South Asian Actors Find Little Support, Lots of Stereotypes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sandra Teles arrived in Los Angeles from her native Goa, India, several weeks ago, harboring the same aspirations as the thousands of other young women who flock to Hollywood. The model and actress is making the rounds of agents, acting coaches and photographers.

"What they need here is something completely different," she said. "Why would I model in Mumbai when I could become a hit in America?"

Teles joins a small but increasingly visible band of South Asian actors, many of whom are making major inroads in Hollywood. Some have landed regular roles in prime-time series (last season, Ravi Kapoor was in ABC's now-canceled medical drama "Gideon's Crossing'), movie leads (Anjul Nigam in 20th Century Fox's comedy "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest") or guest-starring roles in high-profile season finales (Shelley Malil in "The West Wing").

They are relatively young (in their late 20s to mid-30s). Many were born in the U.S. to immigrants or came here as children, and have gone against the grain by becoming actors in a culture that traditionally prizes vocations such as engineering, medicine or law. And they are part of a community that can be stridently disapproving of a career in the arts.

Senain Kheshgi, an independent writer-producer-director working on a documentary on Indian actors, has witnessed firsthand young Indian actors telling their parents of their career choice. "It's like coming out. It's a very heart-wrenching moment. While the older generation came to America to let their children live the American dream, they are very protective."

So while Indian actors struggle for the support of families and the wider community, they are also striving for recognition in a field that sees their particular ethnicity as full of "head-bopping, heavily accented cab drivers or 7-Eleven clerks," said one actor. "Apu [a character on 'The Simpsons'] was the first well-known Indian on television," said Bhavani Rao, a South Asian writer-producer here. Yet, as Rao points out, more South Asian actors appear to be crossing into the mainstream.

At NBC, two pilots shot for the upcoming television season featured South Asians in major roles, with one making the cut for the fall season: "Gideon's" Kapoor was cast in "Crossing Jordan," a new drama with former "Law & Order" star Jill Hennessy. Elsewhere, they appear in guest roles on shows ranging from "Spin City" to "ER" to "NYPD Blue." And when they are asked to don the turban and work the accent, they quietly make their point.

"I played a limo driver five years ago," said Nigam, who moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago and who has been in the U.S. since he was a toddler. "My character didn't understand English, so I had to speak Hindi. But I was told I had to put a turban on. People who wear turbans speak Punjabi [another Indian dialect] and I don't. Also, the majority of Indians don't wear turbans. It perpetuated a stereotype that was inaccurate."

Nigam pointed this out to the producer, who replied that his character "had to be immediately recognizable as a person of foreign ethnicity."

"The fact I had dark skin and spoke in a different language wasn't enough," he said. Since then, Nigam has landed a starring role in "The First $20 Million," a comedy due in theaters early next year in which he plays a genius computer hacker. He has also played a billionaire in the indie movie "Sheer Bliss," and was featured in John McNaughton's "Speaking of Sex" and the ABC miniseries "NetForce."

Kiran Rao, a Bangalore, India-born actor-writer who set up Hollywood Masala, an Internet resource site for South Indians in the media, similarly doesn't like to play the race card. "I want to be hired because I'm a good actor. I dislike doing the accent and playing up the whole ethnicity thing. To me, it seems to detract from what I'm in this industry for--the art. I'm tired of the two-dimensional way that Indians are portrayed. Do people know that South Asians are among the best-educated and highest earners in this country?" asked Rao, who has appeared as a college student in "Spin City" and a customs agent in "The X-Files."

Documentary maker Kheshgi, a board member of Indians in American Media, has spent 18 months on a cinema verite -style documentary following Indian actors through the Hollywood process. When finished, the film will be used as part of outreach programs to South Asian organizations and at festivals and conferences. More important, said Kheshgi, it can be used "as a tool to help other South Asians in the U.S. who don't have access to these role models, who are sitting in their homes in Iowa, and either don't see Indian role models or see stereotypical, offensive characters."

"A lot of the actors just want to be another character in a larger, mainstream project, instead of some fresh-off-the-boat, sex-crazed Kama Sutra type. Not only must they be self-motivated, but they must also represent the community in a positive light. A white actor can take a part in some offensive teen sex comedy, and it's OK because white actors are represented in the media in many shapes and forms. When a South Asian does it, it's one of maybe 10 roles a year. Every script they read is all about how they are going to be seen, how the community is going to be seen, and is it worth it."

Kapoor echoes Kheshgi's sentiments. His regular role in "Gideon's Crossing" was not just a career breakthrough for him, but, he felt, a milestone for his community. Even so, he knows that does little to ensure his acting future. "['Gideon's'] put me one more step up the ladder and on the map as an East Indian actor here. Still, I know not to get too excited. We are East Indian actors and there isn't too much of a career ladder to speak of. You can't assume you are going to jump up another level automatically."

The actor, born in Liverpool, England, and with several years of theater and film work behind him, remains realistic about his profession and its attendant, inevitable struggles.

"There are very few East Indian roles that are quality and substantial and not just one-liners. We haven't been here as long as Indians in England or Canada, and there are still a lot of roles that call for wearing turbans and being stupid and being the butt of someoneelse's jokes."

While Kapoor doesn't plan to shy away from East Indian roles, he would like to see more colorblind casting, "where we are actors who can play the part of John Doe."

Some South Asian actors have had it easier than others. Malil, born and raised in Cochin, Kerala in India, until his family immigrated to Texas in 1974, said he had a manager within 24 hours of arriving in Los Angeles six years ago and his first audition within a few weeks. He's been a regular working actor since then, appearing on "ER" and several other shows, including the season finale of "The West Wing."

He was also featured in a popular Budweiser commercial, which led to a role in a sitcom pilot, "Bad News, Mr. Swanson," that FX will decide whether to add to its lineup next week. A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Malil said his ethnicity has so far proved "very serendipitous." He believes that seeing himself as just another actor, ethnicity aside, has enabled producers and casting directors to see him the same way.

"I've done those roles--the cab drivers, the 7-Eleven clerks, the hotel managers. But I've also played professionals like doctors [on 'Party of Five'], or a Democratic Party strategist ['The West Wing']. Whether I'm Indian or not hasn't played a part, and I've not encountered any discrimination. If anything, it's been a blessing. I couldn't ask to be more ethnic."

Sonia Nikore, director of casting at NBC and the only South Asian working in that end of the business here, is optimistic that changing demographics will make it easier for South Asians trying to break into the industry. "When I was casting for Disney's 'The Jungle Book' in November 1993 and looking for East Indian actors, we had open calls around town and got a very small response from the community. Now, 10 years later, it's incredible to have so many people calling who are interested in pursuing this profession. South Asians are becoming part of the mainstream, especially with the success of Silicon Valley, and such high-profile feature directors like M. Night Shyamalan and Shekhar Kapoor," she said.

Nikore is also seeing more and more non-Indian writers creating parts for Indians--which she sees as the most telling sign of progress. "It's wonderful to read pilots and scripts that have South Asian characters in them, which have not been written by South Asian writers. More importantly, these are interesting, three-dimensional characters that don't further the usual stereotypes. That to me is a treat, and speaks volumes about how far these actors and writers have come."

Actress Sheetal Sheth, who has been in a number of independent movies, agreed. "Each cultural group has its moment where it starts to break into something different from the stereotypes. We're in that stage right now."

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