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Indian Idols, American TV

From Naveen Andrews' smouldering Sayid in ABC's hit series Lost to Parminder Nagra's clipped excellence as Neela Rasgotra on NBC's long-running ER, Indian actors are no longer just faces in the crowd
SERIES: CBS drama Numb3rs
CHARACTER: Plays Amita Ramanujam, a mathematic scholar, with typical second generation identity problems.
In late January, the CBS drama series Numb3rs, focused on an Indian-American character, Amita Ramanujam, a mathematician of repute. It was portrayed by the steamy Navi Rawat, and told the story of how four Indian girls from Chennai were duped and brought to America by body-parts traders. The Federal Bureau of Investigation seizes on the conspiracy and the girls encounter Ramanujam, whose narrative unravels a typical identity problem faced by second generation Indian-Americans.

Now, this was no happy coincidence. The episode while giving Rawat, of German and Indian descent, her best exposure, also focused on a trend that has begun to take root in American television. Appu in The Simpsons with his patent sing-song accent is becoming the exception rather than the rule. "There is an understanding that indian-Americans are not a homogeneous community. Their diversity is stunning and is now being reflected on TV," says Sabrina Dhawan, scriptwriter for Monsoon Wedding.

And how. Few weeks later, another prime time drama series, House, broadcast on Fox, came up with an episode that was partly anchored in India. Though the Indian references were not so flattering this time, the message was clear. American television now seems to be boldly challenging the traditional approach to the casting of multicultural characters. Take Naveen Andrews, the London-born actor, who plays the former Iraqi Republican Guard soldier Sayid in the hit ABC series Lost. He is relishing the opportunity to play a character so central to the story, after smaller roles in movies such as The English Patient.

But like all changes, this one has not been overnight. It has been a process that had its incipient start six years ago, when Gideon's Crossing, a short-lived television series aired on ABC, cast two actors of Indian origin. While Rhona Mitra played the role of Dr Alejandra "Ollie" Klein, Ravi Kapoor, who had just moved from England, was cast as Dr Siddhartha "Sid" Shandar, a first generation Indian immigrant. It was the first time that American television reflected social reality-in this case, the presence of 30,000-odd doctors and thousands of nurses of Indian descent in American healthcare.

CHARACTER: Plays Neela Rasgotra, a British-Indian doctor who has a relationship with an African-American colleague.
In 2001, Kapoor went on to bag a role in the NBC drama series, Crossing Jordan. Kapoor was cast as the idiosyncratic Dr Mahesh "Bug" Vijayaraghavensatanaryanamurthy, who owes his mid-name to his fascination for bugs. The geeky role in this hit drama, which is into its fifth successful season and explores disturbing topical crimes and offences with a cadre of coroners, highlighted yet another demographic characteristic of the 1.8 million Indian-Americans in the US-as a critical core of the scientific personnel in the US. It was also the beginning of the tech boom in the Silicon Valley. "When we started out with the pilot, my character was written as buffoonish. Over the years it has become rounded,'' says Kapoor.

This process of transformation got a major leg up three years ago, when John Wells, executive producer of ER and a person known to have the "Midas touch" in show business, decided to introduce an Indian-American character to the multiple Emmy award winning television series produced by NBC. The role was bagged by Parminder Nagra, fresh from her success in Bend It Like Beckham, and the character Neela Rasgotra was born.

SERIES: ABC's hit, Lost
CHARACTER: Plays the quick-thinking former Iraqi Republican Guard soldier named Sayid Jarrah.
It was a moment like none other. Here was a high profile British-Indian actor who was coming in as a series regular in one of the most popular television series, at a time when India was acquiring an unprecedented political profile as the Republican administration pushed to establish a long-term bilateral relationship.

Initially, as Nagra reveals, the character was cast as one with south Indian lineage. Prompted by Nagra, it was recast to be closer to the British actor's Punjabi heritage. After a quiet start the character has slowly evolved as a series regular and Nagra has now begun to regularly anchor episodes-one of which saw Anupam Kher and Kirron Kher cast as guest stars in the role of Rasgotra's parents.

"I have probably had the best time in my life. I am learning every day and having fun," says Nagra, before adding, "I think there is tremendous plurality in the population and that needs to be reflected. Especially, if the show is set in New York or Chicago. It is happening in England, where British-Indians are writing their own material in film and music. It will take a bit of pushing the envelope."

Indian-Americans are getting central roles on American TV.

It comes at a time when India is seen as an IT superpower.

Also, relations between the governments of India and the US could not be better.

Arguing along the same lines, Sonia Nikore, vice-president of casting for NBC Primetime television, believes that the South Asian voice has gained strength in the last decade. "At the same time, the studios and networks are realising that they have to mirror what is happening on the mainland. South Asians do play an important role in our society and are influential. They are gaining more prominence and very often encounter the writers working on these serials."

At one level, the Indian-American community has acquired an unprecedented profile in their five-decade-old history in the United States. At the same time, the growing political proximity between the two countries together with the strong ties of Indian expatriates to their home land and rapid pace of globalisation, have created a kind of cultural highway which allows for a seamless exchange of information between the two countries. And, finally several Indian-Americans have taken to a career in entertainment and now figure regularly in the back offices as well as actors in Hollywood.

Numb3rs writer David Harden agrees. He explains, "The effects of globalisation have made these sort of stories relevant and interesting. There is also, I believe, the need to play them more authentically as we know them in our everyday lives. My best friend in school was an Indian-American. To research the characters in the episode, Harden had actually called on his Indian-American neighbour who helped him locate a relative conversant in Tamil. "Since the character (played by Rawat) is already from Chennai, we decided to locate the victims (of illegal body part harvesting) in the same region. The Tamil speaker then phonetically explained the dialogues and we were able to weave them into the script," he adds.

SERIES: NBC's Crossing Jordan
CHARACTER: Plays Dr Mahesh "Bug" Vijayaraghavensatanaryanamurthy, who owes his mid-name to his fascination for bugs.
In fact, many believe that this is also part of an overall transformation that is underway in American television, wherein there is a shift towards a more realistic characterisation. Julie Hebert, a writer/director/producer for a host of television shows, including ER, Third Watch, West Wing and Numb3rs, says, "With so much globalisation it doesn't make sense to put such stereotypes in the world. So, there is a very serious commitment to try and get it right and reflect the reality. To do this we are trying new stuff. For instance, to supplement research on an episode, I have got in touch with local Muslim clerics."

And in some instances, the actors too are willing to share their opinion with the writers and help shape the character. "My conversations with the writers are by way of inputs to make my character (Neela) reflect reality. These deal with issues that a real Neela or Parminder would face in everyday life," says Nagra.

The structure of television, which allows for more creative freedom, too has bolstered this trend. Unlike in cinema, the writers have much more freedom to work. They are inevitably designated as executive producers. With networks already on board, it is often left to the writers to flush out the characters. With writers and actors having ample time to explore nuances and providing for a more holistic representation, the audience is the ultimate winner.


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