Here's a picture from my first play where I played Joseph. (That's me with the mustache!)
I would dance my little ass off in school functions and fasted when Amitabh Bachchan had his near death experience on the set of Coolie. I was shattered, went to temples, drove my father up the wall, and went to the movies as often as my father would take us. I watched the Big B's movies endlessly and repeatedly, just so I could practice his moves, recite dialogue, and subconsciously learn to act.
In high school, I discovered a new passion for American films and stumbled upon creative writing. I had terrible stage fright and fear of public speaking so I opted to write instead. With some encouragement from my high school drama teacher, I continued to write silly little stage plays about crushes I had.
Then I went to Queensborough Community College to major in Business Administration. It was a notion that lasted for exactly 1 day. On day 2 of my first college semester, I dropped all my Business Admin classes and took every possible writing and drama class. There was a burning desire to write and act. I got a part in the college production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, and went on stage for the first time. I blanked. Forgot my lines. Returned back stage. Thankfully, my fellow actors and drama teacher didn't laugh at me, but rather with me. They all knew what stage fright felt like. Like a support group would do, they encouraged me, and put me back on stage till I finally overcame the "fear". It took me several months to tell my father what I was up to.
By the next year, I was enrolled at NYC's School of Visual Arts with a major in Screenwriting and Acting. I was the least bit interested in anything to do with behind the camera work. I found amazing, generous, talented teachers like Joe Paradise, Lisa Eichhorn, and Matt Mitler. Here's one of my first headshots
Screenwriting was a way for me to write parts to play as an actor. That was my whole goal. I knew that very very few Indian-American actors were getting a chance to play anything other than stereotypical, cliched, insulting, derogatory versions of the most banal and inane "roles" one could think of.
I was able to get an agent who represented pretty much all the ethnic actors (particularly the Indian-Americans) in NY. They would send me to auditions where I would invariably be asked to put on an Indian accent. I would be crushed, dejected, angry - but I would do it. I don't have an accent - at least not a discernable one.
I will never forget the last time I ever went for a real, serious movie audition. It was for Richard Linklater's "Suburbia". The role was that of - you guessed it - convenience store owner. Now, mind you, my father owned a convenience store at the time. So this was easy-peasy. I had this sucker nailed.
"Can you do an Indian accent?"
I said, okay. And proceeded to put on a very slight Indian accent - neither my father, me or my brother have distinguishable accents. But anyway, anything for the part right?
"Let me show you what I mean."
The casting person, not sure who it was then, an associate or whoever, DID THE INDIAN APU ACCENT FOR ME. I imitated her accent just for kicks, but I had no desire whatsoever to do the role, go on anymore auditions, or be an actor - if it meant that I had to play a stupid stereotype. I realized that the "Brown" which Aasif Mandvi talks about in his blog for the Hollywood Reporter, isn't something that I was going to offer like a circus clown. And that's the day I lost my passion for acting. I said Fuck It. And stopped pursuing acting as a career. I don't know if I was any good as an actor to begin with, but that's really irrelevant and I didn't care at that point. I wasn't going to be the object of someone's joke.
Now, of course, things have changed - a little. There are more opportunities, more roles, and more South Asian actors on TV, Film, Stage and Commercials.
But the stereotypes still exist in full force. Aasif talks about it in his blog, which is quite honest. More power to him if this helps him in his career. Frankly, he's much more talented than that accented dude he's playing. I wish people like him, and pretty much all the Indian-American actors who have any sort of proverbial power in Hollywood would say fuck you to the studio and not do the accent when told that the studio wants to bring in a dialect coach. It's not funny anymore. Of course, given the opportunity to be in a major movie, most people will cower to the studio's demands and do whatever the hell is asked. Stereotypes exist because they are constantly reinforced.
Reading Aasif's blog brought back a river of emotion and anger I felt years ago, and perhaps that river still flows. I would rather work in a convenience store than play an accented convenience store owner, or for that matter some desi dude at Google. No regrets. The kid in me will find a way to play.
-Thank you for reading. Thank You Universe.