A relatable South Asian doctor with the brains

Like many Indian immigrants, Manish Dayal's parents wanted their son to become a doctor and were disappointed when he did not.

But Dayal is now doing the next best thing and playing one on television in the new medical series The Resident, where he portrays trainee doctor Devon Pravesh. And the actor tells The Straits Times the role has special significance for him as an Asian-American.

At a press day in Los Angeles earlier this year, the 34-year-old, who starred opposite Helen Mirren in the 2014 film The Hundred-Foot Journey, says: "This is the first time in my career I've played a character who is a majority in his world.

"My default setting was always to play a minority, but Devon is a South Asian-American doctor and South Asians overwhelm medical schools around the world and they are the most present in cardiac ICUs (intensive care units) across the country.

"So what makes it interesting for me is putting that kid in this world, where he is not someone who is marginalised, but set up to succeed just like everybody else.

"This is an environment that's unique because South Asians are minorities in every other profession, but this is one where they dominate in terms of numbers," says the actor, who had supporting roles in the superhero show Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2016 to last year) and the teenage drama 90210 (2011 and 2012).

At the same time, Dayal also hopes to chip away at some of the stereotypes associated with brainy South Asian doctors.

"For me, it was important that I portray this young South Asian-American doctor in a way that was relatable - so that he wasn't just some brainiac kid from Harvard, but somebody we can all relate to regardless of where we come from. I wanted to make him a relatable American who happens to be South Asian."

As for his parents, Dayal says they eventually came to terms with his decision to become an actor and he understands why they, like so many immigrants, wanted him to become a doctor in the first place.

"It was programmed into me, as with all my peers, just because we were new immigrants. And as first-generation immigrants, our responsibility in the United States is to do good and give back and to do that while also creating an income for yourself and building a family. And the best way to do all those things is being a doctor.

"That's why being a doctor is an example of what it means to attain the American dream and that's what most new immigrant communities want for their children."

When their children choose very different paths, such as a career in the arts, "that can be difficult for your first-generation parents".

"But mine were super understanding and open-minded," he says. "They did want to understand what I was getting into (with acting) and I think for them, it took me educating them on it and seeing my work and me telling them everything I can about every stage of the process, whether it's film or TV."

It helped, too, that "we have another doctor in the family", he adds with a smile.

"They fulfilled that dream with my sister."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2018, with the headline 'A relatable South Asian doctor with the brains'. Print Edition | Subscribe