“I’m a Delhite who went to St Columba’s, and one fine day, I ended up on the biggest TV show in America. It’s actually quite hilarious, if you look at it one way,” says Kunal Nayyar, better known to the world as geeky Indian scientist Rajesh Koothrapalli of The Big Bang Theory.
A lead on the highest-rated American sitcom currently running and easily one of the funniest Indians in the world—at least one of the most famous funny Indians in the world—Nayyar, at 33, already has enough material for a memoir. Because unlike Kal Penn (The Namesake), Mindy Kaling (The Office), Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), or any of the multitude of other Indian actors who’ve made a mark on American television in recent years, Nayyar isn’t an American-born desi.
He was born in London to Indian parents—his father is an accountant and his mother, an interior designer—who relocated to Delhi when he was five. Nayyar was raised in Delhi and educated at St Columba’s, the prestigious all-boys school attended by Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi, where acting wasn’t really at the top of his mind. “In school, I was busy playing badminton and chasing girls. I hated studying and only wanted to play sports. I was a normal Delhi boy, in that sense, who wanted to be a rockstar or Aamir Khan when he grew up,” he laughs.
After high school, at the age of 18, Nayyar moved to the United States to pursue a business degree at University of Portland, Oregon. It was there that he caught the acting bug. Nayyar first enrolled in acting classes at the university for recreational reasons, participating in several school plays. But after one of his plays was selected for the regional round of the prominent American College Theater Festival, things quickly became serious.
“I believed that I was really good in the regionals but the judges gave me a firing for being incompetent,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe that! That moment motivated me to go back home and work hard on my skill, so I could go back and win the competition. And four years later, I won the national round too.”
By then, Nayyar had already enrolled in a Masters’ program in Acting at Temple University in Philadelphia. After graduation, he acted in a few plays, and only had a one-off role as an Iraqi terrorist on an episode of the crime drama NCIS, before he auditioned for The Big Bang Theory in the summer of 2007. He was 26 then.
“One of the reasons I probably got the role was because I had just come out of graduate school after three years of training, and I was bursting with all this confidence,” Nayyar chuckles. “I had done a little play in England before that and was just getting started in LA. And I think I was just young enough and clueless enough to not understand the magnitude of the audition at that moment, and that really helped me. Because I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I just went there and did my thing, and felt great about it.”
Nayyar took on the role—originally meant for an Asian actor and initially named Ramayan David—head on, and in the seven years since, The Big Bang Theory, co-created by Two and a Half Men and Dharma & Greg creator Chuck Lorre, went on to become a ratings, viewership and syndication juggernaut, with the actor pulling in a reported salary of $75,000 per episode.
So yes, it is definitely a story worth writing about, and while it has its twists and turns, Nayyar believes it is at heart a funny story. “Well it’s not funny ‘ha-ha’, but ‘I can’t believe this happened to me’ funny,” he says. “I mean, I’m so happy that I’ve achieved everything that I always wanted. But the truth is, I fake reality for a living… it’s not exactly rocket science! So you’ve got to have the ability to laugh at yourself. I’m not saying that acting is easy—it can be torturous at times—but if you look at it from the outside, it is a celebration of life, and like life, humour is at its core.”
In his book, you can expect anecdotes about Nayyar cleaning toilets in Portland, being held up for 76 cents in Philadelphia, playing a terrorist on his first TV gig, playing a Star Wars board game for 36 hours straight, and then one day going on to marry a former Miss India.
Of course, the irony of that last part hasn’t escaped Nayyar’s fans. For a guy who got rich and famous playing a character who can’t so much as talk to women sober, and is the only one of The Big Bang Theory’s four leads to not be in a relationship—ever—he’s married a gorgeous former model, who represented India at the Miss Universe pageant in 2006.
“I have to admit there are things about this and about marriage in general that are hilarious,” says Nayyar, “but I find it funnier that people continue to confuse me with Raj Koothrapalli. When people meet me, they go, ‘Oh My God! You can talk to women! Oh My God! You are normal! Oh man! Are you actually wearing a jacket?’ Yes I am! Because I’m a normal person and what I do on the TV show is called ‘acting’!”
Even though this conversation with Nayyar is happening over the phone, as he’s currently in Los Angeles shooting the seventh season of his sitcom, it’s quite obvious the actor is a naturally-gifted comic. All his answers have a punch line, and when he says something funny, he doesn’t just say it, he delivers it. And it’s all effortless. Nayyar doesn’t need to try to make you laugh; he’s just funny as they come and the jokes run fast and loose.
He may always have been a funny guy, but Nayyar admits that a lot of his comedy has been shaped by the show and by American pop culture in general over the past decade-and-a-half.
It is a kind of humour that he calls ‘language-based’. “There is a huge difference between what India finds funny and what America finds funny,” he explains.
“I think there’s such a British influence on India, in terms of comedy, that everything that you see in Indian pop culture is more farcical and physical. In Indian comedy, the way it happens is that someone gets slapped in the face, his eyes widen and there is a music cue that goes (mimics the sound) ‘pyunnnn’. And that’s when you laugh. In America, comedy is more about setups and language.”
“There’s a rhythm or even poetry in the way comedy is written and delivered in America. A lot of the humour lies in this rhythm of the language. Every joke here is a 1-2-3-sentence set-up joke. For example, sometimes you might not understand the science stuff that’s being said in The Big Bang Theory, but because of the circumstances of the characters, and the set-up leading up to it in the language, when the punch-line is delivered, you will laugh.”
Having delivered this impressive soliloquy, Nayyar takes a breath, and then instinctively proceeds to deliver the punchline he has just set up: “I hope this is making sense. But I think the bottomline is that getting slapped in the face is hilarious in every country.” Like he promised, you laugh.
With his fluency in American humour, combined with an instinct for the farcical elements of Indian comedy, Nayyar now counts himself among the growing ranks of Indian-origin actors on American television shows, most of whom are funny. And humour may just be the key to overcoming the stereotyping and discrimination that Indian actors before Nayyar have spoken out against—from Aasif Mandvi, who wrote about the ‘whitewashing’ phenomenon in Hollywood for Salon.com, to Kal Penn, who criticised the thinly-concealed xenophobia of Joel Stein’s notorious 2010 Time article, ‘My Own Private India’.
A couple of months ago, Kal Penn joked on Twitter about the way Brown actors are often confused with each other: ‘Creepy Australian Guy: Whoa, are you Russell Peters?! Me: No, I’m Kunal Nayyar. Creepy Australian Guy: I love Parks & Rec! Me: High 5!’ Penn is in fact one of the leads of the multi-million dollar comedy film franchise Harold and Kumar.
But the truth is, with Mindy Kaling writing and starring in her own sitcom The Mindy Project, Aziz Ansari becoming one of the biggest stand-up phenomena in North America, and actors like Danny Pudi (Community), Adhir Kalyan (Rules of Engagement) and Hannah Simone (New Girl) playing highly visible, well-liked supporting parts in top-rated sitcoms, now is a great time for Indian comic actors in America.
Nayyar agrees: “When it comes to diversity with regard to Indian actors in American entertainment, I believe that bridge has been crossed. People ask me, ‘Why do you think it happened?’ My version is that if you go anywhere in America today, be it a grocery store or a restaurant or even your work place, wherever you look, you’ll see Indians. America has always been a melting pot of cultures, and today, with Indian doctors and scientists and lawyers and engineers, we are definitely a huge part of that pot. We are highly visible people and we are upsetting Americans as a society (laughs), so when you see Indians on American TV, it’s not a stretch, it’s reality.”
“Where I’m concerned,” he continues, “I believe that America is no longer ignorant about India or Indians. How can they be? There was a sitcom on NBC a couple of years ago, called Outsourced, only about Indians.”
While comedy may have been the overriding reason for the acceptance of Indian actors in Hollywood, as well as the cause of Nayyar’s humongous success, he isn’t satisfied doing just that. With the likelihood of The Big Bang Theory reaching its conclusion in the next three years, Nayyar is already planning for life after the show, and has his eyes set on direction, producing and teaching.
His first effort in this direction is Sushrut Jain’s cricket-based documentary, Beyond All Boundaries, which premiered in India at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival, and is produced and narrated by Nayyar.
He believed in the film because, being a huge cricket fan, he has always found that India is starved of good cricket content beyond just matches. “To me, cricket is not just a game, but a beautiful symbol for people’s dreams and their future,” he says. “Indian cricket fans have so many hopes and dreams riding on the game, that I really found it glorious to see a film about the impact of the game in the way it can shape our lives or even destroy it.”
As the documentary travels to festivals across the world to much critical acclaim, Nayyar will continue exploring different creative outlets, with his focus staying on his sitcom, his two upcoming films—the comedy Dr. Cabbie and the thriller The Scribbler—and on voicing the animation series Sanjay and Craig for Nickelodeon. He is open to Bollywood offers too, and would love to be in films like “3 Idiots, Barfi or Cheeni Kum, which are poignant comedies—the genre I love.”
But for the most part, Nayyar would be happy just to be home every night with his wife and some butter chicken. “It’s funny that after shooting for four hours and finishing an episode of The Big Bang Theory that maybe over the course of the future will be seen by 500 million people, all I like doing is coming home and eating butter chicken,” he says. “Like, I’ll heat up the butter chicken, put a little tadka on the dal and I’ll chew it, while watching music videos all night. People think I lead this glamorous life, but really, all I want is kebabs and butter chicken for the rest of my life, and I’ll be happy forever.” For once, he sounds completely serious.
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 16, 2013
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