Thespian, Storyteller, Satirist, and More.
With his mischievous eyes and deft facial expressions, he is a natural at caricaturing. So, is it any wonder that AASIF MANDVI rose to national prominence as a correspondent for The Daily Show, where he mastered the art of using satire for social commentary? At his heart though, he is an actor and a storyteller—and his long list of credits in Hollywood can vouch for it.
In October 2013, Aasif Mandvi interviewed Don Yelton, a Republican precinct chairman of Buncombe County, North Carolina. It was part of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show segment on new voting restrictions that had been imposed soon after the Supreme Court had struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. In the interview, Mandvi is seen skillfully exposing how Yelton is so clueless and blatant about his racism and his revelation of the real motives behind the restrictive law proposed by his party (“The law is going to kick the Democrats in the butt!”). Yelton’s obliviousness is so staggering in the interview that many viewers could be forgiven for believing the whole segment to be a parody where Yelton was some actor spoofing a stereotypical Southern racist.
This interview created such a media frenzy that it resulted in Yelton’s resignation. Mandvi’s unique style of satire in the service of social awareness has helped him expose, on national TV: racism, religious fundamentalism, corporate greed, fraud, and so much more. “Aasif Mandvi routinely displays a mastery of the sucker punch interview as if he were born to be a fake journalist. Consider the time he lured a pundit into comic speechlessness by describing health-care conditions in a ‘Third World’ hellscape, which turned out to be Knoxville, Tennessee,” writes Hugh Hart, in an article for Fast Company.
(Photo: Gregg Delman)
In over a decade as a correspondent for The Daily Show, Mandvi had become the show’s “go to” person for all things brown, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and Indian. “The great joy of doing the show, for me, is that I get to sit on the fence between cultures. I am commenting on the absurdity of both sides as an outsider and insider. Sometimes I’m playing the brown guy, and sometimes I’m not, but the best stuff I do always goes back to being a brown kid in a white world,” Mandvi has been quoted as saying.
While his gig at The Daily Show brought him the most fame, Mandvi said, in an interview, that he thinks of himself as an artist more than a journalist. His love for the theater was evident quite early in his career when, in 1998, he wrote Sakina’s Restaurant, an off-Broadway play, in which he ambitiously played all six characters. The critically acclaimed play went on to win an Obie Award.
Mandvi had become The Daily Show’s “go to” correspondent for all things brown, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and Indian.
It also launched Mandvi’s career in Hollywood—the veteran filmmaker Ismail Merchant cast him as the lead in his film, The Mystic Masseur, after seeing his performance in Sakina’s Restaurant. But it was a time when mainstream Hollywood was not yet ready to offer meaty roles to brown actors. Most of Mandvi’s early roles were of the clichéd “brown guy”—cabbie, convenience store clerk, terrorist, etc.
Today, this Mumbai-born, U.K.-raised, and University of South Florida (Tampa) graduate has a long list of Hollywood credits behind him. He shows up in small and big ways in several big banner movies: Spider-Man 2, The Last Airbender, The Proposal, and others. He has played significant roles in movies like The Million Dollar Arm, Ghost Town, and Today’s Special. Meanwhile, Mandvi has also been prolific on the small screen. You may have seen him on ER, Sex and the City, CSI, and Law and Order to name a few. Last year, Mandvi produced a TV show, Would I Lie to You? aired on the CW channel. He is currently one of the three leads in Evil, a supernatural drama series on Paramount Plus.
[Left] The thespian wrote Sakina’s Restaurant, an off-Broadway play, in which he ambitiously played all six characters. They show ran for over six months and won an Obie Award. (Photo: Lisa Berg).
Mandvi has ties to Atlanta—that’s where he married Shefali Puri at the Fox Theater. And just as the world was going into hibernation, in March 2020, Mandvi added “father” to his role of a lifetime with the birth of his son during the pandemic.
In Khabar’s exclusive interview with him, Mandvi talks about his various roles and challenges, offers advice to aspiring actors and entertainers, and shares what it’s like to balance culture, career, and parenthood in this new normal.
You originally did Sakina’s Restaurant in 1998; and then 20 years later, in 2018, you did a revival. How, if at all, was the play different, keeping in mind so much had changed for brown immigrants in a post 9/11 world?
When I first did Sakina’s Restaurant in 1998, nobody had seen an off-Broadway play about South Asian immigrants. The play was about the fragmented identity of six South Asian characters that I played—a family that owned an Indian restaurant. What was so remarkable was that the story of these immigrants resonated with people, just immigrants in general. Everybody was coming because the immigrant experience was something that people related to.
It is a very different America that we live in now. At the time of the 2018 revival, we were in the middle of Trump’s America. The immigrant story had been politicized in a way that it wasn’t in 1998. But my director, Kimberly Senior, decided that it would be best if we just kept it as it was—a period piece—reminding audiences how things were for immigrants in the pre-9/11 era.
Now immigrants—Muslims, Mexicans—are being demonized. And so, I felt like in 1998, the play was a comedy; but in 2018, it had a tragic undercurrent [of a lost America]. It was still funny. But I had people coming to me after shows to express, “Oh, my God, I wish this was the America that we lived in today.” The play became a memory of an America that we don’t live in anymore. There is so much politicization of immigrants now that this story of people who wanted to come to this country because it represented something larger and expansive suddenly felt naive and weird. There was a time when Indian parents in India wanted their daughters to marry American desi guys so that they could come to America. Now they don’t want that!
[Right] Mandvi played the lead role in Ismail Merchant’s The Mystic Masseur
If the disillusionment is just around identity and not around, like, the fact that you might get killed, it’s a very different stake. So, I felt like the second time we did it, it was a much more powerful production because of the weight of what was happening in the world.
When you started in Hollywood a couple of decades back, the industry had not yet quite reckoned with brown actors. As you have said many times, the only roles available to them were as taxi drivers and store clerks. How have things changed from those times?
When I started out, South Asian characters were sought out only for what we used to call patanking—the sound of the Indian accent to the non-Indian ear (“Patank, patank, patank!”). Fortunately, we don’t see that as much anymore. I think that we’re all just a little more woke now. There’s a sense that if an Indian character was born and raised in Minnesota, he wouldn’t have an accent.
I have no problem with doing an Indian accent just as a fact. There are people that have Indian accents, there’s billions of them. It just has to be contextualized. So, if this character is from India, then, yeah, it’s appropriate for them to have an Indian accent, but if it’s being used as a sort of a comic foil or just like some kind of weird thing that will make white people laugh, then I think it doesn’t feel organic or true. And again, like I said, we see less of that now.
[Top] A still from The Last Airbender.
We have also made giant leaps in the area of representation in the mainstream. We now have an Indian-American woman as the Vice President of the nation! How much do you think that impacts storytelling and narrative in the entertainment space? Does that change the conversation, or do we still have a long way to go?
It definitely changes the conversation. I had read that, for a long time, nobody thought they could run a four-minute mile, and then one person did run a mile in four minutes. After that psychological barrier was broken, many have repeated the feat. Before Obama became President, everyone thought we would never have a black president in our lifetime. And now, we have our first woman, first black, and first South Asian VP, all in one! I think it does sort of change the culture. It can’t not. Like something becomes possible, and then it’s not so unusual. That normalizes it.
For a long time, it was said that brown people will have arrived when they have their own superhero in the U.S. Recently, we had a Pakistani girl as a superhero in Disney’s Miss Marvel series. So, we will see more of that happening—the normalization of Pakistani, Indian, South Asian.
In Paramount’s Evil, you play Ben Shakir, a rationalist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. How hard was it to play Ben compared to some of the other roles?
I think Ben is very unlike me. He’s a science tech head and he’s a true empiricist. He does not believe in anything that you cannot quantify or measure. And, so, he doesn’t believe in any of this religious stuff. Katri Herbert who plays Kristen, a clinical psychologist, and Mike Colter who plays David Acosta, a priest, are the other two leads. The three of us come at everything from very different vantage points. Each week we go out and examine paranormal people and events. I like to say that Evil is a cross between X-Files and Ghostbusters because we’re dealing with the paranormal, demons, miracles, trying to investigate these things.
[Left] A still from Spider-Man 2
Ben was not written as a brown character. It was written as a white guy. But when they cast me, they decided that he was going to come from a Muslim family. What’s interesting is Ben comes from a Muslim family, but he’s an atheist. You don’t see that very often.
I’m not religious in the conventional sense, but I grew up Muslim. My mother was very religious, but I think I’m more spiritual.
What are your thoughts on Indian web series like Made in Heaven and other OTT shows that are now abundant on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.?
This is great. We now see a globalization of the world . . . it used to be that they were making content for Mr. And Mrs. Smith in Indiana, right? Now they are making content for Mr. And Mrs. Shah in India. I never would have predicted this, but you start to realize that there’s a huge market out there for the OTT platforms, and so they’re playing to that market. Because they’re not growing on this side of the world, they’re growing on that side of the world—in India, Southeast Asia, China, and other places. So, I think that I would love to create content. I’d love to be in content that gets made in India, that would be great.
Your favorite Bollywood actor, actress, and/or movie?
Okay, so this is embarrassing because I don’t really watch that much Bollywood. My favorite Bollywood movie is Sholay, which I watched when I was a kid. My cousin and I would sort of sing the songs from that. I didn’t know it was basically Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
[Right] In Walt Disney Pictures’ Million Dollar Arm. (Photo: Ron Phillips, Walt Disney Pictures)
I don’t really have favorite actors and actresses, maybe because it’s what I do for a living. Everybody has a thing that I love. There are so many different people who all do different things, I’ve never been able to pick my favorite actor. I can say which is my favorite fruit. I’m Indian, so it’s a mango. Of course. But [picking favorite] actors—it’s hard. There are good actors who give terrible performances, there are terrible actors who can give a good performance, and everything in between. And there are people who I love for their technique, other people who I love for their intuitiveness. So, there are different things I love about different performances. I dissect performances, and I look at people and performances in a very kind of microscopic way. So, I can’t say who is my favorite actor.
What’s your advice for the South Asians looking to break into acting, writing, and comedy?
Well, there’s a space today for you that wasn’t there for me when I was coming up. And so, take advantage of that space and tell your story. At the end of the day, we’re all storytellers. We know that facts do not change people’s minds. You can talk about climate change, gun control, abortion, whatever. Facts do not change people’s minds. But stories can move people and affect change in a way that facts don’t. And so, as a writer, an actor, a painter, an artist, or whatever it is, just tell your story. Tell your story as a South Asian or a person of color, as an LGBTQ, or whatever it is that you are about. There’s more space today than there ever was for your stories.
Don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is a great teacher, and you’ll fail much more than you will have success in life. If you do not integrate and embrace your shadow self, it will come out in other ways, and it’s important psychologically and mentally to integrate and embrace your own shadow. That’s a bit heavy!
[Top] Mandvi is one of the three leads in Evil, a supernatural drama series on Paramount Plus.(Photo Courtesy: Paramount Plus)
How has fatherhood changed you?
Yeah, there’s the exhaustion that everybody talks about that comes along with parenting. But it has also made me more disciplined about my time. I really have to schedule things in now. I don’t have all the time in the world now, so there’s actually, weirdly, less procrastination because I know I have two hours to get this thing done and then he’s going to wake up.
I feel that becoming a parent changes you in a fundamental way, like [at the] DNA level. I was a guy whose whole life was mostly about career. Even when I got married, I was mostly just still about my own career and my own narcissism. But then becoming a parent changes your entire perspective on the world. I can’t watch anything now where children are getting hurt. It allows me to access parts of myself that I’ve never been able to access or never needed to access.
I love him more than I could possibly ever imagine loving another human being. He’s two years old right now, so he’s probably got years ahead in which he’s going to disappoint me and I’m going to disappoint him, and we’re going to let each other down. There’s going to be all kinds of stuff in the future, but right now we just have great fun together.
He’s obsessed with the planets, and he knows all about them. The other day he said to me, “Venus spins backwards.” And I said, “I don’t think it does.” And he was like, “It does.” Later, I told my wife that Ishaan says Venus spins backwards. And my wife says, “I don’t think it does. Let’s Google that.” And we Googled it.
And he was right! Venus spins back. I learned that from my two-year-old!
Three words to describe you?
God, I don’t know how to answer these kinds of questions. I guess I’m a father, I’m a son, and I’m a holy spirit.
After famously reinventing his career from being a consultant at Accenture to broadcast journalism, Archith Seshadri is the Atlanta Bureau Chief for Nexstar Media Group where he works as an anchor/reporter for several Georgia TV stations. Outside of TV news, Archith is an actor, host, and yoga teacher.
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