Acting has always been in my blood. Although it wasn’t something I pursued until I moved to the United States, I intuitively knew where my path would lead me. Movies have shown me the magic that anything is possible. Growing up in a house where any creative passions were pursued in secret, movies gave me that outlet to dream and build my imagination, letting me believe that one day it would all come to fruition. As I make these dreams a reality, I am often drawn to people who are of the same caliber. The universe has a way of paving the path for us. All we have to do is step on it.
This reason is why I felt in awe and yet right at home at Sonny Chatrath’s annual soiree for South Asian Artists in US & Canada. Hosted at Pondicheri NYC also owned by fellow actor Ajna Jai, the beautiful ambiance and cuisine of this restaurant led to the magic of the evening.
Carefully founded, curated and mentored by Chatrath, The South Asian Artists group is more than a social media presence. It is a community where aspiring South Asian actors, directors, producers, writers and many more find support, advice, opportunities and quality work.
When Chatrath first greeted me at the door, I sensed his welcoming and ambitious spirit right away. Having worked in several films, TV commercials as well as the host of “Center Stage” on Awesome TV, he is a man who strongly believes in putting the South Asian acting and artist communities on the map. As an empowering presence protecting aspiring actors to make smart choices, he is a pillar of sound advice, strength, and creativity. When I asked him what advice he had for young aspiring actors, he said,
“Pursue your dreams but keep your day job.”
To me, this represents the essence of what makes South Asian actors and artists akin to superheroes. Partly cultural and partly the drive to be multifaceted, the South Asian community is probably one of the few that I have seen where artists pursue medical or engineering degrees by day as well as their love of film and supporting their fellow actors by night. It takes a special individual to gracefully handle these hats, but Sonny does it effortlessly. Also the Director of Sales for Up and Away Travel, a high-end American Express Travel Management company, a chef enthusiast and a doting husband and father, he is a man who doesn’t shy away from his dreams or his responsibilities.
It is no wonder that all members speak so highly of him, including the following superheroes with whom I had the pleasure of speaking to at the event.
Karthik is a very talented actor based in New York. Known for his work in “It’s Free” (2015), “Forbidden” (2018) and “Ivide,” his is also very versatile. Pursuing acting at an early age, he was fortunate enough to have the support of his parents, especially his dad, Nilambur Karthikeyan, who was A.R. Rahman’s first music teacher and has sung in over 60 Malayalam films. The first thing that hit me when talking to Karthik is his humility and quiet confidence. In an industry where self-promotion is often a necessity, it is so refreshing to see such a down-to-earth and hardworking person. In asking him what keeps him going, he believes you can’t let any negativity get you down. You have to believe in yourself when no one else does. With ambitions to win an Oscar yet the desire to always be learning, this is an actor to keep an eye on. Karthik, we at Brown Girl Magazine, are here to help you write that Oscar acceptance speech! Just say when.
Karna is a director and writer based in New York and an avid supporter of women of color. In 2017, she produced and directed her first short film, “Arrangement,” an LGBT themed film which premiered at the 2018 New York Indian Film Festival. Also an engineer with a degree from Columbia University (what would Karna’s superhero name be?), she moved to Mumbai to research maternal health and to listen to the stories of pregnant women in slums. This experience and the stories of many women have inspired Karna to continue to share the stories of women of color. Proving that this Karna really “can,” she continues to be that empowering voice, also recently writing for an episode of the TV Asia show “Samachari News” on the topic of South Asian LGBT issues. Although I had just a quick conversation with Karna, I felt her empathy, support and drive right away. We, at Brown Girl Magazine, look forward to including you as a guest on our LGBT podcast, Queering Desi. Don’t be a stranger, please.
Patel is the type of woman who makes you feel right at home even though you’ve just met her. Warm, welcoming and funny, she is not afraid to dream big. This girl had me at,
“I want to star in the next Jurassic Park.”
This statement is the way to my heart since I want to be in an action movie with dinosaurs or chimpanzees myself. Much like the challenge all South Asian actors have faced, she is often at the receiving end of “stagnant stares”—as she puts it—when she reveals her ambition to pursue a career in medicine and acting. Balancing her third year of medical school, acting and modeling, she believes dreaming big is not for the faint of heart. This is just as well because we fully heart you. Keep dreaming big and achieving, girl, and we’re waiting for the invite to the premiere of “Jurassic Park” starring Patel. Until then, you can also catch her in Aditya Narayan’s music video & song “Queen.”
And that’s a wrap as they say in our movie world! As the world continues to fall in love with superhero films because they represent something bigger than us, let’s not forget the South Asian actor superhero community that can actually say, I AM a doctor, I AM an engineer – I don’t just play one on TV.
March 20, 2023March 29, 2023 3min readBy Rasha Goel
Award-winning commercial real estate and land consultant in Arizona, Anita Verma-Lallian, is venturing into the world of entertainment with her newfound production house, Camelback Productions, making her the first South Asian female in the state to do so. Verma-Lallian is a woman used to paving her own way, and now she’s committed to doing it for future generations.
Through her production company, she aims to contribute towards greater South Asian representation in mainstream media with a focus on storytelling that’s relevant to the community. In a conversation with Brown Girl Magazine, the real estate maven spoke about what inspired her to shift from investing in land to investing in creative dreams.
Tell us more about Camelback Productions and what your hopes are for the company?
The intention is to help communities that are not being represented in the media. As you know, there are a lot more streamers looking for content so that presents an interesting opportunity for people to tell stories that are otherwise not being told.
For us it’s important to tell these stories that aren’t being told, and tell them in the way that we want them to be told. With South Asians, for instance, the roles typically given are stereotypical. There are only four or five roles we are playing repeatedly. I want to show the South Asian community and culture in a different way.
You come from a business and investor background. I am curious to know what catapulted your interest towards establishing a production company?
Good question. There were a few things that inspired my interest. I was looking to diversify the different opportunities we offered our investors. We’ve done a lot of real estate, so we were overall looking for different investment opportunities. And then, at the time when I started exploring this, the real estate market was in this wait-and-see for many people.
Everyone was sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens next. There was a slowdown at the end of 2022 which is when I started looking into this more. Film seemed like it was kind of recession-proof and not really tied to what’s happening in the economy, which I thought was refreshing and exciting.
Also, overall, I observed what was happening in the industry with there being a push to see more South Asians in the media. The timing felt right, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.
Good stories and good quality scripts. We are looking at all types of content — movies, docu-series, comedy shows, and reality shows. We’re open to anything that has a good message.
On a personal level, what hits home for you with this production company?
Growing up I always loved film and TV. We watched a lot of Bollywood movies because that’s what we related to and I always loved that. But I did feel there wasn’t a lot of representation of people that looked like me. Being able to change that — especially after having kids, and a daughter who wants to go into film — is important for. It’s a contribution for future generations. It’s important to me that as they grow up, they see people that look just like them.
Is there a significance to the name Camelback?
Yes! Camelback Mountain is a very iconic mountain in Phoenix.It’s one of the most famous hikes we have here and a relatively challenging one.
The significance is being able to overcome challenges and barriers. I have a nice view of Camelback Mountain and it’s something I look at every day, when I’m stressed and overwhelmed. It has a very calming and grounding presence.
To me the mountains signify being grounded and not being able to be moved by external factors. That’s what I want this production company to be!
What would you advise people interested in entering the entertainment industry?
The best advice I would give someone is to align yourself with people that you know are experts in the industry; that have a good track record. Learn from as many people as you can.I learn as much as I can, talk to as many people as I can, and I study different things to understand what was and wasn’t successful.
Over the past few weeks we’ve all seen Mindy Kaling shoulder the blame for misrepresenting the South Asian diaspora in her work. I want to expose us to the flip side. She’s not “Indian enough” for some in our communities and “not American enough” for mainstream television and media. But I don’t know a single South Asian living abroad who doesn’t feel this dissonance. We’re a generation born to parents who strived to stay connected to their homeland but knew they had to assimilate to survive. Many of us got lost in the mix. I definitely did. And from the looks of it, Kaling did too.
I feel like I’ve oscillated between these two extremes all my life. I’ve had moments of code-switching — performing as a white version of myself, melting into the groups around me. And moments of being a “coconut” (or an “oreo” depending on where you come from) — suddenly donning an accent as if Hindi was my first language. It wasn’t conscious. It also wasn’t fully unconscious.
It wasn’t until I watched Netflix’s“Never Have I Ever” as a 35-year-old mother of two that I realized what teenage Ambika was up against. Still wearing tank tops in secret, while girls my age had moved on to the midriff-baring trend of the early 2000s. Not thinking it was okay to explore my sexuality. Not seeing that sometimes I knew what was better for me than my parents did. Not understanding that it was okay to expand my romantic interests beyond the few Indian boys I knew. And then I rewatched “The Mindy Project” while on maternity leave with my second kid. And I ate it up.
I rewound dialogue as Dr. Lahiri got engaged, left a man who lost his drive, fell in love with the unexpectedly handsome curmudgeon, got pregnant, learned to mother, and found a new version of herself. She addressed her pregnant body insecurities on-screen (in “What to Expect When You’re Expanding — brilliant!). She grappled with her ambitions in the face of motherhood. She owned who she was when most of us were taught not to. She dated outside of her race. Her audacity and levity gave me so much oomph at a time when I needed it the most.
Art comes from lived experience. And when individuals reflect their life back to the masses through art, it’s a tenuous balance. Comedians in particular have to toe a fine line between hyperbole and reality, having the paradoxical job of speaking the truth (the dark truth, often), and simultaneously making people laugh.
Even though I didn’t speak Spanish — my parents don’t speak Spanish — early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ‘ay, mija.’ My mom doesn’t call me ‘mija.’ My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, ‘hey, girl!’ She talks like me. You know what I mean?
This is the inherent paradox that exists in Velma as well. Kaling, as she often does, takes her own experiences as a young Indian girl growing up against the backdrop of white America, and amplifies them. And now, Kaling is a grown, Indian woman whose career is evolving against the backdrop of an America, too.
Critics across different racial groups frequently talk about “the representation trap.” Even if a minority group is represented in a piece of art, literature, film, or television, the manifestation of that group is still filtered through the white gaze. In Ismail Muhammed’s New York Times piece “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap,” he says:
Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible.
The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience?
Let’s not forget that many of us (or maybe all of us?) came up in a society that devalues women, and horrifically devalues people of color. Let’s not forget that the majority of executives across every field still don’t look like us (if by chance you’ve forgotten, read this piece byRuchika Tulshyan). Let’s not forget that when people are introduced to something foreign and unknown to them, their default is to reject it (again, if you’ve forgotten, read about “the mere exposure effect” and racism).
I’m unsure how Kaling has inherited the immense responsibility of representing all of the South Asian American diaspora? And is then being criticized for her representation of it. Third-generation South Asians are very different from second-generation, who are very different from first-generation. Our identities and how we fit into American culture, mainstream media, and business, are still forming as we speak. We are not a monolith.
And plenty of men have done exactly what Kaling is being criticized for, without anywhere near the same level of criticism. All men I (hopefully, we) love.
Riz Ahmed has taken on roles in which his race isn’t the central focus. Hasan Minaj doesn’t get criticized when he uses stereotypical accents to represent South Asians or for using politics as a launch pad for his content. We don’t hate on Kumail Nanjiani when he suddenly gets a six-pack, even though he also once played a nerd. I loved when Aziz Ansari went to Italy to make pasta and didn’t make it Indian.
Why are we tearing down one of the only women in America who is working to showcase South Asian culture and people? Because she uses humor and caricature? Because she’s not putting herself in the mindset of the type of Indian person who has learned to thrive at the intersection of their upbringing and their environment? Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist!
It’s not on Kaling to represent every dimension of this diaspora. She’s done her job.
I’m a proud, second-generation, Indian American woman, married to an Indian American man, with two Indian American children. I was nerdy just like Kaling. I had arm hair just like Devi. I pined after white boys in my teen years just like Bela from the HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too. And Kaling is an absolute inspiration to me.
I see a South Asian woman who chose to have children on her own. Whose career, post-children, skyrocketed. Who committed herself and her craft to tackle the most deep-rooted stigmas of South Asian culture — mental health, sex, and interracial relationships — while still honoring the way it manifested in her life.
It’s now our job to get out into the world and dimensionalize our cohort. Show the world what us supposed “ABCDs” have grown up and done; who we’ve become and what we’ve accomplished.
It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”
We still exist in a house of cards. Why are we kicking the building blocks of our own home?
I’ll leave you with this quote from Kaling herself:
People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.
I hope this woman never gets discouraged. We need her in more ways than one.
The onscreen representation of South Asians has never been great in Hollywood. In fact, I learned not to look for it in my favorite rom-coms, superhero series, and family dramas. In my TV-watching experience, though, comedy has been a different story. I love sitcoms and have watched nearly every popular sitcom from the early and late aughts. When I turned to these comfort shows, I never felt unrepresented. Some of the most iconic sitcom characters in recent decades are South Asian: Kelly Kapoor in “The Office,” Tom Haverford from “Parks and Recreation,” Cece Parekh in “New Girl,” Tahani Al-Jamil in “The Good Place,” and in the past year, Sid from “How I Met Your Father.” For most brown viewers, like me, this felt more than satisfactory. Any representation felt like good representation, and as an audience, we weren’t in a position to critique networks, producers, or writers on how we appeared on screen. It was, and still is, a celebration to appear at all.
The portrayal of South Asians in sitcoms is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it opened doors for South Asians that were unavailable through other creative endeavors. Comedy as a genre is weird, and smart, but relatable. It has given our community a far-reaching platform to unite and connect with people of all cultures. As a minority group, exposure — especially in an industry held together by connections and clout — is integral for our collective success. South Asians have seen more success with comedy than any other genre because making people laugh is the most palatable way to present our similarities and differences. We can tailor our political statements, social frustrations, and marginalized experiences into fun, raunchy, non-threatening, and insightful content. Comedy is versatile enough to capture our most unique and marketable traits, and sitcoms, situational comedy, is an extension of this in the form of 24-minute episodes.
While a handful of sitcoms employed South Asian talent, our inclusion has rarely been well-intentioned. As of its last season in 2019, “The Big Bang Theory” has won 10 Emmys and made history as the longest-running, live-action sitcom. It is unclear whether these accomplishments occurred despite the poor representation of South Asians or for those very reasons. Raj Koothrappali, played by Kunal Nayyar, is the only person of color among the show’s eight cast members. Raj’s character was built around various stereotypes, extending beyond the standard nerd archetype. Raj was coded as the most socially inept, emasculated, and undesirable character in a group of awkward, geeky men. He is often put down, humiliated, and misunderstood. This type of representation, especially in a sitcom that ended just four years ago, is regressive and tiring. Characters like Raj really aren’t representations at all. He isn’t meant to be. Raj was characterized for the enjoyment of non-South Asian viewers. His “fresh-off-the-boat” attempts at assimilation are the jokes. His cultural traditions coupled with his Western ambitions are supposed to make Western audiences laugh. When Raj is the butt of a joke, the “ultimate loser” in a group of three other losers, nobody is laughing with him. They are laughing at him.
“Aliens in America,” another 2007s sitcom, lasted just one season on The CW for good reason. This sitcom featured a white American family in Wisconsin that decided to host an international student to help their son make friends in his high school. The family is dismayed when Raja, the exchange student, isn’t from a European country but from Pakistan. Here begins 18 episodes of overt racism, xenophobia, and religious and cultural intolerance posed for laughs. It’s a frustrating watch, and unfortunately, its gross premise can be explained by the lack of South Asian writers and directors credited. Representation on screen is only tasteful and compelling when there are South Asians behind the scenes sharing input, expertise, and experiences. Mindy Kaling’s work is evidence of what it can look like when South Asians have the resources and support to shape their own narratives. While her South Asian characters may fall under a similar archetype, their stories are expansive and authentic.
Sitcoms have both enforced and subverted South Asian stereotypes. Much of the work South Asian creatives have done to separate our identities from racist characterizations was simultaneously perpetuated by the entertainment industry. On the same screen as Raj and Raja, we watched Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford and Jameela Jamil as Tahani Al-Jamil. These two characters diverged from the former in that their culture and “brownness” were seldom mentioned. They seemed to exist almost separately from their ethnicity and carried visible confidence and self-assurance, pulling laughs with their eccentrics and quirkiness.
Hannah Simone’s Cece Parekh and Sid, played by Suraj Sharma in the “How I Met Your Mother” spin-off, “How I Met Your Father,” are both refreshingly original. Sid is a South Asian bartender from New York, and his ethnicity is neither ignored nor a point of mockery. Cece is a high school dropout turned professional model, continually recognized throughout the show for her confidence, savviness, and beauty. Their personalities not only subvert the nerdy, meek, and undesirable traits typically associated with brown characters but also inspire much of the witty and sharp dialogue among their respective ensemble casts. A government official from a modest Midwest town, a model in Los Angeles, a British philanthropist, and a New York bartender will never fully capture our individual experiences. Yet, their stories represent small yet significant aspects of our lives. These characters, born between 2007 and 2021, are indicative of the evolution of South Asian characters from prior caricatures. Our inherent identities, communities, and fundamental beliefs are not and should no longer be the joke.
Comedy, specifically sitcoms, has been a gateway for South Asians to enter the entertainment industry. While representation has been lacking in other genres of television, sitcoms continue to be home to notable South Asian talent. Brown characters in the past were depicted with varying degrees of accuracy and integrity, but our prolonged presence on network television has slowly led to main billing on genres outside of a comedic scope. Netflix productions and Marvel films are among the big-budget projects entertaining the idea that South Asians can be superheroes, love interests, and so much more. While Hollywood’s motivations to feature South Asian characters may have initially derived from a place of ridicule, South Asian creatives made comic relief characters their own. Sitcoms have matured into a genre where we can take ownership of our stories, evoking the raw, hilarious, and painful moments that make us the fully-fleshed people we are on and off the screen.