"A lot of the actors just want to be another character in a larger, mainstream project, instead of some fresh-off-the-boat, sex-crazed Kama Sutra type. Not only must they be self-motivated, but they must also represent the community in a positive light. A white actor can take a part in some offensive teen sex comedy, and it's OK because white actors are represented in the media in many shapes and forms. When a South Asian does it, it's one of maybe 10 roles a year. Every script they read is all about how they are going to be seen, how the community is going to be seen, and is it worth it."
Kapoor echoes Kheshgi's sentiments. His regular role in "Gideon's Crossing" was not just a career breakthrough for him, but, he felt, a milestone for his community. Even so, he knows that does little to ensure his acting future. "['Gideon's'] put me one more step up the ladder and on the map as an East Indian actor here. Still, I know not to get too excited. We are East Indian actors and there isn't too much of a career ladder to speak of. You can't assume you are going to jump up another level automatically."
The actor, born in Liverpool, England, and with several years of theater and film work behind him, remains realistic about his profession and its attendant, inevitable struggles.
"There are very few East Indian roles that are quality and substantial and not just one-liners. We haven't been here as long as Indians in England or Canada, and there are still a lot of roles that call for wearing turbans and being stupid and being the butt of someoneelse's jokes."
While Kapoor doesn't plan to shy away from East Indian roles, he would like to see more colorblind casting, "where we are actors who can play the part of John Doe."
Some South Asian actors have had it easier than others. Malil, born and raised in Cochin, Kerala in India, until his family immigrated to Texas in 1974, said he had a manager within 24 hours of arriving in Los Angeles six years ago and his first audition within a few weeks. He's been a regular working actor since then, appearing on "ER" and several other shows, including the season finale of "The West Wing."
He was also featured in a popular Budweiser commercial, which led to a role in a sitcom pilot, "Bad News, Mr. Swanson," that FX will decide whether to add to its lineup next week. A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Malil said his ethnicity has so far proved "very serendipitous." He believes that seeing himself as just another actor, ethnicity aside, has enabled producers and casting directors to see him the same way.
"I've done those roles--the cab drivers, the 7-Eleven clerks, the hotel managers. But I've also played professionals like doctors [on 'Party of Five'], or a Democratic Party strategist ['The West Wing']. Whether I'm Indian or not hasn't played a part, and I've not encountered any discrimination. If anything, it's been a blessing. I couldn't ask to be more ethnic."
Sonia Nikore, director of casting at NBC and the only South Asian working in that end of the business here, is optimistic that changing demographics will make it easier for South Asians trying to break into the industry. "When I was casting for Disney's 'The Jungle Book' in November 1993 and looking for East Indian actors, we had open calls around town and got a very small response from the community. Now, 10 years later, it's incredible to have so many people calling who are interested in pursuing this profession. South Asians are becoming part of the mainstream, especially with the success of Silicon Valley, and such high-profile feature directors like M. Night Shyamalan and Shekhar Kapoor," she said.
Nikore is also seeing more and more non-Indian writers creating parts for Indians--which she sees as the most telling sign of progress. "It's wonderful to read pilots and scripts that have South Asian characters in them, which have not been written by South Asian writers. More importantly, these are interesting, three-dimensional characters that don't further the usual stereotypes. That to me is a treat, and speaks volumes about how far these actors and writers have come."
Actress Sheetal Sheth, who has been in a number of independent movies, agreed. "Each cultural group has its moment where it starts to break into something different from the stereotypes. We're in that stage right now."