In casting the main protagonist in their upcoming comedy, "Miss India America," the filmmakers had a pretty specific female character in mind.
"We were looking for an Indian Reese Witherspoon," said the movie's director and co-writer, Ravi Kapoor. "'Election' was one of our touchstones."
"Miss India" is unique in that virtually all the cast and crew on it are South Asian Americans. And Kapoor and co-writer Meera Simhan — also his wife — needed to find their Tracy Flick, which they did in lead Tiya Sircar, who plays Lily Prasad, a high-achieving, competition-crushing school valedictorian on the fast track to Harvard. Prasad is not only in masterful control of her own destiny but also that of her boyfriend, Karim (Kunal Sharma). She's even plotted out their shared life plan in a hefty illustrated book.
Perhaps inevitably Karim bails and takes up with a beauty pageant winner, spurring Lily to try to win him back by snaring a crown of her own.
Simhan plays Lily's mother, a poet who encourages her ambitious daughter to "be fuller," and she based the script partly on a one-woman show she performed in 2011 of the same name. It tapped into her experiences on the South Asian American beauty pageant circuit: She's a former Miss India California and was a runner-up in the national contest.
"It scarred her for life," Kapoor said, laughing. "Not seriously. Just serious enough to make a comedy about it."
Simhan and her husband, chatting at a French cafe in their Studio City neighborhood on a recent morning, wanted to "explore this bigger theme of winning and ambition, especially in the South Asian community where the idea of achievement is really strong."
"In my extended family, everyone was driven, going to medical school and law school, very successful, highly academic, becoming surgeons and entrepreneurs and engineers," she said. As a pageant regular, the other contestants were Stanford graduates who were also proficient atbharata natyam, Indian classical dancing, and saw the opportunity to compete as a way to be more well rounded.
Indeed, the community of emerging South Asian actors and filmmakers — while burgeoning — is still small enough that the people involved in "Miss India America" had a history before the first day of filming: Simhan has played Sircar's mother twice, in the television shows "Touch" and "Numb3rs," and Kapoor has also previously been Sircar's father on screen.
Hannah Simone, who plays Cece Parekh on the Fox sitcom "New Girl," was one of the judges at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in 2012 when she caught Kapoor's short film, "The 5."
"I thought it was so incredible, and it put him on my radar," she said. "I knew I wanted to work with him one day."Not long after Simhan was guest-starring in an episode of "New Girl," and she and Simone got to talking about "Miss India."
"It was so refreshing and different. These are the kinds of stories that need to be told," Simone said. She signed on not just to play Lily's biggest competitor in "Miss India" but is also the film's executive producer.
"One of the great gifts of it was to be in every single casting session," Simone said. "I saw almost every South Asian actor in L.A., and I could see the depth of talent that exists in this town. There's not a lot of roles, so it's cool to be part of a project ... that is almost a showcase for these actors. That we could do that here is really rewarding."
The writers employed some of the familiar tropes of setting a story in that still-traditional community. Lily's father, Sam (Bernard White), is a successful neurosurgeon with a five-bedroom house in Orange County, where much of the movie was shot over a 23-day period. (Other locations included Cerritos and Los Angeles.) There are overbearing, superstitious mothers, an inebriated fading Bollywood superstar (Cas Anvar), a handsome cad of an emcee (Sathya Bhabha) and the well-intentioned best friend (Kosha Patel).
The film has been warmly received on the festival circuit in both South Asian and mainstream festivals. The timing is fitting given the conversation about diversity in Hollywood.
"We felt that if we didn't tell these stories about South Asians in America, then nobody would," said Kapoor, who is making his feature directorial debut with "Miss India." "And if we didn't have these stories out there, there would be no historical narrative of us ever having been here. When our kids grow up, and their kids say, 'What was it like being an Indian in America in the 2010s?' they can say, 'Watch this movie.'As an industry, we've neglected to tell those stories. And I think audiences are ready for them."
"Miss India America" will be available across VOD platforms starting April 5.