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Passage to Hollywood

By Uttara Choudhury Email By Uttara Choudhury
January 2016
Passage to Hollywood

Indian origin actors are becoming more visible in Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world, and New York’s Broadway theater district. It’s also getting harder to find an American TV network that doesn’t have a show featuring an Indian character. Khabar spotlights the trailblazers.

America, it seems, is in the grip of all things Priyanka Chopra at the moment. She is arguably the most famous face on 2015’s fall TV roster. She’s just made history: Quantico, a new ABC network drama series, debuted in September with the Bollywood superstar in the lead role. It’s the first time an Indian actor has helmed a major big budget American network drama series.

After becoming Miss World in 2000 at the age of 18, Chopra has gone on to become one of the highestpaid actors in Bollywood. Now she is rebranding as an international action heroine. With Don (2006), Chopra became the strong-willed female action star she has personified in both the biopic Mary Kom and now Quantico, which she describes as “Jason Bourne meets Homeland meets Grey’s Anatomy.”

Chopra, who was born in Jamshedpur, India, came to the United States at the age of 12, to live with her aunt. Having lived in the U.S. for several years as a teenager, she is aware of the significance of her casting in Quantico as part of the conversation about diversity on TV.

“I grew up in America for a while,” Chopra told The Guardian. She went to high school in Massachusetts and New York. “I don’t remember seeing anyone who looked like me or that I could look up to. And now the world is becoming such a small place, the girl next door could be from anywhere. That’s what I want to champion. I want to break the mold.”

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All out American: Priyanka Chopra in Quantico is seen here on a giant billboard on Sunset Plaza in Los Angeles.

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Strong U.S. audience numbers suggest Chopra, who stars as FBI agent Alex Parrish (left) in Quantico, has succeeded in doing precisely that by playing a well fleshed out mainstream American character who is half-Indian. ABC built its strong marketing campaign around Chopra’s face and name, often featuring only her in its ads. Chopra graces Time Square’s iconic, neon-lit billboards and her posters are larger than life on buses and bus stops across America. Most significantly, Quantico has held ratings week after week, and is Sunday’s top broadcast program among the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic.

But Chopra is only the latest in a string of other Indian origin actors making a name for themselves in the hard-as-nails U.S. entertainment industry. Actors Sarita Choudhury, Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Madhur Jaffrey, Manu Narayan, Aasif Mandvi, Archie Panjabi, Sheetal Sheth, and Pooja Kumar prove that Indians are no longer token diversity hires.

What’s in a Name?
Two-time Academy award winner Spencer Tracy’s advice to aspiring actors was delightfully straightforward: learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture. The problem—as many Indian actors have discovered over the years—is that there is a great deal more to it than that.

Today, Kal Penn or Hollywood legend Sir Ben Kingsley may be trusted to open a Hollywood movie in their own right, but there was a time not so long ago when Indian actors kept their origins a secret.

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(Left) Ben Kingsley (Krishna Bhanji) in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Kingsley, who has famously played Gandhi, psychopathic gangster Don Logan, financier Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List, and a gallery of other indelible characters, is honest about what prompted him to change his name from Krishna Bhanji.

“It was a way to my first audition. My dad, who is Indian, was completely behind [the name change]. My first name, Ben, is my dad’s nickname. My second name, Kingsley, comes from my grandfather’s nickname, which was King Clove. It’s a bit late to change it back now,” said Kingsley.

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Sendhil Ramamurthy, who refused to change his name for his acting career, enjoyed his long run in the NBC sci-fi drama Heroes and is now set to reappear in its sequel Heroes Reborn.

Actors of Indian descent who have come after Kingsley haven’t had to do anything as drastic as change their names to win auditions. In fact, Hollywood eye candy Sendhil Ramamurthy, who starred in NBC’s sci-fi tinged Heroes, sacked his agent for suggesting he adopt a stage name.

“My first agent suggested I change my name. What was I going to say my name is—John Smith? It’s ridiculous,” quipped Ramamurthy.

For decades, South Asians were rarely U.S. television series regulars. But Ramamurthy changed all that by playing dashing genetics professor Mohinder Suresh on Heroes, which made him a household name in America.

“It’s wonderful Heroes has a weighty Indian character,” said Ramamurthy, who was asked by the director to deliver his lines with a crisp British accent.

The actor cemented his ascent with a sevenyear contract to play the character of Mohinder Suresh on Heroes. He is reprising his role in Heroes Reborn, a 13-episode television miniseries that premiered in September last year.

Ramamurthy, who landed on People magazine’s list of “100 Most Beautiful People,” had a starring role in Gurinder Chadha’s It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The actor also starred as Jai Wilcox in TV spy drama Covert Affairs.

Ramamurthy says he simply ignores audition calls for stereotypical brown skin roles like convenience-store employees, cab drivers, and terrorists.

“I’ve made a conscious decision that I’m not going to go in on stereotypical stuff—I’m not into it. I’ve turned down auditions for lots of roles like that. I won’t do it, and my agents won’t ask me to do it. I don’t fault other actors for doing that. Sometimes you just need to work. But for me personally, I would rather go do something else,” said Ramamurthy.

The Trailblazers
“I grew up seeing a white guy doing a really bad Indian accent in Simpsons. There were no role models for aspiring Indian actors,” said Kal Penn as he stepped off the red carpet at the New York Indian Film Festival, where a horde of sharp-elbowed journalists peppered him with the sorts of questions sharp-elbowed journalists often ask on New York red carpets.

“It was only when I saw Mississippi Masala, starring the wonderful actress Sarita Choudhury, that I realized there could be actors that looked like me,” said Penn, who is that rare actor who can star in a serious movie like Mira Nair’s critically acclaimed Namesake, and also rake in big bucks from Hollywood stoner flicks like the $58 million grosser Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

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Kal Penn (Kalpen Modi) in the cult classic Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

From the first moments of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, it was obvious that Penn, aka Kalpen Modi, was going to be a fan favorite. He has been on a winning box office streak with the Harold & Kumar series. In 2009, the Gujarati-heritage actor worked as the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement for a year. The Obama administration’s Public Liaison position paid $70,000 a year, or what Penn made per episode on Fox’s popular medical drama House. Penn’s declaration that he was leaving the riches of House to serve in Washington was handled on the show with his character, Lawrence Kutner, being killed in a suicide that traumatized his fans.

Penn is now one of the best-known Indian actors in Hollywood following the Van Wilder and Harold & Kumar series and TV stints on 24, House, and recently How I Met Your Mother.

 

So where is Penn’s inspiration, Sarita Choudhury? In 2014, she appeared in the wildly popular film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, as President Snow’s elegant assistant, Egeria. She is reprising her role as the ivory-glove-wearing Capitol Minister of Affairs in the upcoming sequel The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2.

 

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(Left) Sarita Choudhury, as Egeria, in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, and soon to appear in Part 2 of the same.

Film viewers, like Kal Penn, who were smitten by Choudhury when she debuted in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala playing Denzel Washington’s sultry lover, will be surprised at the ease with which she slips into her latest role as Jasleen, an arranged marriage bride, in Isabel Coixet’s new film Learning to Drive. In the charming, coming of (middle) age comedy about a mismatched pair, Choudhury acts opposite Ben Kingsley, who plays Sikh driving instructor Darwan Singh Tur.

The sophisticated and urbane actress transforms into her polar opposite: a proud Jatni born and bred in Punjab, thrown into the melting pot of Queens, with only a smattering of English. Award winning director Coixet hailed Choudhury’s brilliant performance saying she brought a chameleon-like talent to the role.

“Sarita is exactly the opposite of Jasleen. She is an amazingly cultivated woman, a thorough New Yorker, sexy and very smart, but she transformed into this unlettered woman Jasleen. I love her and I want to work with her in a film in Italy,” said Coixet.

Choudhury held her own in her scenes with veteran Kingsley.

“You know, all Indian fathers, when you say you’re going to be an actress, they beg, ‘No, please. That’s not a job.’ But when I was talking to my father after I’d won the role, and I told him I was going to be working with Sir Ben Kingsley, it was almost as if he believed that I was an actress. I did finally have a real job— because I was working with Gandhi,” said Choudhury.

Choudhury earlier starred in Ayub Khan-Din’s off-Broadway smash hit Rafta, Rafta where she morphed into a prissy Indian mother. “Scott, our wonderful director, gave me a pair of glasses and I disappeared,” said Choudhury.

Not long ago, Choudhury would have been playing the feisty young bride at the center of Rafta, Rafta. “It’s taken me a while to adjust. My early acting was ingénue stuff. I’ve always played the younger generation, so it’s comical for me to be playing what I rebelled against. But as I get older, the roles get better,” said Choudhury.

“When Mississippi Masala came out, no one knew what to do with my look,” said Choudhury. “Back then, to be black was okay, but to be Indian in America? That wasn’t so useful. So I studied and got my American accent down and feel I’ve escaped being pigeonholed. Still, every time I get to play an Indian role, it’s exciting. I feel like I’m honoring what my father taught me.”

Choudhury has also acted in Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra with British Indian actress Indira Varma, best known for her portrayal of Niobe on HBO’s Rome.

The Tide is Turning
Making it as a serious actor in Hollywood has always been the longest of career long shots. But the crossover commercial success of films like Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake and Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire have opened more doors to Indians trying to make a living in the U.S. entertainment industry.

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(Left) Dev Patel in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.

After Dev Patel appeared in the Best Picture-winning Slumdog Millionaire, he lined up several projects including the M. Night Shyamalan film The Last Airbender, Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show The Newsroom, and box office smash The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which made an impressive $130 million worldwide on a budget of just $10 million.

The later-life comedy has British retirees traveling to India to take up residence at a chaotic Indian hotel run by a nervy entrepreneur, Sonny Kapoor, played by Patel. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy lent thespian firepower to the sequel, which again created box-office sunshine.

“You are definitely seeing the Indian male character coming through in mainstream cinema as nuanced,” said New York-based actress Pooja Kumar, who was crowned Miss India USA in 1995.

Kumar has acted in Flavors, Park Shark Chronicles, and Hiding Divya. She was the face of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Bombay Dreams and has featured in ads for Pepsi, Budweiser, and Dodge.

Kumar said the men had broken free of stereotyped immigrant casting but the women had it tougher.

“Women still don’t have meaty roles. But there is change in the works from when I first started auditioning. The new scripts have more rounded women characters because you have Indian female writers and directors coming up,” said Kumar.

Highly Skilled and Trained
Indian actors have often had to contend with the disapproval of their own communities, which frown on risky careers in the arts. But this hasn’t stopped them from following their passion, enlisting in top drama schools in America and Britain, mastering vocal skills and training in character work.

New York-based award-winning actress Madhur Jaffrey first shot to acclaim playing a divaesque Bollywood star in the 1965 Merchant Ivory movie Shakespeare Wallah. At 19, she left her family’s sprawling home in Delhi after winning a place at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Jaffrey married Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey and they moved to New York to look for acting work. In 1969, after a messy divorce, Jaffrey remarried violinist Sanford Allen and they live in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

“My father had two perfect sons, two perfect, pretty daughters. And then there was me. My father rather enjoyed, I think, having this very odd child, who had beatnik interests. So they all sort of indulged me. My father just thought I was weird and interesting,” said Jaffrey.

The celebrated RADA-trained actress and food writer has starred in Merchant-Ivory films like The Guru, Heat and Dust, and Cotton Mary.

“I studied at RADA as I wanted the Marlon Brando kind of strong Method Acting. I wanted honesty, intensity, and all those things that Bollywood cinema in the mid-1950s did not offer,” said Jaffrey.

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Indira Varma, as Ellaria Sand, in Game of Thrones, which has a massive following. Over eight million viewers watched the last season finale in June 2015.

Similarly, well-heeled actress Indira Varma, who has worked with director David Hare and Nobel Prize-winning English playwright, the late Harold Pinter, is a RADA graduate. Varma is what those in the business like to call an “actor’s actor.” She is consistent, skilled, versatile, and has managed to be safe from the greatest threat to personal and professional wellbeing, that of becoming typecast. She has secured her ride, along with a lot of British Indian actors, on the gravy train to American television with a role in Game of Thrones.

Varma lights up the small screen as Ellaria Sand, Prince Oberyn Martell’s paramour in Game of Thrones, which has a massive following. Over eight million viewers watched the last season finale on June 14.

Sendhil Ramamurthy went to Tufts University in Boston but changed his major after taking a drama elective and falling in love with acting.

“My parents are from Bangalore and they are both doctors. My sister is a psychiatrist. I started school in Tufts as a premed student. I came to acting fairly late in the game,” said Ramamurthy.

“I signed up for an acting class called “Intro to Acting” in my graduation year because I needed an arts credit. I also thought it would be easy and there were lots of women in the class!”

“Then I landed the lead in a college production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good and discovered I loved acting. After two more plays at Tufts, I was hooked and decided I needed to change my career goals,” said Ramamurthy.

He followed his passion and went on to study at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, London. He left drama school with a comprehensive knowledge of the classics and his future wife—fellow thespian Olga Sosnovska.

“I just came out and told my parents straight: I don’t want to be a doctor. I want to go to drama school. The decision hit my mom and dad like a truck. But they came around. They were supportive and paid for my studies at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. They flew out to see all my productions. I have no regrets. I don’t enjoy being around sick people. It’s not my thing,” said Ramamurthy.

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(Left) Nitya Vidyasagar, as Leela, on Sesame Street, the long running PBS show.

New York theater actress Nitya Vidyasagar, who plays Leela in the long-running American children’s TV series Sesame Street, earned a BFA with Honors in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she trained at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Sesame Street producers were not looking for an Indian-American actress before they cast Vidyasagar.

“The casting notices said nothing of ethnicity. They weren’t looking for an Indian character. There were probably characteristics they had an eye out for in terms of the energy they wanted to add to the show,” said Vidyasagar, who ended up impressing the casting directors enough to script a role for an Indian-American on the Street, which airs in 120 countries.

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The show’s writers used Vidyasagar’s background in certain episodes. Leela shares Vidyasagar’s passion for her Indian roots, dancing, and the arts. Vidyasagar went straight from filming Sesame Street to starring in Cecilia’s Last Tea Party by Russell Davis, which The New York Times praised as “a modest but ravishing new piece of theater.”

She followed this up with a thematically adventurous production of The Flux Theater Ensemble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the West End Theater.

“My life has mostly been in theater. Sesame Street is a different arena but I have always wanted to do different things—Shakespeare, television, film—be everywhere. There is no roadmap to acting,” said Vidyasagar.

Her screen work includes appearances in Split Ends, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Sita Sings The Blues. On TV, she has appeared in The Good Wife.

“I think empathy is of the utmost value in our world. By acting, you get to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, which is a great gift. By then telling their story to others, you’re kind of passing the shoes around and people can decide what they want to do or not do with them, but it’s an opportunity to remind ourselves about the dimensions of our humanity,” said Vidyasagar.

Force Behind the Camera
Indian names are equally familiar behind the camera. Directors M. Night Shyamalan, Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, and prolific producer Ashok Amritraj can choose their projects.

In the early-1980s, Indian tennis star Ashok Amritraj moved to Los Angeles and was the only Indian producer in Hollywood. “It wasn’t easy breaking in,” reflected Amritraj, CEO and chairman of Hyde Park Entertainment. “I often say that everybody wanted to play tennis with me, but nobody wanted to make a movie with me.”

Amritraj has gone on to produce 100 films, grossing $2 billion worldwide and has Hollywood hits like Raising Helen (Kate Hudson), Bandits (Bruce Willis), and Bringing Down the House (Steve Martin, Queen Latifah) under his belt. Having made a handful of Indian movies, including early Aishwarya Rai starrer Jeans, Amritraj is keen to introduce Indian talent to the West.

“I will always make movies that open on 3,000 screens across America. But over the last couple of years I have made a conscious effort to provide a platform to introduce Indian and Asian talent to the West,” Amritraj said while promoting The Other End of the Line, which stars Indian actress Shriya Saran.

“I am in a position where I can provide a platform for actors, directors to showcase their talent. It is giving back to India and places I love. It’s something I can do,” he added.

Mindy Kaling, one of the hottest TV comedy writers and actors right now, has serious clout in the U.S. entertainment industry. Her portrayal of Kelly Kapoor on the hit series The Office is brilliant, and her considerable talent has gone into producing and writing the show as well. For the third season of the irresistibly awkward NBC sitcom, Kaling wrote an episode set at a Diwali celebration, in which Kaling’s real mom and dad played her self-involved character’s parents.

She has also written a breezy New York Times best-selling comic memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

“Reading her words is like listening to a likably gabby friend chatter happily over generously poured glasses of red wine: What she says is entertaining and makes you want to be her BFF,” noted The Washington Post.

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Mindy Kaling is not only a popular American actor, but also a cultural icon in her own right.

Kaling, who has 1.5 million Twitter followers, got her own show on Fox, which she wrote and starred in, called The Mindy Project. The sitcom ranked as Hulu’s second-most popular show in September 2015.

Her movie credits include roles in The 40-Year- Old Virgin, No Strings Attached, and The Five-Year Engagement. Kaling is in such red-hot demand in Hollywood and U.S. television studios that she routinely works 18-hour days. Kaling doesn’t mind the schedule, professing busy is the new happy.

“I’d rather be in the writers’ room complaining about how over worked I am than in the Bahamas, where I’m like, ‘What am I doing here?’ By Monday night of a long weekend, I’m getting stir-crazy,” Kaling told The New York Times.

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(Left) Aziz Ansari is pushing the envelope from inside out—making ethnic mainstream—and has enough star power to see it succeed. His Netflix original TV comedy series is getting rave reviews across the board.

Hitting their Stride
If busy is the new happy, Indian actors are a happy lot, moving fluidly between stage, television, and Hollywood. Shows like Kaling’s The Office, Chopra’s Quantico, and comedian Aziz Ansari’s Master of None have raised the visibility of Indian actors.

Turns out some Indian actors, like Chopra, not only get colorblind roles, but can cherry-pick their weighty lead roles.

“I read 26 scripts, almost every pilot ABC was planning, and I made a top few list that I liked. Quantico was my first choice.” In a positive sign for Indian actors, ABC has given a full-season order to Quantico, which scored a staggering 7 million viewers overall in same-day ratings for its first three episodes.

“For so long, our look has been the marginal character,” said actress Pooja Kumar. “But we are suddenly seeing it become a lead character in the spotlight. Everyone is jazzed up and wants to get out there and be seen after the success of these shows.”


Uttara Choudhury is editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site, contributor to Forbes India, and a consulting editor for BrainGain Magazine.



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