In recent years it's been hard not to notice that many of the best shows on American television have a certain thing in common. Whether born in the United States, originally from South Asia or raised somewhere across the far-flung British Commonwealth, Indian actors have quickly become a welcome TV mainstay.
Just about any night of the week, you can catch Kunal Nayyar's romance-challenged rocket scientist, Raj, on the country's most popular sitcom "The Big Bang Theory "; Kalinda, Archie Panjabi's Emmy-winning, astoundingly complicated private investigator on drama "The Good Wife "; and Mindy Kaling headlining the first show starring an Indian American character, "The Mindy Project," which she also created, writes and produces.
There's also the uproarious Aziz Ansari on "Parks and Recreation," sly and sexy Hannah Simone on "New Girl," the dignified (and endlessly degraded for it) Adhir Kalyan on "Rules of Engagement," Danny Pudi on "Community," Dev Patel on "The Newsroom," Reshma Shetty, Rupak Ginn and others on "Royal Pains," Kal Penn all over the place . . .
And, at this point, too many more to keep track of. Apologies for that, but hey, it's a good thing.
"Every TV show, it seems, now wants to have minority characters in it," said the New Delhi-raised, U.S. college-educated Nayyar. "I think that is a function of just looking around you. If you go to the mall, it's not just white people or black people or Latinos or Indians; it's an amalgamation of all ethnicities. And when you watch television, for example, my show takes place at Caltech. Now, if you go to Caltech, that's what you'll see, a myriad of ethnicities.
"I really do think that it's because that's what we're seeing in everyday life around us. Indians are becoming more prominent in business, more prominent in the medical sciences. They've always been predominantly engineers and doctors, but you're seeing them in other facets of life now."
Many in the entertainment industry concur.
"I've been in the business for 17 years at this point," noted Bela Bajaria, executive vice president of Universal Television. "When I first got into it, it was like me, M. Night (Shyamalan) and Apu from 'The Simpsons,' right? That was sort of the Indian representation. It really has been an interesting growth in diverse characters, and especially Indian characters, in that time."
Of course, it just didn't happen through osmosis. Bajaria, who was instrumental in getting "Mindy Project" on the air, explained that she's seen years of diversity initiatives at studios and networks, pilot development and false starts; remember "Outsourced "? (The NBC sitcom was set in an American company's Indian call center and lasted all of one season.)
"Slumdog Millionaire" certainly helped, too. The Academy Award-winning movie grossed an astonishing $141 million in North America four years ago, proving to entertainment executives that U.S. audiences were very willing to accept South Asian characters. The recent box-office success of "Life of Pi" only reinforces that notion.
Bajaria, along with producer Guneet Monga, will be honored with the 11th Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles' Industry Leadership Award this week. The IFFLA will show films from India and elsewhere at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood tonight through Sunday. It will also feature a TV panel, co-presented by SAG/AFTRA, called "Laughing at Ourselves: A Conversation with Actors and Creatives." IFFLA's founder and board chairwoman Christina Marouda - herself a Greek who loves Indian movies - said the festival not only provides a gathering place for the South Asian talent of Southern California, but exposes Hollywood to the world's biggest national filmmaking industry.
"We really wanted to position this festival in the heart of Hollywood, and not necessarily a more Indian community," Marouda said. "We have worked really hard to get attention from all the studios. Our audience is 65 percent South Asian, but the rest is a mix, and that ratio has been changing to become even more diverse."
There are more factors, of course, fueling Hollywood's openness to South Asian talent. For one thing, English remains the lingua franca between states in India, and is definitely the common language in diaspora countries such as South Africa, Canada and Great Britain where many of the actors come from. Helps a lot to be fluent in English when you're trying out for American TV.
The popularity of Bollywood and other Indian films in South Asian communities throughout the world, including in the United States, has not only inspired younger generations to pursue acting, but probably helped convince their immigrant parents that it was as worthy a career to pursue as medicine, business or engineering.
Then there's the fact that the majority of Americans have had few if any beefs with Indians. Indeed, we've associated the culture with peace and spirituality since at least the hippie era and many of us enthusiastically practice yoga - then go to Starbucks for a chai.
African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, certainly still Arab-Americans, even Irish, Italians, Jews and Native Americans before there ever was a cathode ray tube have all had much more trouble being accepted by the American mainstream. And when members of some of those groups did make inroads into the great cultural leveler television, it was much bigger news than the South Asian explosion seems to be now.
"We're in this strange situation here of not having had issues with America, historically - in fact, we share a common colonial nemesis," noted Rupak Ginn, who was born in America but nonetheless uses that colonizing British accent on "Royal Pains." "I won't say it's been a seamless assimilation, but the Indian community really has assimilated with a little more ease.
"My wife is African-American; her mother has a different perspective than my parents, who came here after the civil rights movement," Ginn continued. "Yes, I'm sure they faced issues with race, and when 9/11 happened a lot of Indian-Americans faced a little bit more time going through the airport check and all that. But really, compared to what African Americans have faced, it's nothing."
That said, there are still barriers to bust. Both Ginn and Nayyar long for the day a South Asian actor will headline an American drama series, for example. And while many Indian actors here not only thrive but exult in comedy, ethno/cultural representation has still got to be carefully considered.
"I don't mind making fun of myself," Nayyar said. "I don't mind making fun of my culture. If we lose the ability to laugh at ourselves, then what really is comedy? The beauty of this is that a lot of talented actors of South Asian ethnicity are getting recognized."
Now is definitely a time for celebrating that.
"We're seeing a lot of funny people, doctors and Kalinda on 'The Good Wife'," Universal's Bajaria pointed out. "It has been very interesting to see the progression from a couple of the stereotypical roles that you would think of to fully dimensionalized characters, flaws and all. I mean, Archie on 'Good Wife' couldn't be more dimensionalized in all different kinds of ways; no traditional female Indian role there. Aziz, Mindy the lead in a romantic comedy, essentially . . . It's really been fun and gratifying just to see these very fully realized roles in all different places."