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South Asian Actors Find Little Support, Lots of Stereotypes

Movies * More and more professionals are making headway despite family disapproval and some preconceived notionsin Hollywood.

July 27, 2001|KAVITA DASWANI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sandra Teles arrived in Los Angeles from her native Goa, India, several weeks ago, harboring the same aspirations as the thousands of other young women who flock to Hollywood. The model and actress is making the rounds of agents, acting coaches and photographers.

"What they need here is something completely different," she said. "Why would I model in Mumbai when I could become a hit in America?"

Teles joins a small but increasingly visible band of South Asian actors, many of whom are making major inroads in Hollywood. Some have landed regular roles in prime-time series (last season, Ravi Kapoor was in ABC's now-canceled medical drama "Gideon's Crossing'), movie leads (Anjul Nigam in 20th Century Fox's comedy "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest") or guest-starring roles in high-profile season finales (Shelley Malil in "The West Wing").

They are relatively young (in their late 20s to mid-30s). Many were born in the U.S. to immigrants or came here as children, and have gone against the grain by becoming actors in a culture that traditionally prizes vocations such as engineering, medicine or law. And they are part of a community that can be stridently disapproving of a career in the arts.

Senain Kheshgi, an independent writer-producer-director working on a documentary on Indian actors, has witnessed firsthand young Indian actors telling their parents of their career choice. "It's like coming out. It's a very heart-wrenching moment. While the older generation came to America to let their children live the American dream, they are very protective."

So while Indian actors struggle for the support of families and the wider community, they are also striving for recognition in a field that sees their particular ethnicity as full of "head-bopping, heavily accented cab drivers or 7-Eleven clerks," said one actor. "Apu [a character on 'The Simpsons'] was the first well-known Indian on television," said Bhavani Rao, a South Asian writer-producer here. Yet, as Rao points out, more South Asian actors appear to be crossing into the mainstream.

At NBC, two pilots shot for the upcoming television season featured South Asians in major roles, with one making the cut for the fall season: "Gideon's" Kapoor was cast in "Crossing Jordan," a new drama with former "Law & Order" star Jill Hennessy. Elsewhere, they appear in guest roles on shows ranging from "Spin City" to "ER" to "NYPD Blue." And when they are asked to don the turban and work the accent, they quietly make their point.

"I played a limo driver five years ago," said Nigam, who moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago and who has been in the U.S. since he was a toddler. "My character didn't understand English, so I had to speak Hindi. But I was told I had to put a turban on. People who wear turbans speak Punjabi [another Indian dialect] and I don't. Also, the majority of Indians don't wear turbans. It perpetuated a stereotype that was inaccurate."

Nigam pointed this out to the producer, who replied that his character "had to be immediately recognizable as a person of foreign ethnicity."

"The fact I had dark skin and spoke in a different language wasn't enough," he said. Since then, Nigam has landed a starring role in "The First $20 Million," a comedy due in theaters early next year in which he plays a genius computer hacker. He has also played a billionaire in the indie movie "Sheer Bliss," and was featured in John McNaughton's "Speaking of Sex" and the ABC miniseries "NetForce."

Kiran Rao, a Bangalore, India-born actor-writer who set up Hollywood Masala, an Internet resource site for South Indians in the media, similarly doesn't like to play the race card. "I want to be hired because I'm a good actor. I dislike doing the accent and playing up the whole ethnicity thing. To me, it seems to detract from what I'm in this industry for--the art. I'm tired of the two-dimensional way that Indians are portrayed. Do people know that South Asians are among the best-educated and highest earners in this country?" asked Rao, who has appeared as a college student in "Spin City" and a customs agent in "The X-Files."

Documentary maker Kheshgi, a board member of Indians in American Media, has spent 18 months on a cinema verite -style documentary following Indian actors through the Hollywood process. When finished, the film will be used as part of outreach programs to South Asian organizations and at festivals and conferences. More important, said Kheshgi, it can be used "as a tool to help other South Asians in the U.S. who don't have access to these role models, who are sitting in their homes in Iowa, and either don't see Indian role models or see stereotypical, offensive characters."

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