South Asians make breakthrough in Hollywood without erasing their ethnicity

More actors of South Asian origin are getting lead roles in movies and television shows made in the West and are addressing their ethnicity in their performances

Look at the poster for The Big Sick - two things will pop out.

The first is that this romantic comedy, which has had a great boxoffice showing in the United States since it opened there earlier this month, features two nobodies in the leads.

The second is that the male star looks different from the standard- issue handsome white man. He is stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself in a movie based on his life.

The 39-year-old Nanjiani is Pakistani-American not only in his appearance: His accent betrays his Asian origin. At age 18, the Karachi-born comic moved to the US for college.

This makes the star of The Big Sick, which opens here tomorrow, special. Nanjiani has broken the colour barrier by starring in a successful mainstream comedy, instead of playing Terrorist #4.

And he has done so by not pretending he is anything other than who he is, culturally.

Granted, The Big Sick was never intended for mainstream audiences. It opened at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for limited cinema release, but the word of mouth about it was so good, it opened wide and now stands atop a US$25 million (S$34 million) domestic box-office haul - a staggering feat considering that the big-budget Baywatch (2017), starring Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, earned only slightly more than double that amount (US$58 million) domestically.

And The Big Sick is not alone. At this moment in American popculture history, it seems that darker-hued Asians are being given top spots in film, television shows and comedy specials.

Near the top of the list is Aziz Ansari, whose parents are Tamil Muslims from India who migrated to the US. He stars in Netflix's acclaimed and popular comedy series, Master Of None, now in its second season.

In the first season, Aziz, who plays a struggling New York actor, is called in for an audition for a role that is not racially specified. When he and another Indian actor are picked for two leading roles, one of them has to be dropped. Because in Hollywood, if there is more than one Indian in the cast, it becomes pegged as "an Indian movie" - it is a problem faced by every non-white actor and causes the strange phenomenon in which there is only one non-white face in a TV or movie ensemble, never more.

Also on Netflix is a special, Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, by stand-up comic Hasan Minhaj, who was asked to perform at this year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner. The comic, born into a family of Indian-Muslim origin, is also a regular on the satirical news programme The Daily Show.

What is unique about all of them is not just their ethnicity. All of them embrace and address their status as Asian Americans in their performances.

Ansari, 34, cast his real-life parents in his show as his character's parents.

In the second season, he "comes out" as an eater of non-halal food when he orders something he should not in a Chinese restaurant, much to his parents' horror.

In The Big Sick, Nanjiani's dinners at his parents' home are always interrupted by single Pakistani-American girls who happen to be "just dropping by", in his parents' words, much to his married brother's amusement.

Minhaj, 31, meanwhile, addressed his Muslim background in a roast delivered at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, traditionally attended by a sitting US president. Mr Donald Trump, who preaches tough action against Muslim terrorists, domestic and foreign, boycotted the dinner, which features a roast of the head of state as its highlight.

The comedian opened with: "My name is Hasan Minhaj or, as I'll be known in a few weeks, No. 830287."

That these entertainers can reference their upbringing - and be given a stage to do so - is a far cry from just a few years ago.

In the sitcom Parks And Recreation (2009 to 2015), Ansari's government employee character is named Tom Haverford. It is a ruse designed by his character to pass as Caucasian, and therefore more "American", but it also allowed the show to skip over the tricky details about Tom's background as an Indian American.

In 2004, the raunchy comedy Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle featured two Asian Americans in the leads, played by John Cho and Kal Penn, but the cultural heritage of neither one of them was touched upon in depth.

A more explicit charge of homogenising away culture in a bid to look more white has been levelled at Indian-American actress Mindy Kaling, who is also the creator of the comedy The Mindy Project.

The 38-year-old became the first person of South Asian descent to headline a show when The Mindy Project sitcom premiered in 2012. In the show, which is still running, she plays a doctor constantly in a romantic quandary.

It was not long after the appearance of shows such as Master Of None that Kaling's character's quirk of dating only white men and almost never addressing her Indianness, began to attract criticism from the media.

That her show is under scrutiny for ethnic legitimacy means things have changed: The tolerance level for "fake" versus "real" racial representation has dropped to a record low.

But Hollywood is fickle and easily frightened by failure. Are South Asian headliners a sustained trend or just the flavour of the month?

Pessimism is called for. In the early 1990s, two shows premiered that made it seem as if Hollywood's glass ceiling for East Asians, which had forced actors to play prostitutes or gongfu masters and nothing else, had shattered.

In 1993, the drama about Chinese American experiences, The Joy Luck Club, was released, meeting with critical and commercial success. A year later, the sitcom All-American Girl, featuring Korean- American actress Margaret Cho, debuted.

And then - nothing. No other movie predominantly featuring Chinese-American lives has appeared in mainstream cinema since then and All-American Girl was cancelled after one season. It would take two decades before Fresh Off The Boat broke the ban in 2015.

Ansari frequently talks about how bizarre it is that the Hollywood fantasy factory doggedly depicts an America that is overwhelmingly white, when demographic data shows the opposite.

In a 2015 opinion piece in The New York Times, he wrote about how the drama Empire, featuring a mostly black cast, and the sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, about a Chinese-American family, might be viewed as a sign that show business is catching up with reality.

But it might be too soon to break out the champagne.

"Sure, things are moving in the right direction with Empire and Fresh Off The Boat. But as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season," Ansari wrote.

• The Big Sick opens in cinemas tomorrow. Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King and Master Of None are available on Netflix.


South Asian stars making headlines in the West

DEV PATEL

The British actor, who is of Indian descent, has been on a streak since Slumdog Millionaire (2008, winner of eight Oscars), right up to Lion (2016, above, nominated for six Oscars).

He is only 27 and has proven his versatility, appearing in both dramas and comedies, including The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and its sequel in 2015. He will appear next in Hotel Mumbai, an account of the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, due out later this year.

RIZ AHMED

The 34-year-old is Pakistani- British, but puts on a convincing American accent to play a budding tabloid news cameraman in the movie Nightcrawler (2014).

He has been in the acclaimed HBO crime series The Night Of (2016, above) and a rebel pilot in the Star Wars movie Rogue One (2016).

AZIZ ANSARI

The American comedian and famous foodie, 34, whose parents are Tamil Muslims from India, started in stand-up comedy.

He still takes to the stage, but has brought his brand of observational comedy, inflected with musings about finding romance, happiness as a millennial and his racial identity, to the acclaimed Netflix show Master Of None (above), now in its second season.

HASAN MINHAJ

The funnyman's star rose when his roast of United States President Donald Trump at this year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner made the news for being both funny and sharply observant. The comic, 31, who is of Indian- Muslim origin, has been a regular on news satire programme The Daily Show since 2014 and his one-man show, Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, was picked up by Netflix.

MINDY KALING

The 38-year-old Indian-American actress created and stars in the romantic comedy series The Mindy Project (2012 to present), due to air its sixth and final season later this year. She was the first Indian American to headline a show, but has been criticised for minimising her cultural background with her character, a doctor who finds only white men attractive. She defended herself by saying: "You can't please everyone."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'Asians rising'. Print Edition | Subscribe