Hollywood no longer an unfriendly territory

A large pool of talent from the community finds success in the US entertainment industry.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON: Not long ago, it was near-impossible to see anyone of Indian origin — or for that matter, India — in American popular culture. While East Asians had made their presence felt in Hollywood, thanks to Hong Kong-style karate movies, Indian Americans were having a hard time finding success in the American entertainment industry.

Kunal Nayyar, as Rajesh Koothrappali (right), in CBS's Big Bang Theory. Photo credit: CBS.com
Kunal Nayyar, as Rajesh Koothrappali (right), in CBS’s Big Bang Theory. Photo credit: CBS.com

However, Hollywood is no longer an unfriendly territory for the community today. In recent years, a large pool of talent from the community has found professional success in the entertainment industry. Lately, Indian characters have also increasingly become a constant presence on American television, as well as in movies.

“It’s getting harder to find a TV network that doesn’t have a show featuring an Indian character,” wrote Business Insider, a popular business and entertainment website, listing its “The 20 most powerful Indians in Hollywood.” “Actors Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, and Freida Pinto, producer Ashok Amritraj and director Tarsem Singh prove that South Asians are no longer token diversity hires — they’re the people who control Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera.” (The site’s list also features several Bollywood figures, such as A.R. Rahman, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan.)

There are many reasons why Indian Americans have found success in the U.S. entertainment industry. A dramatic growth in the size of the community in the past two decades — its population grew from 815,000 in 1990 to 3.18 million in 2010 — meant Indian Americans are there in every walk of American life today. In many fields such as information technology, healthcare and hospitality industries, they are punching above their weight.

Manjula Kumar, a program director at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, attributes the greater visibility and success of Indian Americans in the U.S. entertainment industry to the “richness” of the Indian culture. “Hollywood recognizes the vibrant themes in Indian cinema, and they have also realized that there is a global audience [that wants to see] Indian culture,” says Kumar, who is herself an actor and director. “It’s not just interest from Indians, but from people around the world, so they’ve realized that [Indian-centric] entertainment is commercially viable.”

The success of movies such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and the popularity of Indian entertainment industry have also forced Hollywood to look at all things Indian differently.

Since the 2008 release and subsequent worldwide success of “Slumdog Millionaire”, which grossed over $200 million globally and won an astounding eight Academy Awards), the demand for programming that could draw in an Indian American audience has shot up, and thankfully, so has the talent ready to meet that demand.

Even before “Slumdog Millionaire”, Indian Americans had started to make a small name for themselves. South Asian characters were popping up in shows like “Seinfeld” in the mid-1990s, although they were portrayed by non-Indian actors. Often times, whenever an Indian American character appeared in a Hollywood production, it was a cab driver or a convenience store owner.

It wasn’t until some years later that actual Indian American actors such as Kal Penn began to make a dent in Hollywood.

Penn broke into Hollywood with minor roles in films like “Van Wilder” before landing a lead role as Kumar in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004). The film, a sleeper hit that did modest business at the theatrical box office, did so well in home video sales that it spawned a franchise, with “Harold and Kumar Escaping from Guatanamo Bay” (2008) and “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas” (2011) following in subsequent years.

The actor also had a recurring role on the hit FOX TV show “House”, and starred in director Mira Nair’s adaptation of “The Namesake”, which was a modest financial success and a hit with film critics.

Additionally, Bollywood movies have become more popular internationally as a direct result of “Slumdog Millionaire”. Major Hollywood studios began to distribute Bollywood films in an attempt to cash in on their growing popularity, with Sony Pictures releasing “Saawariya” and Warner Bros. releasing “Chandni Chowk to China”, but neither film met financial expectations and many distribution deals were subsequently dropped.

The success of “Slumdog Millionaire” also led to the short-lived NBC sitcom “Outsourced”, created by Ken Kwapis, part of the creative team behind the US version of “The Office” (which is one of the few hit TV shows to feature a primary Indian character, played by Mindy Kaling). Based on a film of the same name, the show followed the exploits of a white American who was outsourced to manage a call center in Mumbai, where he learned and eventually came to accept Indian people and their culture.

Although a moderate hit with critics, the show divided Indian Americans — some thought it was a genuine attempt to shine some light on a largely misunderstood culture, while others claimed the show was racist — and failed to garner enough ratings to warrant a renewal.

The Big Bang Theory is another hit TV show featuring an Indian American character in a central role. Played by Kunal Nayyar, the character of Rajesh Koothrappali, like the other main characters on the show, is a socially-awkward tech nerd, who is in a constant struggle to maintain his professional aspirations while also doing the scariest thing in the world: finding a wife. The CBS sitcom has consistently been a ratings hit since its inception in 2007, and its seasons also sells well on DVD.

Aziz Ansari has arguably become the defining Indian American face of his generation. From the relative obscurity of the stand-up comedy circuit, Ansari has risen to great heights in a mere few years. One of the stars of NBC’s hit sitcom “Parks and Recreation”, he has appeared in hit movies like “Funny People” (2009), “Get Him to the Greek” (2010), and last year’s “30 Minutes or Less”. Ansari was selected to host this year’s MTV Movie Awards, one of the most popular television events of the entire year.

Indian Americans have also been making a name for themselves behind the camera, too. The most prominent among them is M. Night Shyamalan, the one-time phenomenon whose film “The Sixth Sense” launched him into the stratosphere in 1999 (and earned him two Academy Award nominations). Shekhar Kapur, who began his career in Bollywood, transitioned into Hollywood and directed the film “Elizabeth” in 1998, which garnered multiple Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. He also directed its sequel 10 years later, as well as other lesser-known films.

Tarsem Singh is also a director who has been making waves in Hollywood recently. Known for films that have incredible visual artistry, his work includes the Jennifer Lopez-starrer, “The Cell”, as well as last year’s surprise hit Immortals, which also starred Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame.

Jay Chandrasekhar has produced and written a number of hit comedies, such as “Super Troopers” and “The Dukes of Hazzard”. He has also directed a number of television shows.

In addition to Indian American talents and directors, Hollywood is also witnessing an “invasion” of sorts from India itself. Reliance Entertainment, run by Anil Ambani, has teamed up with Steven Spielberg’s “Dreamworks SKG” production studio, which has produced such hits as Gladiator and the Shrek films.

Later this year, 20th Century Fox will release the long-awaited adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, “Life of Pi”. Directed by Academy Award-winner Ang Lee, the film features Indian actors in key roles (Irrfan Khan, Tabu, newcomer Suraj Sharma) and is poised to make a big splash in the 2012 awards race. (Global India Newswire)


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