Every Tuesday night, no matter how late I come home, I make it a point to watch the latest episode of “The Mindy Project.” It has been a ritual of mine for years at this point. Similarly, when Aziz Ansari’s show “Master of None” premiered on Netflix, I pretty much spent my next available weekend binge watching the ten-episode season.
And if you think I only watch these shows because of their brown lead actors, I’d say you were probably right, but, hey—I’m just trying to help out the fellow brown community! I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.
I was especially looking forward to Ansari’s Netflix series, primarily because of some of the interviews he gave leading up to the show’s debut. In particular, I was intrigued by a few of his quotes from the popular New York Times article he recently wrote in which beautifully explained the role of South Asians on American television and movies.
Seeing an Indian character in a lead role had a powerful effect on me, but it was only as I got older that I realized what an anomaly it was. I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cab driver or a convenience store worker literally servicing white characters who were off to more interesting adventures.
Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.
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. And whatever progress toward diversity we are making, the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low.
Not only is this a brown guy leading in his own Netflix series, he is adamant on breaking down stereotypes! This past weekend was the first one I had free to be able to binge-watch the entire thing (because let’s be real—when the entire series is on Netflix you’re notnot going to watch the entire thing in a day). I dedicated my entire Saturday to watching the show, and here I am on Sunday writing a mini-review that I did not expect to write.
While Ansari did play a brown guy in a non-stereotypical role of an actor in New York City (its own cliché, but hey, at least not one usually associated with brown people), and he played it well and wrote some really eye-opening and poignant scripts—I especially recommend the second episode, “Parents,” to anyone who is a first generation child.
But after watching the series in its entirety, I did find myself wondering why Ansari, an Indian man born to Muslim parents, played a Hindu character.
I recently went to an Ansari stand-up show where he did clarify that while his name was very Muslim, he said he is pretty much an atheist, and as a Muslim, that has never particularly bothered me. But even if he identifies as an atheist, we can’t possibly know the real reason why Ansari’s show did not have Muslim characters.
He chose to cast his real-life parents as his parents on the show, but he turned Shoukath and Fatima Ansari (both very Muslim names) into Ramesh and Nisha Shah. Not to mention, Ansari plays a character named Dev Shah—a very obvious Hindu name.
Granted, while it is never explicitly shown in the series that Dev’s family is Hindu (I will let you know if I am wrong on this when I do my inevitable re-watch of the series), and the surname “Shah” can really go either way, but the names Dev, Ramesh and Nisha are traditionally Hindu names.
After I finished watching the series, I spoke to a fellow brown girl friend about this. I asked her why she thought he would change his religion. My friend thought the answer was obvious,
“You can’t have a dramedy kind of show without showing being in a lot of relationships and hooking up. Muslims don’t really do that. A show about Muslim people in America would be boring.”
I do think she had a point. Ansari’s show “Master of None” can fall into several genres, one of them being a rom-com. The character of Dev goes on dates with different women in nearly every episode, and there are plenty of scenes of him having sex with these women (the very first scene of the series is him having sex!).
I hesitated while writing this piece because I knew it would involve the use of some blanket statements, and this is one of them: I know casual sex and dating is not accepted in most traditional Muslim families, and when you are trying to write a show that at least in part features the ups-and-downs of dating as someone in their early thirties, the “typical” Muslim lifestyle may not be adaptable to fit the bill.
However, it still stung that she thought the lives of Muslim people were not really worthy of being on a screen because of a lack of casual dating and sex.
My friend went on to say,
“Imagine the show “Friends,” but this time imagine if none of the main characters were able to date anyone. It becomes a totally different show that’d probably have been cancelled after the first season.”
So, now my life was being deemed unworthy of television because I didn’t have the romantic prowess of Rachel Green? Does everyone think like this? Is this the reason we will see shows starring Asians and Hindus but not Muslims?
I also found it funny that she used the word “boring” to describe Muslim lives when in the wake of recent current events, the media makes it seem like Muslims are anything but boring people.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, and maybe it’s not fair to assume why Ansari did not infuse his Muslim heritage into his characters, but before I close my piece, I wanted to list some mainstream, popular American shows that starred a Muslim character in a positive light. I could, however, only think of a couple of shows. If you know of more, please share in the comments below!
I mean, there is Priyanka Chopra’s “Quantico,” which does cast a Hijabi character—the twins, Nimah and Raina, but they do play not the lead role.
There is also Asif Mandvi’s character, Rafiq Massoud, a Pakistani employed by the U.S. Embassy, in HBO’s “The Brink,” but the show, unfortunately, was pulled after the first season.
I think now more than ever when Islamophobia is at an all high, it is imperative to showcase Muslim-Americans in a more mainstream way. Perhaps not in spite of our so-called “boringness,” but maybe because of it.
Fariha Siddiqui is a New Jersey girl living in Orlando, Florida, where she attends medical school. One of her favorite hobbies is writing, especially about her Pakistani culture and what it means to balance Pakistani roots in an American society. In her free time, she loves binge-watching romantic comedies and sitcoms. Follow Fariha on Twitter for regular updates.
February 2, 2023February 11, 2023 7min readBy Arun S.
Kevin Wu, previously known as KevJumba, is an American YouTuber, from Houston, Texas, with more than 2.68 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 323 million views. His content consists of vlogs, social commentary, musical parodies and more. Wu also streams on Twitch and has released original music as well as freestyles. His most popular YouTube video is titled “Nice Guys” with Ryan Higa. Wu has also worked with many individuals including A-Trak, Chester See, David Choi, Globetrotters, Iyaz, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Lin, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, and more. He has also appeared in movies such as “Hang Loose,” “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” “Man Up,” and more. Wu is one of the first original YouTubers gaining popularity in 2008 and even had another channel, titled JumbaFund, now known as Team Jumba. Continue reading to learn more about Kevin Wu’s journey!
We really enjoyed the project ‘Underneath the Lights.’ On the track “WHY U IN LA” the lyrics, “Don’t know who I might be, it might surprise me. I could be a hypebeast, That’s nothing like me, It’s so enticing.” How do you feel this speaks to the idea of self-discovery? What have you learned about yourself, diving back into making content?
I love that song we did. The artist who sang those lyrics his name is Zooty. I really provided the energy and direction for the musical piece, but I give credit to my producer Jonum and Zooty credit for the lyrics. Both guys are a slightly different generation, gen-Z, whereas I grew up as a millennial. I find that I left a lot on the table when I left YouTube at 23, so when I work with gen-Z I have so much that I want to give. Coming back to YouTube this time around, it’s all about self-reliance. Coming from movies and television, you have to depend on people to get a better product. But with YouTube, I’m going back to my roots and putting my wit and effort into every part of the process again (writing, directing, performing, producing, editing). I want the result to be authenticity and a homegrown feeling.
When you started your YouTube channel you were known for your vlogs and social commentary. How do you feel about the new age of content creation — where content is in surplus but individuals aren’t feeling the content?
It’s hard to say whether or not individuals are or aren’t feeling content — the taste is just so wide now. It’s like living in Los Angeles; food is very competitive, and when picking a restaurant you have every ethnic variety and even fusion foods. I imagine opening a restaurant in LA to be very competitive and the attention to detail in what you make has to be authentic or hit a certain demographic. I feel on the Internet, YouTube does a decent job of catering to your sensibilities, the so-called algorithm. However, the personal connection you get with content creators has somewhat been shifted, and now it’s become more interest-based (ie gaming, how-to, music, politics, etc.)
How do you feel the original algorithm has changed, and what do you miss most about that time?
I don’t remember talking about algorithms back in 2010 to 2012. People watched their favorite Youtubers because their homepage included their subscriptions first and foremost, and then if your subscriptions hadn’t posted anything new, you would typically check the most popular page. Then trending became a thing and now you have algorithms generating your timeline based on a bunch of data. I think it’s forced creators to think externally and hanging onto identities i.e. what are my interests? Am I a gamer? Am I a streamer?
We parodied your music video for “Nice Guys” for our orchestra music camp skit back in high school. If Chester, Ryan, and you, had to recreate “Nice Guys” today, would you focus on the concept of self-love for the current generation? We also really loved “Shed a Tear.”
I definitely think self-love would be a very nice theme. Recreating it would be nice, actually. I think it’s hard to get three people to all be in the same room again, especially after leading different lives. But “Nice Guys” was something special for each one of us, and Chester See deserves a lot of credit because of his musical talent. It’s made me realize today the impact of music. I really enjoy the expression of music because it forces you to be more artistic, versus just saying what’s on your mind. Like poetry, or hearing harmonies.
You’ve worked with many individuals and groups in the past including, A-Trak, Chester See, David Choi, Globetrotters, Iyaz, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Lin, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, and more. If you could create content with any group of individuals who would be your dream collaborators?
At this stage in my life, I really enjoy coming back and rekindling those creative connections and checking in with previous friends or acquaintances. Doing a video with Ryan Higa, Jeremy Lin, Chester See, David Choi, Wong Fu, Jamie Chung, those would all be very fun. But the first step would be to just see how they’re doing. So that’s the closest thing to a best case scenario for me. I’m not trying to force any collaborations at the moment (haha!). Unless it’s convenient.
As an NBA fan you expressed you would like to talk more about basketball on Ryan’s “Off the Pill Podcast.” How do you feel watching sports and has playing sports helped you become more in tune with yourself?
After going through a lot of physical adversity after my car accident, reconnecting with sports has been really helpful. I played basketball for a while and I’d like to get back into soccer. I wanted to talk about basketball on Ryan’s podcast because I was still dipping my toes into Internet content/social media and didn’t want to talk too much about myself at the time.
As a content creator how do you balance not letting validation get to your head and authentically connecting with your audience?
We all seek validation. It’s innate, but it’s about where you seek it. Nowadays I remember to validate myself first, by starting with my mind and body. After a while, you can get a sense of when you need validation versus being totally unconscious of it. Sometimes that sense of validation is important, so we know to check in with our parents, or see if a friend needs positive feedback. To connect with the audience, that’s like number five in my priority list (haha!). Having an audience can be scary; you definitely want to be in tune with yourself first.
How do you deal with comments consisting of “I miss the old KevJumba?”
As live streaming has become a new form of content now, how have you enjoyed live streaming on Twitch for the Head In The Clouds Festival both in 2021 and 2022? We really enjoyed seeing Ylona Garcia sing “Nice Guys!”
It’s fun, I enjoy live streaming and I really appreciate 88rising and Amazon Music for inviting me both years to be the host for their livestream.
What was the decision behind putting your family in your videos?
I put my Dad in my videos accidentally; we were on a ski trip. I think people responded really positively in the comments, and then I just sat down had a conversation with him on camera, and it became a hit. After that he just became his own character. I think I tend to come alive more when I am interacting with someone on camera.
We really liked seeing you upload videos to Team Jumba. Is the mission still to donate earnings to a charity that viewers suggest?
At the moment, no. The Supply, which was the charity I donated to before, has since shut down. I also don’t make much money on YouTube anymore, since I was inactive on my channel for a while, so that format from 2009 will be difficult to replicate.
We really enjoyed the ‘KevJumba and Zooty Extended Play,’ specifically the track “With You in the Clouds” featuring fuslie. How has Valorant inspired your music as well as other forms of content creation?
The album was really experimental. I find the personal connections I made in gaming to be the most enlivening. “With You in the Clouds” was inspired by TenZ and, since he’s such a legendary figure in the pro FPS community, we had to do a worthy tribute. I think paying tribute to the things you like is a really great way to think about content creation.
How do you feel your childhood experiences in Houston, and playing soccer, have shaped you to chase your dreams of acting? How have you enjoyed acting in comparison to YouTube?
I love acting. It’s a wondrous lens at which to see your relationship with others. I find that in studying acting, you are often really studying the human experience or the mind. It’s like learning psychology but you are on your feet, or you are reading great theater. Playing soccer and growing up in Houston don’t really contribute directly to why I enjoy acting, but I very much enjoy coming from Houston and thriving in soccer. It made me commit to something and seeing how consistently “showing up” can really ground your childhood and prove to be valuable, later in life.
How do you feel we can uplift each other across the Asian diaspora and unify to create ripple effects of representation?
I think listening is probably the best thing you can do. Just genuinely hearing about something, or someone, helps you really invest in them during that time that you are there. So I think that’s probably the first step.
What made you go back to school and finish your degree at the University of Houston in Psychology?
No one reason in particular. I was also studying acting at the time back in 2017-2018 when I completed the degree, so it was just testing my limits and seeing what I could balance. I finished it online.
What are your upcoming plans?
Just experimenting on YouTube for now. Making videos with my own effort.
Your first video was uploaded back in 2007 and was titled ‘Backyard,’ where you are dancing to a song called “Watch Me” by Little Brother, off of the “The Minstrel Show.” We also really enjoyed your video with Ryan Higa titled “Best Crew vs Poreotics.” Are you still dancing these days?
Yes. The body does what the body wants.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
Nothing in particular. I try to let my mind flow when I answer questions. I may have jumped to conclusions before fully investing in some of the questions, so I apologize. If you are reading, I thank you for your time and patience. I also thank Brown Girl Magazine for putting together a vast array of questions that allow my mind to stretch and work out a bit. I hope you find a stronger connection to your own truths, and I hope I did not disturb those in any way. Regards.
Dolly Singh is a content creator who is from South Delhi. She earned a bachelor’s in political science from Delhi University. Singh then attended The National Institute of Fashion and Technology. She even had her own blog called “Spill the Sass.” Fashion is a true passion for Singh as she made her outfit of the day debut on Netflix’s Bhaag Beanie Bhaagon. She has even appeared on Modern Love Mumbai Edition! Singh was awarded Cosmopolitan Blogger Award in 2021 and IWM Social Media Star in 2022. Continue to learn more about Dolly Singh’s journey!
What parts of your childhood pushed you into the world of content creation?
I have always been an introverted-extrovert kind of person. During my early teens I wouldn’t speak much at home but in school I was quite the talkative showgirl. When I look back it seems so paradoxical, almost as if I suffer from a split personality. Somehow my earliest childhood memories are of my loving to be on stage. I remember when I was in the 12th grade, I cajoled my teacher to include me in a singing competition since I had never ever sung live on stage and I was persistent in my effort for over 4-5 years and eventually she gave up and she said ‘okay its your last year why don’t you go do it ‘and of course in the process I realized what a bad singer I was. But just the sheer joy of being on stage, performing to a live audience and entertaining people is what stirred me at a deeper level. I think on the other hand my reserved side allows me to study people and their nuances and store all those observations in my memory data bank which helps me create great content. I wouldn’t speak much at home, but you know when I did, it was just 2 punch lines and everybody would either laugh or get awkward. I think I always knew that I was born to entertain, and it was my destiny’s calling. I would always get jealous seeing child actors on newspapers and television and I was like ‘oh my God, I am a child, and I could be an actor, living my dream life but I’m still stuck here’.
Do you feel what you do can inspire and impact the world? Please elaborate.
Of course, I think anybody with a decent following on social media has the potential to positively impact the community. Content creators enjoy a certain reach and it’s so important to handle that responsibility meticulously and the kind of message that you’re putting out needs to be respectful of certain socially expected parameters and mindful of the basic laws of the universe. It’s better to say nothing, then to say something stupid something that is going to just bring out the worst in people or send out misleading signals. I feel like the amount of content that audiences are consuming these days can trigger positive change if it’s done in the right manner. I feel strongly about a lot of topics, and I make sure that my platform is a reflection of that in some way. With content creators as opposed to film stars and celebrities, there is a direct engagement with audiences and a more one-on-one connection and hence content creators stand at a more leveraged position to influence audiences positively. I love body positivity as a topic.
Who were your fashion icons growing up?
Any fashion events that you envisage yourself at in the future to represent the brown renaissance? I think a lot of my inspiration came from the indie pop movement of the 1900s and the 2000’s. I started watching Hollywood movies and a lot of my inspiration started coming from the Bollywood Hollywood section in glossies and I made cutouts of the media, the models, the people. Then came Disney Channel and FTV and I used to watch those when my mom was away at work. I would love to represent India at the Paris, New York and London runways and walk for Indian designers who are using sustainable fabrics and indigenous designs and helping skilled artisans make a living in India. I love Madhu Sapre, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford.
As you started a style blog in college, what were some of your favorite pieces of clothing in your early years?
Yeah, it was called Spill The Sass. I love blogging on T-shirts because there are so many ways that you could style a basic white T-shirt. Another blog I enjoyed back in the day was 5 ways to style maxi skirts. If I had to choose two pieces of clothing it would be a T-shirt and jeans!
How has your style evolved over the years?
It’s evolved from minimalistic and pocket friendly to being experimental and qualitative. The more I visited fashion weeks and events, the greater I experimented with outfit ideas that I curated personally. Over the years, I’ve started leaning more towards keeping it classy, chic and comfortable.
Tell us about your favorite online character since you make a bunch of them?
My favorite online character of mine would be Raju Ki Mummy because it’s based on my own mother.
If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
I would love to collaborate with Jenna Marbles. I love her to death. I discovered her few years ago and I would love to meet her in person. I mean she’s just a person who if I meet, I will just start sobbing like a child.
Have you faced adversity in your field? How have you risen from it?
Adversities are just an everyday fact of life but I like to believe my dreams and goals are bigger than my fears and setbacks. I know at the end of the day I want to be something; I want to give back and quitting isn’t the solution. Every time I face a creative block, I just tell myself this ‘get up and get to work, there are many who look up to you, you can’t disappoint them’. Also, the support from family, friends is nothing less than therapeutic especially when you’re having that typical bad day. I run towards therapy when I hit rock bottom, which happens quite often. We often feel burnt out, exhausted, tired, and just sad. I’ve been taking therapy for the last two years. It’s been beneficial. I’m not saying all my problems have vanished; that’s not how it works. It’s a continuous journey and a continuous process, but I think therapy is my mantra.
You recently turned into an entrepreneur with your own line of candles. Tell us more on what drove this decision and are there any other lifestyle products you will be launching?
As a creator I think it’s just natural to want to extend your brand trajectory to newer realms and not be stagnant in your growth path. It’s hard to gauge the shelf life of any creator considering there is stiff competition and there will be a sense of redundancy that seeps into the algorithm at some point. It’s always beneficial to expand your forte and explore multiple revenue streams is what I’ve gathered from so many interactions I’ve had with my industry peers over the past few years. There were many opportunities where people wanted to create merchandise of mine or partner on a fashion and accessory line but I wasn’t very mentally ready given my hectic schedules. I was a customer of Rad Living and after the pandemic I went into this zone of binge buying so much self-care stuff and you know candles was one of them. So when this came about I think I was ready to experiment and expand and was looking for an avenue to invest my energies on something enjoyable. I had already made a content piece on candles before this offer came my way so I had a list of quirky candle names, taglines for fragrances, matching the fragrance notes with the names. I think with this inning the whole ‘Creator’ part to me really came to use here as well and that’s what was exciting about this and it was funny because it was such ‘a life comes to a full circle’ moment for me. My mom was into candle making because Nainital at that point was known for its candles and she used to make such variety of candles, 100s of types of candles and all my life I mean the first 16-17 years of my life I’ve just seen my mom make candles at home and our house were full of wax and everything was just candles. My father used to sell candles and it was my family business. Let’s just say that I’m taking forward the family legacy and I’m very excited to go home and to my father’s shop in Nainital and put my candles there and sell them!
Will there be any lifestyle products you’ll be launching?
I was so nervous about this candle launch as I never wanted to mislead my audiences and have them indulge in something that’s mediocre. I really invested my heart and soul in this venture, and thankfully the response has been beyond phenomenal. Courtesy all the good word of mouth publicity, I’m thinking of maybe launching my own beauty and fashion line in about 2 years!
What have been your favorite content pieces that have you worked on this far?
I love most of my content pieces as I’m very particular about each one of them so it’s hard to pick a favorite. One of them is a mini film called Aunty Prem Hai and it’s about an orthodox lady finding out that her nephew is queer from his ex-boyfriend, and this is a first time reveal since the nephew has never come out of the closet. There’s also this series called How Aunties Talk About Sex, and I’ve given a twist to how old-timer desi Indians broach the topic of sex based on how I’ve seen my mother interact with her friends, post dinner conversations amongst relatives, and how it’s more like a taboo.
What are your favorite social media trends?
Anything that emits positivity and gratitude. It’s important that social media trends invoke a sense of intellectual enhancement. Anything that kind of teaches you something that enriches your existence or makes you want to live life more wholesomely. I also enjoy throwback trends, something to do with special memories and nostalgia, because I feel old school is always timeless.
Do you feel people are so trapped in social media that they forget about the world around them outside of their laptops, phones, and tablets?
Yes. Personally it’s been a task for me to get detached from technology and balance the real and the reel. In the last couple of years, I have consciously cut down on my screen time, even though it’s all work and no play for me. Social media is so omnipresent and it’s sometimes scary to see this crazy social media obsession where people forget there’s a real world out there with real people and you need to forge real connections that are deeply rooted in authentic exchanges. It’s scarier to see how social media trends have now become rules to live by for a more meaningful existence for many when on the contrary that shouldn’t be the case.
It’s a word that invokes a sense of pride in me because for me it’s all about being innovative, authentic and self-made. Influencer on the other hand is something that doesn’t resonate with me because there’s no real job description. I’ve always maintained my stand of not being an influencer as I create content and make a living out of being creative and curating an audience for myself over the years.
As you’ve worked with Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Aayushmann Khurrana, and others do you hope to be more involved in Bollywood? Tell us about your acting projects.
Of course, I would love to be more involved in the film industry not just in India but globally too. I think there is so much scope for the South Asian community to make a mark in world cinema and it’s time we pick up more Oscars and Grammy’s in the coming times. Anyone who is a creator is also a film star at heart. 90% of creators who make sketches and skits are facing the camera 24×7, making original content, improvising on scripts and all of that stems from that innate ability to be great performers who can keep an audience engaged. I would love to someday have my own podcast where I interview film personalities and get into their skin. I love the dance and song sequences in Bollywood films, and I think I’d be great doing that as well! I’d love to see how I can get out of my comfort zone and do something that doesn’t directly relate to my online alias in the future. I got a lot of offers during the lockdown and shot for a film in 2022 which sees me in a leading role and I’m excited for it to launch later this year. I’m working on some writing projects as I would love to script a documentary or a short film.
Lastly, what do you hope to take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I think the questions have been great. The questions have been answered in a way that I feel so confident about myself right now, and I feel so proud about myself and that says a lot. I would like to thank Brown Girl Magazine for taking time out to interview me. I hope this inspires the brown community across the world!
February 28, 2023March 5, 2023 5min readBy Arun S.
Born in the US and raised in New Zealand, actor Anya Banerjee made her television debut, this past Sunday, in season 10 of NBC’s “The Blacklist.” She is seen playing the character of Siya Malik, daughter of former task force member Meera Malik who met with an untimely death in season one.
An MI6 agent, Malik is hoping to learn more about her mother and the work she did with Raymond Reddington. Her character is a sharp, inventive, fearless spy with a knack for spotting what motivates others. Even though this is her first-ever television role, one can see how deeply involved Banerjee is in the character, pushing you to connect back the dots to the history her character comes with. In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Banerjee talks more about her journey into acting, what drew her to the role of Siya and what should the audience expect from the 10th and final season of the show:
People, in general, are very influenced by the content they consume. Was there a specific film, play, or television series that got you interested in acting?
As the first in my family to be raised in “the West,” just being in the world involved performing some kind of identity. Film and TV acted as a third parent in that regard. I’m the first actor in my family, but have wanted to do this since before I can remember. Watching “Bend It Like Beckham” when I was in primary school showed me there was a place for South Asian female leads in Hollywood. I’ve also always been drawn to media with some element of the fantastical. I loved Baz Lurhmann’s “Moulin Rouge” because it brought the theatricality of the stage to the screen in a spectacular way. I remember being tickled by the cultural fusion in the film. It reflected my own sense of being at the intersection of various cultures and the appeal of escaping into a made-up world.
Were you a part of any productions in school or in college that influenced you?
I did a lot of singing and dancing as a kid; Indian dance-dramas at Durga Puja and yearly ballet recitals. We did musicals and Shakespeare productions at secondary school and that’s also when I started working in Auckland’s professional theatre scene.
What were some of your favorite roles while pursuing the acting program at Columbia University and how did they prepare you for your television debut?
Casting director James Calleri headed the acting MFA program at Columbia when I was there and his on-camera classes really set us up for success in TV. We also had the tremendous good fortune of being Ron Van Lieu’s first cohort at Columbia. The master acting teacher directed our thesis production of “Where Do We Live?” by Christopher Shinn. I played Lily, a British party girl who has to be physically and emotionally vulnerable in the play. With the help of movement coach Sita Mani and intimacy co-ordinator Alicia Rodis, I gained the confidence to take more risks in my acting. Now I’m playing a very different Brit with a totally different background and disposition but I’m using many of the same tools I used as Lily to feel grounded as Siya.
How would you describe “The Blacklist” to people wanting to learn more about the show?
Action-packed, full of intrigue, and endlessly entertaining. There’s a reason this show has been killing it for a decade and that’s the high caliber of the cast and crew, as well as the inventive and topical writing that keeps fans coming back for more. Audience members who’ve watched from the beginning will appreciate the full circle moments that my character ushers in — I play the daughter of Meera Malik, late CIA agent from season one so my storyline is a bit of a throwback. But new viewers can use me as an access point into the world of “The Blacklist” as Siya uncovers it, bit by bit, as a newcomer herself.
How did you prepare for the role of Siya Malik and how similar are you in real life to the character you’re playing on screen?
Some of the first things I had to learn on the job were stunts and how to operate a firearm. You’ll be seeing a lot of Siya kicking butt. The gun stuff was entirely new for me but I took to it very quickly and my background as a dancer helped with the fight scenes. Something I identify with in Siya is her resilience. She’s turned the tragedy of her mother’s death into the fuel that led to her own career as an MI6 agent, overcoming obstacles and others’ underestimation of her. That’s the kind of fire inside that I really admire and hope to practice in my own life.
I love characters with complex inner worlds — ones who are deeply flawed and may even be outcast from society, but who rise above the odds to carve out space for themselves and the ones they love.
Do you feel South Asians are still pigeonholed into certain roles or has it gotten better?
I think things are a lot better than what I grew up seeing in the early 2000s. “Sound of Metal,” for example, is one of my favorite movies because Riz Ahmed’s riveting performance has little to do with him being South Asian and everything to do with his commitment to an expertly crafted role.
Is there a dream role you would want to play?
On stage, someone as volatile as Emma from Duncan Macmillian’s “People Places & Things.” On screen, someone as funny as Amina in “We Are Lady Parts” or as brave as the title character in “Kimi.”
You have worked with many talented individuals. Is there anyone still on your list you would want to work with in terms of directors, actors, actresses, and others?
Parminder Nagra, obviously! As a Kiwi, it would be a dream come true to work with Jane Campion or Taika Waititi. I’m most excited to form meaningful relationships with artists daring enough to challenge the status quo.
You describe yourself as a “Kiwi-Bengali in the Big City.” How have you felt as an Indian American, raised in New Zealand, coming into the acting world?
There’s been a lot of juggling aspects of my triangular identity. A lot of the times in this industry people want you to be just one thing, or maybe two, but three’s pushing it! The reality is that we live in a globalized world. We have to make room for cultural nuance in the media. So maybe I’ll lean into my American side today, turn up the Kiwi tomorrow, and speak Bengali with my Indian parents on the phone. All are valid, authentic expressions of myself and reflections of the real world.
It’s okay to be a chameleon — in fact it’s a gift. Adapting aspects of your personality and identity to different circumstances is part of being a multicultural artist.
What is something not many people know about you?
I can be a little introverted and have struggled with social anxiety since I was a teenager. I had a bit of an emo phase then, but have since learned to take life less seriously and it’s made me a lot happier. My loved ones nurture and embrace the goofball in me. If you get to know me, I might let you see my inner clown!
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview?
Take pride in your difference and embrace the outsider in you. It’s your superpower. There’s no one right way to be a Brown Girl so get out there and be whoever you want to be!