A continuation of the history of South Asians in the American Entertainment Industry
“Phir bhi dil hai hindustani…”
While our discussion thus far has primarily focused on the early 1980s, our look back at the journey of South Asian Artists in the mainstream consciousness would be without merit if it did not go back further in time to include “the Showman,” aka India’s Charlie Chaplin; the legendary Raj Kapoor. RK was perhaps the man who put South Asian cinema on the global map, earning two nominations for the Palme d’Or grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his films “Awaara” (1951) and “Boot Polish” (1954). Years later the inclusion of the Nargis classic “Mother India” in the best Oscar foreign film category in 1958 marked another milestone in South Asian cinematic history; one that would not be repeated for 40 years.
Of course it can be argued that the first significant South Asian media moment came in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda began his speech with the words “Sisters and Brothers of America,” through which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. That speech was a media sensation and recordings remain accessible online today.
Here are the million dollar questions:…from Raj Kapoor at Cannes in the early 1950s to the moment James Bond made his superspy way over to India in 1983 how many other milestones were there? How many have occurred since? Why isn’t there more content out there featuring South Asian Artists targeting South Asian Audiences today?
“My Sweet Lord…”
South Asian social, cultural, and political influences in the US have been widely documented in the decades between “Awaara” and the “Temple of Doom.” From Gandhiji’s influence on Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights revolution to Rajneeshji’s OSHO movement in Oregon these decades were filled with a cultural awakening of South Asian influences in mainstream society. Not coincidentally this period marked a robust immigration period from India to the US for those looking for a taste of the “American Dream.”
This cultural awakening was not lost on creative legends in Hollywood, with Charlie Chaplin referring to Raj Kapoor as his brother in India. In 1968 Peter Sellers, who was a Hollywood icon for his role as “The Pink Panther,” went “brown face” for his film “The Party” where he played the character Hrundi V. Bakshi. This film was even oft-quoted by the late Indira Gandhi. (The mainstream nod-by-proxy to South Asian culture in the vein of “The Party” continued into the 90s including Eric Idle’s 1993 film “Splitting Heirs” when Idle played the title role of Tommy Patel. The film also starred a then relatively unknown starlet named Catherine Zeta Jones).
Two years prior to Seller’s “The Party,” in 1966, George Harrison visited legendary musician Ravi Shankar in India forging a friendship that would change music forever and would contribute to Shankar being called the “the most famous Indian musician on the planet.” The relationship led to the 1971 documentary “Raga.” (Shankar’s daughters Anoushka and Norah Jones are of course also world famous musicians with Jones even making an appearance in the 2012 film “Ted”).
Since this piece is primarily about cinema, I will not take a long tangent off into the world of music, but I would be remiss if I did not point out that Ravi Shankar went on to be nominated for an Oscar for his work on the music for the 1982 film “Gandhi.” In 1985, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborated with Peter Gabriel on the soundtrack for “The Last Temptation of Christ.” In 1995, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborated with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam for the soundtrack of the film “Dead Man Walking.” One of the tracks from that film was also re-used in “Eat, Pray, Love.” Khan also worked on music for the film “Bandit Queen,” and “Natural Born Killers.”
In building upon the tradition of Shankar and Khan, A.R. Rahman went on to win Oscars for his work on “Slumdog Millionaire.” Rahman later re-teemed with Danny Boyle on “127 Hours,” scored the 2012 Oscars ceremony, and of course the 2012 Olympics as well, not to mention Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Bombay Dreams.”
“That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight…”
Building upon the 80s, in the early 90s buzz ran rampant throughout Mumbai that the first of its hot young Bollywood stars was going to get the chance to truly “go Hollywood.” Rahul Roy, the hero of the smash 1990 hit “Aashiqui” was widely rumored to leave Mumbai’s Film City for the bright lights of Tinseltown. Unfortunately for Rahul, those opportunities did not materialize and his Hindi Film career receded into the shadows during the fallout until his reemergence in the Indian TV Show “Big Boss” in 2006.
1992 then brought us “The City of Joy” starring Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, and the late great Patrick Swayze. Actress Ayesha Dharker also appeared in the film and went on to land roles in the second “Star Wars” Trilogy as well as the female lead in the 2006 film “Outsourced.” “City of Joy” built upon the “Octopussy” and “Temple of Doom” trend of casting veteran Hindi Film stars in supporting roles for Hollywood Films. These opportunities continued to be few and far between with nearly a decade passing between them, and sustainable Hollywood success proved to still be elusive.
With the prospect of a Bollywood star permanently breaking into Hollywood fading away the path of South Asian Artists took a new turn. No longer was the emphasis on well-known Hindi Film Stars making their mark in the West, but rather Western artists of South Asian Descent making their own mark both in front of, and behind the camera. The 90s would turn out to be a decade of creative awakening for South Asians in Western media.
1992 would also mark the year Mira Nair would introduce us to Sarita Choudhury in “Mississippi Masala” starring opposite Denzel Washington (and Roshan Seth). Sarita would go on to have a long career, including appearing in Mira Nair’s 1996 film “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” with Indira Varma. (The film also counted screen legend Rekha amongst its cast.) You will no doubt recognize Sarita from her role in the hit TV show “Homeland” as well.
Just prior to the releases of “City of Joy” and “Mississippi Masala,” the artistry of Tarsem Singh owned the MTV airways in R.E.M.’s masterful video “Losing My Religion,” which Singh directed and for which he won Best Video of the Year in 1991. Tarsem has since gone on to direct major motion pictures such as 2011’s “The Immortals” starring the new Superman, Henry Cavill, and starlet Freida Pinto.
The same year Singh’s video was dominating the airwaves Gabrielle Anwar landed a starring role in the film “License to Kill” with Richard Grieco. The following year, Anwar landed a role alongside Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.” Anwar has gone on to have a long career with roles in “The Tudors” and “Burn Notice.” Did you know that Anwar’s father Tariq Anwar is an award winning film producer and editor whose resume includes “Center Stage,” “The Good Shepherd,” “American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road,” and “The King’s Speech.” (Due to her multi-cultural background and appearance, Gabrielle is often overlooked when recognizing the contributions of South Asian artists in entertainment; however, I feel it would be a shame not to acknowledge the path she and her father have paved.)
Along with Sarita Choudhury, another modern pioneer in the advancing the footprint of South Asian Artists, Chicagoan Ajay Naidu made a significant crack in the proverbial glass ceiling when he appeared as a series regular on Al Franken’s short-lived show, “Lateline” in 1998. Ajay was already a veteran actor by the time he landed “Lateline” and the following year Ajay would appear in the epic cult classic “Office Space.” Over the years Ajay would go on to have roles in “Hannibal” “K-Pax” and countless other projects, including his very own project, “Ashes.” Ajay’s role on “Lateline” was one of the few, if not only, series regular roles landed by a South Asian Artist that I can recall since the aforementioned “Last Precinct” between ’86 and ‘98. Around this time, Aasif Mandvi was also breaking through on to the scene landing a role as a cabbie in 1995’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance” and with roles in 1996’s “Eddie” as well as 1998’s the “Siege.” Enough cannot be said about the breadth, depth, and significance of Mandvi’s career, with his most notable role beginning in 2006 as a part of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” In 2009 Mandvi went on to co-write and star in his film “Today’s Special” which was a hit on the festival circuit.
While the Bollywood-Hollywood acting crossover was put on the backburner post Rahul Roy, Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (director of “Masoom” and “Mr. India”) did manage to breakthrough on the directorial side, by taking his artistry to another level with his widely acclaimed “Bandit Queen” in 1994 and 1998’s Oscar Nominated “Elizabeth.”
Born in Punjab, Canadian Director Deepa Mehta went West to East and made her mark on the Hindi Film scene around the same time with “Fire” (1996) and “1947: Earth” (1998). Her successful elements trilogy would continue into the 2000s with “Water” (2005). These Hindi films achieved international acclaim due to Mehta’s breathtaking work, and one can hope to see more like it breakthrough into the mainstream.
1998 not only gave us Mehta’s “1947: Earth” but also Mira Nair’s magnificent “Salaam Bombay!,” starring Shafiq Syed. The film’s cast included Nana Patekar, and Irrfan Khan, and was the first of India’s submissions since “Mother India” to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Overall, the ‘90s proved to be a time of doors opening and we even saw hit shows like “Seinfeld” and “the Simpsons” introduce South Asian “characters” to their audiences. Unfortunately, one can argue that the more commercially popular of these types of roles were often in essence roles that simply played to stereotypes for laughs. Whether these roles paved the way for more substantive opportunities or perpetuated stereotypes makes for an interesting debate.
Brian George has made a career of such roles both as “Babu” on Seinfeld and as Raj’s father on “The Big Bang Theory.” Though George was born in Jerusalum to parents of Iraqi descent, his mother was born in India, and his father (born in Lebanon) was raised in Mumbai.
Despite making substantial progress in the 90’s, the combination of critical and commercial credibility remained elusive on a sustainable level for those in front of the camera.
Behind the scenes was a much different story of course as not only did Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair make their mark, but in 1999 Manoj “M. Night” Shyamalan gave us what is perhaps the most successful film ever directed by a South Asian Director. “The Sixth Sense” starring Bruce Willis grossed a whopping $672.8M and earned 6 Academy Award Nominations including a nod for Best Picture. In true Hitchcock fashion, Shyamalan also made a cameo in the film, as well as in his other projects. (For those too young to know Hitchcock, replace Hitchcock with Stan Lee or Subhash Ghai).
“Easy as 1,2,3…”
The year 2001 brought us what would perhaps be considered as the first US made Indian “indie” film hit in “American Desi,” which examined head-on the fun and easily relatable A.B.C.D. college experience. The film’s total gross was approximately $908,000 according to boxofficemojo.com and compared to its relatively small budget looked to pave the way for more micro-budget films to follow. The film’s impact was much more than financial, however, as American Desi presented an opportunity, a vision, a blueprint for South Asians to take control of their cinematic destinies and create roles for themselves since the roles they wanted weren’t being created by the studios. As a light comedy, the film was well received, leaving an undeniable legacy that can be viewed as a double edge sword of both positives and negatives depending on your perspective.
The positives of course have to start with the introduction of Kal Penn (Kalpen Modi) who used “American Desi” as a launching pad to hits like “Van Wilder” and of course “Harold and Kumar.” I could go on and on about the roles and milestones that Kal Penn has accomplished. From his stint on “House” to his breakthrough dramatic performance in Mira Nair’s “the Namesake” (2007) based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s best seller, and his arc on “How I Met Your Mother,” he has been a mainstay in the mainstream consciousness since “American Desi” and continues to be one of the most successful champions for the advancement of South Asian Artists in mainstream media.
Other “American Desi” alums, such as Deep Katdare, Purva Bedi, Rizwan Manji, and Sunil Malhotra, also used “American Desi” as a launching pad to bigger and brighter futures.
Chicagoan Sunil Malhotra has gone to a successful voiceover career while also acting in films such as the 2010 film “Fair Game,” which starred Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Purva Bedi’s roles include 2002’s “The Emperor’s Club” starring Kevin Kline and Emile Hirsch. Deep Katdare not only co-produced “American Desi” (along with director Piyush Dinker Pandya) but also went on to perform in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Bombay Dreams” (music by A. R. Rahman).
The not so good legacy of American Desi is what unfortunately amounts to a track record of failed attempts to follow in the film’s footsteps. I use the term “failed” loosely here in regards to market analysis of the films that followed in its wake and not as a commentary on anyone’s hard work to continue to bring South Asian content to the cinema halls.
For example, the follow-up to “American Desi,” “Green Card Fever” only scored a take of just under approximately $126,000, which put a spotlight on a problem films like “Flavors,” and “Where’s the Party Yaar?” (also known as “Dude, Where’s the Party?”) soon faced. The resulting question loomed large: was there a large enough movie-going South Asian audience to commercially support these projects once “The American Desi” honeymoon was over? Projects such as 2012’s “Patang” continue to face the same challenge. Patang garnered tremendous reviews nationwide, yet faced a very tough road commercially.
The second challenge created by the success of the light-hearted and novel “American Desi” was for indie films attempting to follow in its footsteps to bring fresh story lines and greater quality of content to motivate fickle audiences to continue to come to the theatre.
One of the films that followed was 2006’s “Quarter Life Crisis” starring Russell Peters, Lisa Ray, Maulik Pancholy, directed by Kiran Merchant. While the film was neither a critical or commercial smash, the film’s cast would go on to bigger and better things. Russell Peters of course has become one of the most successful comedians in the world. Maulik Pancholy has gone on to star in “Weeds,” “30 Rock,” “Whitney,” with roles in “Hitch,” and “27 Dresses.” It bears mentioning that Pancholy’s career dates back far beyond “Quarter Life Crisis” including an appearance in an episode of “Felicity” in 1998. Model / Actress Lisa Ray’s career included a role in Deepa Mehta’s “Bollywood / Hollywood” (2002) alongside Rahul Khanna (who was also in “The Emperor’s Club”).
What many may not recall is that 2001 not only gave us “American Desi” but also “Super Troopers,” which is not often thought of as a traditional South Asian film, but deserves a tremendous amount of credit for showing the commercial possibilities for films starring a South Asian comedic lead; paving the way for a film such as “Harold and Kumar” and its 2 sequels. Des Plaines native Jay Chandrasekhar served as writer, director, and actor for the film, which was distributed by Fox Searchlight (which also distributed “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”). Chandrasekhar has managed to be one of the most successful yet under the radar South Asian talents out there. His works include “Super Troopers,” “Beerfest,” “Club Dread,” and he also directed “The Dukes of Hazzard” film. Chandrasekhar’s cousin, Sendhil Ramamurthy is known for his roles in “Heroes,” “Covert Affairs,” and “Beauty and Beast.” Sendhil can next be seen in Bhramin Bulls with Roshan Seth. In 2011, Chandrasekhar directed an episode of “Psych” in which he also co-starred with Ramamurthy and Lisa Ray.
The Chandrashekar episode of Psych was called “Bollywood Homicide.” This is just an example of the increasingly prevalent South Asian themed content on TV. For example, “The Big Bang Theory” also has episodes featuring a “Bollywood” dance between Raj and Bernadette as well as debates between Sheldon and Raj over who is better, Madhuri Dixit or Aishwarya Rai. Stephen Colbert has also lent his unique brand of humor to weigh in on the Madhuri Dixit vs. Aishwarya Rai debate. And of course the NBC show “SMASH” also had a “bollywood” sequence. One of my personal favorite examples would have to be the Heineken commercial set to Rafi’s “Jaan Pehechan Ho.”