A

night of prime-time American TV usually doesn’t include Bollywood dance numbers and aunties in saris. Until now.

Thanks to NBC’s hit comedy The Office, viewers last Thursday got a crash course in Diwali—at least the network’s version of it.

The creative force behind the episode was script and screen star Mindy Kaling. Kaling (née Vera Chokalingam) is a Massachusetts native who burst onto New York City’s theater scene four years ago with Matt and Ben, an off-Broadway comedy she both co-wrote and starred in. You’ve seen her in the The 40-Year-Old Virgin and on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it’s her recurring role as Kelly Kapoor on The Office that has really put Kaling in the public eye.

Move Over, Santa. Kali Is In the House.

If you’re a fan of “The Hanukkah Song”—you know, the one with Adam Sandler strumming to lyrics about yarmulkas and Captain Kirk—then you’ll want to hear this. “The Diwali Song,” featured on last week’s episode of The Office, is so catchy and fun, it might just become the next holiday anthem.

The Kapoor character might be a minor one—like most roles that go to desi actors—but it is different. Tune in to NBC on Thursdays and you’ll see why: Kelly is memorable–not because she’s Indian, but because she is chatty, upbeat and, well, irritating. There are no exaggerated accents to her performance, no suggestions of superior ability in math, no terrorist plots uncovered by co-workers.

Kelly Kapoor is the girl next door (make that cubicle). And her character is so stunningly ordinary, it represents a real triumph.

Kaling, a Dartmouth College alumna, once told her school paper she felt the world of “sitcoms and sketch” was “very white.” A script intern for Conan O’Brien at the time, she found the lack of women and people of color backstage to be disappointing.

Six years later, she is now in Los Angeles—and with acting, writing and producing credits on an Emmy-winning show, she’s out to change the plot.

Kelly Kapoor is the girl next door (make that cubicle). And her character is so stunningly ordinary, it represents a real triumph.

Mindy Kaling with her parents.
Mindy Kaling with her parents in the Diwali episode of The Office.

Kaling, 27, joins a growing number of talented young writers—desi American script stars of the next generation. South Asian American writers are now working behind the scenes on shows like Law and Order: Criminal Intent (Stephanie Sengupta), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Star Trek (Naren Shankar has written for both). But what, if anything, will this mean for the future of prime time? Could sitcoms like The Office be signaling a shift in the landscape of television? pulls back the curtain.

Art Imitating Life

Vali Chandrasekaran has no intentions of becoming an actor. But when friend Mindy Kaling asked him to play a “suitable boy” in The Office Diwali episode, he couldn’t say no.

“I asked Mindy to write as few lines as possible,” he says. “Acting is not a skill that I have particularly a lot of.”

Skill level aside, Chandrasekaran—a writer for NBC’s My Name is Earl—dutifully dhoti-ed up and joined Kaling’s real-life parents in front of the cameras. The story was inspired by an actual Diwali fête thrown last year by the writing staff of Earl and The Office. “Mindy pitched having an episode based on that party,” says Chandrasekaran. “Because everyone had been there, it got some traction and they got to do it.”

Vali Chandrasekaran in his cameo with Jenna Fischer in The Office
Vali Chandrasekaran in his cameo with Jenna Fischer in The Office.

And while he did have fun filming, Chandrasekaran thinks it best to stick with his day job: comedy writing, something he developed a passion for while a Harvard student. His time with the iconic Harvard Lampoon cemented his interest in writing comedy and, after graduation, Chandrasekaran headed west—working for a consulting company in LA while writing in his free time. Eighteen months later, he landed the job at Earl. “When my agent called me, it was a Wednesday and I was alone in a windowless conference room in San Francisco,” he remembers.

Jury Still Out

Now that Diwali has made its prime-time debut, the reviews are rolling in. Many are less than kind.

No, we’re not talking about unforgiving TV critics (although November is sweeps month, and they are in their element) but rather the desi bloggers—some of whom are unhappy with Hollywood’s handling of the Hindu holiday.

We want to know what you thought of last Thursday’s Office episode. Was it funny? Distasteful? Get in on the debate in the comments below.

Even though his parents, both Tamil, have been “surprisingly supportive” he understands why not all Indian parents are eager to see their children go into the arts: “It evokes images of people struggling and not being able to, you know, eat.”

But Chandrasekaran has staved off starvation for the time being. Well-fed and happy, he recently saw his episode, “Jump for Joy,” hit the airwaves. It guest-stars Burt Reynolds (“Being around him was…wild”).

For Chandrasekaran, the lack of desi talent on screen has less to do with “active discrimination” and more to do with the fact that South Asians aren’t really “top of mind” in the U.S. “When you’re trying to think of a story and populate it with characters and you want to diversify your world, South Asians are not the minorities people think of,” he explains.

And yet, with more desis writing for hit shows, the topography of television might just be changing, making this a thing of the past.

From Street Corner to Corner Office

At 15, Veena Sud was hanging out on a street corner in Ohio, chatting up the local prostitutes.

Sud, a Cincinnati native, knew at a young age that she wanted to write. As a teenager she decided it was time for her first screenplay. And when inspiration struck, it came in the form of the city’s streetwalkers.

Veena Sud
Veena Sud

“I wanted to write a screenplay about the friendship between two prostitutes, but in order to get into that world, I needed to research it,” she remembers. That’s when the teen called up the Cincinnati Vice Squad asking for insight and found herself being invited down to the station. Soon she was riding with an officer (“a Vietnam vet with this huge gut”), poking around a brothel and seeing “how hookers sell their wares.”

Heavy stuff, but Sud grew from the experience. “I realized then, as a writer, if you just step out into the world, the world gives you your characters and dialogue. It’s all there, you just have to steal it.”

Today, Sud is about as far-removed from an Ohio street corner as you can get.

After graduating from NYU film school, she was chosen to be a Disney/ABC Entertainment Writing Fellow. Sud packed up and headed for Los Angeles where, after writing briefly for the ABC show Push, Nevada, she joined the CBS hit detective drama Cold Case. Since then, she has worked her way up the ranks—from staff writer to executive producer of the show.

When desis are writers creating characters like a lawyer named Payal, or a politician named Sanjeev, that should lead to the casting of brown actors in everyday roles.

Sud’s track record is impressive and includes everything from directing credits on MTV’s Real World to indie films like Hush and the critically-acclaimed One Night. Her current role at Cold Case comes with a lot of responsibility. Putting together 24 episodes a year is no small feat (“it’s like making 24 feature films”), but she loves what she does.

“For me, it’s always been about telling stories,” Sud explains. “It’s been a really great roller-coaster ride; a wonderful, meandering journey.”

Boob Tube < YouTube?

Don’t get him wrong: Sanjay Shah loves his job. But he’s hesitant about suggesting you follow his lead. “For any South Asian person considering [TV] writing as a career—and I know there are plenty—my advice would be don’t do it. Don’t do it until you see how the Internet is going to effect things.”

In the era of YouTube, is television in danger of losing its edge and relevance? Shah believes this might be the case, “I go to parties on the weekend and people are talking more about a clip on YouTube than they are about the shows on TV. We just don’t know where it’s going.”

Uncertain as the future of the industry may be, one thing is for sure: The world of television clearly has its work cut out for it. Veena Sud tells us she thinks the Internet is “much more advanced culturally than the other, older mediums.” She believes it’s time for TV’s “dinosaurs to get out of the way, let others shine” or face the consequences of a diminishing audience.

That’s the type of voyage fellow TV writer Sanjay Shah is no stranger to.

Dishoom-ing Through the Glass Ceiling

A few years ago, Sanjay Shah was riding the wave of Badmash—the cheeky desi comic sensation he created with two friends. At its peak, the online strip was entering more than 300,000 inboxes a week and Badmashi animated originals like “The Singhsons” were widely circulated, becoming fast classics.

But when Badmash decided to go on hiatus recently, Shah unplugged his laptop and headed for LA, where he’s now entered a whole new world of comedy—as a writer for the Fox network series King of the Hill. His journey to the top of the (Hollywood) hill has been a winding one, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Jobs are like hobbies,” he says. And he means it. The Berkeley grad has done it all: from stand-up (opening for Russell Peters) to working for the California state legislature to being a stockbroker (“from 1999 to 2001, just in time to experience the dot-com bust”). And it’s his latest “hobby” as a television writer that has Shah flexing his comedic muscles and putting his creative smarts to work.

Being funny is something he takes seriously.

Hollywood competitiveness, ageism and staying relevant in the age of the Internet remain concerns. The business is cutthroat, and “full of people who will say no to you,” he says. But Shah finds the growing number of South Asians entering the industry encouraging. If the recent Diwali episode on The Office is any indicator, the door seems ajar, and Hollywood open to change. Says Shah of the shift, “It’s a big improvement from 10 years ago when we were still doing slushie and Ganesh jokes on The Simpsons.”

He’s not the only one optimistic about the future of television. Veena Sud is pleased by the direction the business is headed, and feels “proud” to see so many desis coming up through the ranks: “In America, being a person of color, there may not be an equal playing field, but in the TV world things are really changing. It used to be a white boys’ club and it totally isn’t anymore.”

Sanjay Shah of Badmash and now, King of the HIll.
Sanjay Shah of Badmash and now, King of the HIll.

Industry analyst Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com and contributor to USA Today and CNN, agrees. He expects that as the desi population in the United States matures, we’ll be seeing more South Asians getting ahead in non-traditional fields like TV writing. “When (desis) are writers and creating characters like a lawyer named Payal, or a politician named Sanjeev, that should lead to the casting of brown actors in everyday roles.”

Vali Chandrasekaran thinks such an evolution is already well underway: “Now that there are more of us working in many different areas, people’s associations with Indian Americanism will change and a casting director looking to cast for the part of ‘Guy #2’ might add a few South Asian faces to the mix of white, black and Asians.”

“In America, being a person of color, there may not be an equal playing field but in the TV world, things are really changing.”

Adds Pandya, “Hopefully the writers can also encourage the producers not to automatically force an Indian accent on the characters, too.”

With the Kelly Kapoor character, who sounds more valley girl than Varanasi, The Office seems to have taken a modest yet important step. The number of desis on staff in Hollywood—writing for popular programs that make their way into millions of American homes each night—is clearly growing.

For the first time, having an onscreen world where South Asians are given “ordinary roles” with “no accents” seems likely to become a reality. Now that’s some reality TV we wouldn’t mind watching.n

Hilal Nakiboglu Isler watches too much television in upstate New York.
Published on November 6, 2006.
Photography: Courtesy of NBC Universal and Sanjay Shah.
Comments are closed.
  1. November 7, 2006, 1:28 pm myHimachal

    Excellent article.

  2. November 8, 2006, 4:33 pm Pavani

    Cool article. I love watching Cold Case. Thank you Veena!

  3. November 11, 2006, 5:52 pm Mili

    Loved reading this story – an exclusive insight! And, I am still trying to recover from Steve Carell’s Diwali song.

  4. November 21, 2006, 2:11 pm Romya

    I watched the Diwali episode on my daughter’s insistance (later on ‘On Demand’) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Second generation Indian writers will help spreading Indian culture in America much better than the first generation’s approach of pressing the Postal Service for a Diwali stamp.

  5. November 22, 2006, 10:30 am TerraTango

    This is really great stuff. Its inspirational to see how these writers just went for it. Veena Sud is also a poet.

  6. May 21, 2007, 1:15 pm Jilna

    As a recent college grad at my first job in the television industry, I find this article very encouraging and promising. I am concerned with not only representation in the media, but also representation “behind the scenes,” like the various individuals highlighted in this article. Thank you for leading the way for people like me!

  7. September 3, 2007, 1:08 am Davan S. Mani

    This one is for Veena Sud. I would think you can include Indians from the past in Cold Case. I know a story about a jewlery salesman who got killed in hotels from the 1970’s or exchange students.

    My favorite is a suicide that happened in Charlotte, NC around 1962. A high school senior killed himself with a .410 shotgun inside of a parked car at a dead end street. Police say there was a note and diary in the car indicating dispondency. But did he do it, was it an accident to cover up as a suicide or murder.

  8. April 30, 2008, 11:35 pm Max

    3 Points
    1. There are americans and South East asians, the premise “south east asian american” itself is worng and stupid.
    2. Even people who live in India do not have clue as to what Indian culture is, food, clothes and language are not a representation of “Indian” culture. “Dhoti” and “Saree” – anybody can wear’em, don’t mean nothing.
    3. Advancing your self interest, pretending that you represent “Indian Culture” when all you have is a last name and did some cheap indian clothes shopping – SHAME ON YOU

  9. May 11, 2008, 6:20 pm AtMax

    Hey Max….umm shut up! You make a lot of dumb assumptions. How do you know how much they know about Indian culture or if they bought “cheap” clothes? Please have some respect when you say something or shut up.