Three to Watch

Young Indian American actors are drawing popular and critical attention 

By Howard Cincotta
For a new generation of Indian American actors and performers, the question of identity can be complicated. Reshma Shetty, who dropped plans for becoming a physician in college, now plays a physician’s assistant on television. Her TV character has serious doubts about her upcoming marriage—even as Shetty was planning her own wedding. 

Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari often mocks racial stereotypes. Yet, he never performs explicitly as an Indian American, but as “a guy in his mid-20s who messes around all the time,” as he told The New York Times. 

For Danny Pudi, also an actor and comedian, identity can be downright bewildering. He is the son of Indian and Polish parents, but in his comic role, he plays a college student of Palestinian background.

What all three have in common are critically acclaimed roles in popular television programs and growing recognition as part of a new generation of actors who are of South Asian background. 

Reshma Shetty
For those who can’t manage a beach vacation this year, the next best thing might be watching the stunning Indian American actress Reshma Shetty on the popular summertime TV series “Royal Pains.” 

A medical drama liberally laced with comedy, “Royal Pains” is set in the picturesque and upscale beaches of the Hamptons on Long Island outside New York City. These days, the appearance of “Royal Pains” on the television schedule has become a sure sign that summer has finally arrived. 

Shetty, 33, is the daughter of two physicians. She grew up in England and Richmond, Virginia, and fully expected to follow the family medical tradition by studying premed at Virginia’s James Madison University. 

Her singing performances were so successful, however, that despite her parents’ concerns, she switched majors and graduated with a degree in music. She later earned master’s degrees in opera performance from the University of Kentucky and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio. 

Looking back, Shetty’s switch to music seemed inevitable. “I used to perform my own full-blown musicals in my living room at 7,” she said in an online interview with WickedInfo. “While listening to my parents’ Bollywood soundtracks, I would place myself in the Swiss Alps dancing around in a little silk sari.” 

In 2006, Shetty landed the lead role of Priya in a national touring company of the musical “Bombay Dreams” by A.R. Rahman and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The shift in musical styles was an adjustment, with musical theater requiring the use of her whole body to “belt” many of her songs, she said, “while opera involves exclusively the use of head voice.” 

“Bombay Dreams” gave her the recognition to win roles in several off-Broadway productions and a supporting role in the 2008 movie, “Steam.” It also gave her a husband—the musical’s co-star Deep Katdare—and the opportunity to become the face of the Dove moisturizer bar in India. 

In “Royal Pains,” Shetty plays Divya Katdare, a physician’s assistant, secretly rebelling against her wealthy family, who strikes out on her own by recruiting a young doctor and his brother to start a home-visit, or “concierge,” medical practice in the wealthy Hamptons. “It’s something that every...generation of ethnic women face, which is you are born in the West, but you are from the East,” Shetty told the entertainment Web site Sci-Fi Vision. “And that’s [Divya’s] predicament here...strong, independent Western woman facing her Eastern cultural duties.” 

Personally, Shetty has observed that Indian children in America can sometimes resist their Indian heritage. But “when you grow up,” she says, “you begin to appreciate your Indianness, and when you are in entertainment, sometimes you represent it.” 

“Royal Pains” aired in India on Star World. 

Gilles Marini and Reshma Shetty in “Royal Pains.” Photograph courtesy USA Network Reshma Shetty. Photograph by Jeff Christensen © AP-WWP Aziz Ansari hosts the 2010 MTV Movie Awards at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California. Photograph courtesy MTV

Aziz Ansari 
Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari has two very different sets of fans. One is the audience who follow the character Tom Haverford among the large cast of the deadpan TV comedy “Parks and Recreation.” The other is the smaller but far more fervent admirers of Ansari’s edgy stand-up comedy. 

That Ansari, 28, can hold two such different groups is a tribute to his ability to balance outrageousness with an almost childlike sense of humor. As a recent New Yorker article observed, Ansari can “observe ridiculous behavior and react not with simple mockery or exasperation, as many comedians would, but with half-crazed wonder.” 

Ansari grew up in South Carolina where his parents settled after immigrating from Tamil Nadu; he still speaks with a slight trace of a Southern accent. He was the only minority student in his classes through the 10th grade. 

After attending a select state school for science and mathematics, Ansari moved to New York City where he graduated from New York University’s Stern School of Business in 2004. Meanwhile, he was regularly doing standup comedy, although he didn’t tell his parents at the time. 

With two other comedians, Ansari began a comedy night in New York called “Human Giant,” along with a series of short films that drew the attention of the MTV network. MTV later broadcast two seasons of “Human Giant” videos, whose over-the-top inventiveness brought Ansari a devoted following. 

“The more I watched people, the more I realized that the standup I enjoyed the most was stuff that was more personal…[comedians] who told stories about whatever they were going through in their lives,” he said to The New York Times. 

Ansari first drew widespread attention with a small part in the film “Funny People,” where he played a crass but innocent-eyed comedian who bounces around the state and insists on calling himself “Raaaaaaaandy.” The role was such a hit that Ansari now regularly incorporates Raaaaaaaandy’s X-rated routines into his standup shows. 

In “Parks and Recreation,” which employs a mock-documentary style that both emulates and parodies reality shows, Ansari plays Tom Haverford, a slacker government employee and would-be ladies man who changed his name from an impossibly long Indian one. The role earned Ansari widespread praise as a “breakout artist” by the Los Angeles-based entertainment press. 

Filming a scene where Haverford suffers yet another sad but hilarious romantic rejection, the director told the camera operator, “Once Aziz starts going on all of his ad libs, stick with him,” according to The New Yorker. 

“There will always be an appetite for smart, funny comedies,” Ansari told Forbes magazine. “If there’s not, please don’t tell the various studios....” 

“Parks and Recreation” airs in India on Zee Café. 

Reshma Shetty Aziz Ansari Danny Pudi

Danny Pudi 
The television comedy “Community” —about a group of misfit students at the fictional Greendale Community College—has become a breakout hit since it premiered in 2009. Among its most popular characters is Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi, who is obsessed with pop culture, socially awkward and utterly charming. In a television environment full of characters who are smart mouthed and culturally sophisticated, Nadir is an original. 

“The whole show has been like a dream to me,” Pudi told G4tv, an entertainment and gaming Web site. “One, it’s incredibly written, so rich and deep. And the character I get to play is so fun. Playing Abed is like every day is an adventure.” 

Pudi’s background is almost as varied as the character he plays. Pudi, 32, grew up in Chicago, the son of an Indian father and Polish mother; he doesn’t speak Hindi but is fluent in Polish. 

“My mom...really does embrace my weirdness and quirkiness,” he told the entertainment Web site, Movieline. “She’s always tried to push me toward careers outside of doctoring and mathematics, where she knew I’d probably fail.” 


“While listening to my parents’ Bollywood soundtracks, I would place myself in the Swiss Alps dancing around in a little silk sari” —Reshma Shetty


Pudi graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he won a scholarship named for “Saturday Night Live” comedian Chris Farley. Back in Chicago, Pudi studied at the Second City comedy club and joined two other Indian American comics who toured as the group, Siblings of Doctors.

In Los Angeles, he found small parts in television shows and appeared in commercials for McDonalds, Snickers candy bars, and the telecom firms Verizon and T-Mobile. 

“Community’s” popularity rests on its ensemble of strange but endearing characters as well as storylines built around references to popular culture, TV tropes, and what has been termed “meta-humor,” in essence, jokes about the jokes themselves. 

Along with the ultra-hip dialogue, however, an undeniable sense of sweetness infuses all the characters, especially that of Nadir. 

Ansari, as Tom Haverford, laughs as he imagines a co-star falling in a sewage treatment facility full of sharks, in a scene from “Parks and Recreation” Danny Pudi The “Community” cast with Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir at far left Photographs courtesy NBC

The show can be wildly unpredictable: an episode was done entirely with claymation figures, another built around the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Episodes frequently draw on such American film favorites as the ultra-violent crime thriller “Pulp Fiction,” teen-angst-ridden movies like “Breakfast Club” and “Mean Girls,” the action-adventure Indiana Jones series, and the classic mafia movie, “Goodfellas.” 

Pudi admits that, at times, even he has to check with his fellow actors to understand some of “Community’s” stream of cultural references. “Abed is intense,” he said to G4tv. “He wants to figure things out…. Everything’s a game but he’s always looking for patterns.” “One of the cool things about this show is that we have a lot of silly things going on and a lot of funny costumes, but at the root of it a lot of us are trying to find out who we are, exploring ourselves,” he said on the Web site, Zap2it. 

Pudi and the other actors have also made a series of short videos, or “webisodes” around the “Community” characters. “There’s a sense of freedom that comes to the Web stuff we’re shooting,” he said to Starpulse, another entertainment Web site. “As long as you have pretty specific characters and points of view, you can kind of go anywhere.” 

The “Community” Season 2 finale aired in India in May on Star World.

—Courtesy SPAN

August 2011

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