Two-time Academy award winner Spencer Tracy’s advice to aspiring actors was delightfully straightforward: learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture. The problem — as many Indian actors have discovered over the years — is that there’s much more to it than that.
Kal Penn (who acted in Namesake, and has now joined the Obama administration), Sarita Choudhury (of Mississipi Masala fame) or Ben Kingsley (Oscar winner for Gandhi) may be trusted to carry a Hollywood movie in their own right, but there was a time not so long ago when Indian actors kept their origins a secret.
Veteran Kingsley is honest about what prompted him to change his name from Krishna Bhanji. “It was a way to my first audition. My dad, who is Indian, was completely behind it. My first name, Ben, is my dad’s nickname. It’s a bit late to change it back now,” the actor told Time magazine.
Indian characters on TV
Fortunately, times have changed. Hollywood eye candy Sendhil Ramamurthy, who is the star of NBC’s Heroes, sacked his agent for suggesting he adopt a stage name. “My first agent suggested I change my name. What was I going to say my name is — John Smith? It’s ridiculous,” quipped the Tufts medical student turned actor whose parents are both doctors from Bangalore. “It’s wonderful that Heroes has a weighty Indian character,” Ramamurthy told The Mag.
The actor has cemented his ascent with a seven-year contract to play genetics professor Mohinder Suresh on Heroes. Ramamurthy, who landed on People magazine’s list of “100 Most Beautiful People”, has acted in Blind Guy Driving and Thanks to Gravity.
Other Indian names are familiar as the credits roll. Director M Night Shayamalan, Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and producer Ashok Amritraj can cherry-pick their projects. Indira Varma, a British-Indian actor best known for her portrayal of Niobe on HBO’s Rome, has just got the lead in ABC’s Inside the Box, where she will play Catherine, a news producer in a Washington network news bureau.
“I grew up seeing a white guy doing a really bad Indian accent in Simpsons. There were no role models for aspiring Indian actors,” Kal Penn said as he stepped off the red carpet for the Eight Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival, where a horde of sharp-elbowed journalists peppered him with the sorts of questions sharp-elbowed journalists often ask on New York red carpets.
“It was only when I saw Mississippi Masala starring Sarita Choudhury in a New Jersey mall with my parents that I realised there could be actors that looked like me,” said Penn.
New roles for Indians
So where is inspirational Sarita Choudhury? She is currently acting in the NBC drama Kings. DNA caught up with her last year at the Acorn Theatre when she was starring in Ayub Khan-Din’s off-Broadway comedy Rafta, Rafta where her striking chameleon-like talents as an actor were in full play as the sultry actress morphed into a prissy Indian mother.
Audiences like Kal Penn who were smitten by Choudhury when she debuted in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, playing Denzel Washington’s lover, were surprised to see the ease with which she slipped into her theatre role as an older woman.
“Scott, our wonderful director, gave me the pair of glasses and I disappeared,” Choudhury told DNA. The smash hit Rafta, Rafta which invites you to invade the privacy of a pair of South Asian newlyweds unable to consummate their marriage is moving to Broadway later this year.
“When it (Mississippi Masala) came out, no one knew what to do with my look,” says Choudhury. “Back then, to be black was okay, but to be Indian in America? That wasn’t so useful. So I studied and got my American accent down and feel I’ve escaped being pigeonholed. Still, every time I get to play an Indian role, I feel like I’m honouring what my father taught me.”
But strong roles for South Asian female leads are notoriously thin on the ground. “Women still don’t have meaty roles. But there is change in the works from when I first started auditioning. The new scripts have more rounded women characters because you have Indian women writers and directors coming up,” Pooja Kumar, who has starred in Flavors and Hiding Divya, told DNA.
Kumar, who lives in New York, was the face of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Bombay Dreams and has featured in ads for Pepsi, Budweiser and Dodge. She says the success of Slumdog Millionaire has magnified India’s profile. “I think the film will open many doors for Indian American actors as long as we keep creating good scripts about our experiences.”
A taste for spicier fare
New York theatre actress Nitya Vidyasagar, who plays Leela in the long-running American children’s television series Sesame Street is more circumspect: “It is a little too soon to say what impact Slumdog will have, although I hope it will give Indian artistes and Indian stories a boost.”
A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Vidyasagar went straight from filming her second season of Sesame Street last month, to watching her first feature film Split Ends hit the festival circuit.
USA Today was effusive about Slumdog Millionaire stoking an India-is-cool trend, noting that, “Just as salsa came to rival ketchup as America’s top selling relish with the diffusion of Latino culture, maybe Slumdog is a sign more Americans will be consuming spicier fare.”
For US viewers, the spicier fare will include Anil Kapoor who starred as the game show host in Slumdog. US audiences will soon see a lot of him in a lead role as a Middle Eastern leader who comes to the US on a peacemaking mission in FOX’s thriller 24 which stars Kiefer Sutherland as agent Jack Bauer.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of The Mistress of Spices, told USA Today: “Hollywood might be more willing to gamble on Indian-themed movies and other East-West collaborations now that Slumdog has established audience interest.”