan, Rahul Bose, Ronit Roy, Samrat Chakrabarti and many others star in Deepa Mehta’s “Midnight’s Children” based on the book by Salman Rushdie
Amitabh Bachchan makes his Hollywood debut in “the Great Gatsby”. The legendary Bachchan also carries the Olympic Torch in advance of the opening ceremonies
Chicagoan Melanie Kannokada stars in “Love, Lies and Seeta”
Sunny Leone makes her cross-over debut in the Hindi Film, “Jism 2”
Dev Patel costars in “the Newsroom”
Anupam Kher appears in “Silver Linings Playbook”
Priyanka Chopra’s “In My City” appears as the theme song for Thursday Night Football on the NFL Network
Hari Kondabolu is a writer and correspondent for “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” produced by Chris Rock
Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Ravi Patel, Ayan Khan, Mohamed Abbas Khaleeli, Vibish Sivakumar, Shravanthi Sainath star in Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”
Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey produce “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” which features Manish Dayal and Om Puri in prominent roles. The cast also includes Juhi Chawla, Amit Shah, and Rohan Chand and the music was directed by AR Rahman
Aasif Mandvi and Melanie Kannokada co-star in the HBO series “The Brink.” Mandvi will also co-produce and co-write the series
Hasan Minhaj added to the Daily Show as a correspondent
Prashant Bhargava directs the “Anthem of Us” which airs during PM Narendra Modi’s star studded reception in New York
Tasneem Kureshi appears in “Homeland”
Indira Varma cast in “Game of Thrones”
Parvesh Cheena cast in “A to Z”
“What’s the story, morning glory?…”
We’ve traveled together on a long yet condensed journey. What’s the take away? Are we, as Lady Gaga would say, “on the edge of glory”? And if so, is there a formula to success?
First, if you’re looking for a formula in the world of arts, you’re probably missing the point of the medium (although it seems these days that’s exactly what the major motion picture studios are doing by focusing on primarily releasing blockbuster popcorn sequels, franchises, and reboots rather than unique quality pictures). These franchises have proven to be a far safer bet for the studios with huge returns.
Second, what time has taught us is that commercial success, more than critical success, is what drives opportunities. The critical success of the 80s show that roles have existed for South Asian actors in studio films for some time now, but it has taken the box office success of films like “Super Troopers,” “Bend it Like Beckham,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to show that prominent roles were consistently justified.
Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” marks the first time since Gandhi that a South Asian based project, with South Asians in the lead, achieved both critical and commercial success on a global scale. And it is a project like that, which could be the straw that tips the scale in favor of a new era in South Asian cinema.
The sad truth is that prior to “Slumdog Millionaire” the main stream studios viewed the South Asian market as one that couldn’t financially support major investment in the form of targeted content. To that point, Danny Boyle has been pretty open about how hard it was to get a studio to back “Slumdog Millionaire.” Similarly, “Outsourced,” the TV show was not renewed for a second season because viewership wasn’t there in the numbers the network wanted. Many of you may not know that in 2003-2004 NBC tried to launch a south Asian focused TV show called “Nevermind Nirvana” which ultimately did not make it to production, despite several runs at it under various networks. Nirvana even had Kal Penn, Judy Greer, and David Schwimmer attached to the project.
“My Name is Khan” is another example of the types of commercial challenges that face South Asian driven content. Fox Searchlight bought the worldwide rights to the film for $18.1M. MNIK’s US gross was only $4M. The film did manage to pull in a grand total in global gross receipts of $41M to secure the studio a modest profit. Similarly, Hrithik Roshan’s “Kites” was recut by Brett Ratner and distributed in the US but raked in only $1.7M. Not to belabor the point but consider that “The Namesake” had a total domestic gross of approximately $13.5M, “Monsoon Wedding” took in approximately $13.8M, and “Bride and Prejudice” grossed $24.7M worldwide. In the cost vs. benefit world that studios live in these numbers fail to inspire the type of excitement one would hope to launch more South Asian specific content. Surprisingly, even the successful “Harold and Kumar” series has not had a single installment gross more than $43.5M worldwide.
However, to answer to question posed earlier; yes we are on the edge of glory….or at least on the edge of a new era. The real question is how far from that edge are we? There is no clear way to tell. Consider that African American artists continue to achieve new and inspiring milestones in the arts and their cinematic journey has been as long if not longer than that of South Asian artists. Due to many of the artists mentioned in this piece, (and my apologies to any of those I’ve missed), we can hope that the day is soon upon us when we can refer to these artists, simply as artists, rather than as “South Asian” artists.
And while we may not be at a level of success today that exceeds or even meets that of the Roshan Seth 1984 era, what is clear is that the landscape of opportunity for South Asian artists runs broader and deeper today than ever before.
As we look ahead we look to the positives, such as the 2014 release of the Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey backed Hundred Foot Journey. The South Asian market continues to expand and the commercial viability of this market is making significant strides.
I will conclude this little (ok, not-so-little) journey with a “Thank You” to all of those that have paved the way, and to those that continue to forge ahead. To quote Timbuk3, “the future is so bright, I gotta wear shades…”