It is now a well-established fact that Indian American actors, from Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory to Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, are making a splash on American TV. But over the past few years, some Indian writers have slowly climbing their way to the top of the Hollywood ladder and it’s not an uncommon sight today to see Indian names in the ‘Written by’ credits of a TV series. From Luvh Rakhe in The New Girl to Vali Chandrasekaran in Modern Family, Indian origin writers are becoming a familiar part of the TV scene.
One of the youngest such writers, 29-year-old Sneha Koorse, has a CV that would be the envy of most writers. In the few years since she graduated from the University of Southern California, she’s won the prestigious Slamdance Film Festival Writing Competition, worked with legendary writer-directors like JJ Abrams (Star Trek) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) on the show, Believe; written on the critically acclaimed FX show, The Americans, and is currently working with The Dark Knight writer, David S. Goyer on a DC Comics show, Constantine. In a Google Hangout interview, Sneha gives the dirt on what it is like working as a writer in Hollywood.
How do you get a job on a DC Comics show? One would imagine you’d have to pass a geek test before it! We are all geeks in our own way. It wasn’t so much about being a comic book geek, but being able to appreciate the character and what stories of our own we could tell with this particular character. We have a good mix of people, some of whom read all the Hellblazers back when they came out, others who were just being introduced to the character and comics. It’s good to have a variety of perspectives.
Is it easy to write for a fan favourite comic book like Constantine? Especially one that is even more fantastical than other comic books. Some of the comic issues are really best suited for the comic book format and aren’t easily adaptable to television. Some issues are so fantastical – like tripping through different dimensions and all that – it might not feel grounded on a series. But the issues are all incredibly imaginative, and the writers have created this great character that you just want to spend time with. The challenge is in taking this uniquely appealing character and finding a story structure that fits the television format.
You’ve worked on Constantine with writing legend David S. Goyer. Earlier, you’ve worked with JJ Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron. What have you picked up from these greats? They are all legends and so different from one another! What they all have are strong points of view. I think that’s the biggest thing. Having a vision and being able to communicate that vision with confidence. The idea-generating part of their brains is also very strong. It’s like a muscle that has been strengthened with years of practice.
The other common theme in your career seems to be that you’ve only worked on gritty shows. What’s the fascination with the darker side of things? (Laughs) I am a very happy person so I wouldn’t say that’s come from anything I have experienced in my life. But I’ve always been fascinated by why human beings are bad and what are the emotions behind them doing something ‘evil’. I’ve always been curious to try and understand them. I have also always been attracted to things where the stakes are raised to life and death. For example, In The Americans, the fact that any decision the lead characters take could lead to death is more interesting to me than a break up (smiles).
The Americans was the first major TV series you were hired for. How did you manage to start your career with a niche cable series, which area far harder to break into? I had written a bunch of stuff – some feature length scripts, some TV pilots, episodes of Homeland and Breaking Bad – that I applied to the showrunners with. But I think it all comes down to being in a room with them and connecting to them as a writer. Although my interview with them was over the phone, I think when you are speaking to another writer and if you are passionate about being a writer and about the subject matter, they can see that. They can see that writing means something to you.
I think what worked for me was the fact that I was an immigrant and that my parents had an arranged marriage just like the Russian spies in The Americans. In it, the lead characters fall in love after 17 years of arranged marriage. And the fact that I wasn’t from this culture really helped me. Funnily, I have contributed more in terms of the action on the show, because I love writing action. I also somewhat excel in writing torture scenes, which has kind of become a joke now (laughs).
In The Americans, the fact that you are an immigrant worked in your favour. But as a female writer and as an Indian-origin writer in an industry predominantly dominated by white males, did you face a tough time breaking in before this show? For Believe, the room was about 50% females because the show creator Mark Friedman wanted a strong female perspective for our young female lead. And on Constantine, there are several diverse writers regardless of quota or subject matter. It seems to be about the writing. Every show is different. And you just hope that your show runner is smart, socially aware, and seeking perspectives other than his or her own. I’ve been lucky, as far as who has hired me.
So would you say that Hollywood is now embracing change when it comes to diversity in the writers room? I would say, yes and no. You know, you can count the number of female showrunners in Hollywood – Meredith Stiehm of The Bridge, Ann Biderman of Ray Donovan, Jenji Cohen of Orange is the New Black, Mindy Kaling. It’s still some time to go before there is balance between white male-dominated rooms and diverse rooms. The thing is that white writers have traditionally tried to work with friends so they can sort of have a room where they can be unapologetic, and don’t have to be politically correct or be aware of women in the room. When there is another perspective they can’t be who they are. It’s been a boys club so they are just more comfortable making jokes and not having to be diplomatic. But that’s changing because there is now a drive to hire more female writers and more writers of colour. Of course, if you are not a good writer you will not be able to stand the test of time.
Do you think such drives of diversity quotas are a good sign for writers? Doesn’t it mean we are still not at the point where great writers would be hired irrespective of the colour of their skin? I think it’s complicated. I think quotas still exist because they’re still needed in a predominantly white male industry. People tend to hire who they know. However, people are also more accepting that diversity provides the kind of perspective needed for complex writing. The great thing about television right now is that there are so many niche markets that these diverse perspectives can take center stage.
So ever plan on writing or making anything in India? Definitely. India is a rich setting for stories. I have some stories set there, but with some American characters as well. A clash between the two cultures, or any story that involves an interweaving of the two cultures, would best represent me, since I’ve grown up in the U.S. but I’m still connected to my Indian heritage. If I was ever to write an epic, maybe I would look to a Bollywood film. They’re sprawling stories!
Sometime last year, Indian-American actor Kal Penn (The Namesake) tweeted, “Creepy Australian Guy: Whoa, are you Russell Peters?! Me: No, I’m Kunal Nayyar. Creepy Australian Guy: I love Parks & Rec! Me: High 5!” It was a joke alright, but Penn, who is arguably the best-known Indian actor in Hollywood, having starred in the hit Harold and Kumar trilogy, made a strong point about how brown-skinned actors still have a long way to go before a white-skinned audience gives them the acknowledgement they so deserve.
Less than two years later, Creepy Australian Guy may as well be the minority audience, because one look at the current film and TV landscape, and it’s all but clear that young Hollywood has a new mantra: diversity. This could perhaps be because of the tremendous talent that South Asians have to offer, or this could simply be sound business sense – as the world continues shrinking, South Asian audiences need to be appeased because of their enormous numbers and their healthy buying power.
But if, at the time they went about finding a foothold in Hollywood, Penn, Nayyar (The Big Bang Theory), Peters (stand-up comedian) and Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreations), along with a handful of others, most prominently writer-actor Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), subverted the norm, they may well part of the reason that diversity is the norm today. Of course, Hollywood may now grapple with other kind of absurdities – like which minor community talent (among Asians, South Asians and Latinos) to go with in which project – but the good news is, the door of opportunity is now wide-open.
And so, as young Indians in Hollywood firmly make their presence felt in mainstream American projects on every creative turf, from writing to acting, the challenge has now shifted from finding a voice for the community to finding bigger platforms for the voice to reach a global audience. “I think it is the responsibility of every generation to improve upon the ways and perceptions of the last one, and I want to do that with India in Hollywood,” says Adi Shankar, 29-year-old producer of films like Mark Wahlberg-starrer Lone Survivor and Liam Neeson-starrer The Grey, who was recently voted among the most influential global Indian men in a men’s interest magazine.
“Korean films compete on an Indian level, why can’t ours? I’m committed to putting our films in the international spotlight,” he adds. Actor Tiya Sircar, who has acted opposite comic legends Owen Wilson and Matthew Perry in Hollywood blockbusters, is excited about the evolving cinematic landscape of India too. “You look at a Kalki Koechlin, who is not necessarily from India, being accepted purely on talent, or The Lunchbox working just as well in India as it did internationally, and as an actor, that’s such great news for me. I want to contribute to the change too,” she says.
Indo-Russian actor Annet Mahendru, who is a series regular on spy drama, The Americans, on the other hand, is miffed that she loses out on Indian roles because she looks “ethnically ambiguous’, and this conundrum is echoed by actor-director Natasha Chandel too. As Hollywood becomes cosmopolitan and moves beyond stereotypes, this urge among young Indians to artistically express the Indian side of their blood is perhaps going to be the driving force of the global Indian identity over the next decade.
Director Shripriya Mahesh puts things in perspective, “I may not have lived in India for a long time now, but I consider myself very Indian. I have many stories inside me, but the one that I feel like I have to make is set in India; it is never possible to truly move away from your country.”
Here’s a look at some of the young Indians in New Hollywood:
ADI SHANKAR, 29 Creative Producer, Multi-Hyphenate, Rebel with a cause Claim to Fame: Producer of Dredd, The Grey, Lone Survior, Killing Them Softly What he’s upto next: Producing the all-female ‘Expendabelles’, the Dredd animated miniseries and acting in five-odd films. Check out his Power/Rangers Unauthorized Bootleg Universe short film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vw5vcUPyL90
He is a creator not a businessman or producer. It blew my find finding out that at the time of the homoerectus, there was another humanoid species. They didn’t survive because our ancestors were creators: when it rained, we created shelter; when it got cold, we created fire. Creation is the reason our species is alive so the fact that there are dudes who want to chill behind a desk all day makes me sad.
He was inspired to make his own rules. I was misdiagnosed with cancer when I was 18. Three weeks after that the doctors said, ‘We are sorry! We screwed up!’ I realized that no one really knows what they’re talking about. Before, it was like, you would go to one place, you’d learn what’s cool, polite and right, and then, at another place, you’d be asked to adapt again. But after that, I stopped giving a f**k.
The West welcomed him with open arms, when his people didn’t. I don’t spend a lot of time in India because they people there used to think I’m a screw-up, and they’d ask me to give up films. But I never gave up. I was discouraged by other brown people that they don’t like brown faces in Hollywood, which is just bullsh*t. Me being brown has had absolutely bearing, I was accepted here completely. You know what’s a problem? Being White and from Ohio, because then you are competing with everybody.
His eyes are set on India now. I’m presenting Gangs of Wasseypur internationally because I’m committed to taking our people into global spotlight. We have very interesting stories to tell beyond couples who can’t get together because of their fathers. Anurag Kashyap, Vasan Bala and others are doing some fantastic stuff in the independent scene. I want to deconstruct the stereotypes about our people and I will sure as hell do that from here. I even want to cast an Indian actress in Expendebelles!
ANNET MAHENDRU , 25 Actor, Indo-Russian, 20-something, stunner Claim to Fame: Playing Nina Sergeevna Krylova on Cold war spy drama/thriller, The Americans You can see her next in: Penguins of Madagascar, Sally Pacholok & Bridge and Tunnel in movies; and Season 3 of The Americans on Star World Premiere
[Read a larger interview I have done with Annet Mahendru for The Sunday Guardian here: https://tanejamainhoon.com/2014/11/10/annetmahendruinterview/]
She considers herself to be a ‘gypsy girl’. I remember hiding in the bathroom in Afghanistan as war went on outside. In Russia, during the cold war, people were fascinated with me because I was the rare foreign-looking kid. In Germany, I picked up Indian culture from my father’s siblings. In New York, I grew up having friends from all ethnicities. I got cast in The Americans because the creator thought I had the background of a spy!
She wants to do transformative stories. I thin human beings are capable of anything and I would like to access that in my work and in my storytelling. I want to have the ability to transform beyond me and my personal beliefs. Nina is a KGB officer and yet she’s able to connect with people across the world even when she’s being a double agent, because ultimately it’s about being human.
Hollywood doesn’t believe she’s Indian. It’s hard to get people to break stereotypes and look past your appearance. They think Russians have blue eyes and blond hair so pre-The Americans, I’d not get cast as a Russian. I never get Indian roles because they have a certain idea of what an Indian looks like and they aren’t able to ethnically categorise me. I want to move beyond ethnicity in casting.
She is dying to work in Bollywood. When I was 5 and guests would come to our house, I’d put on my Indian dress and dance to ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai’ for them (laughs). I love Shah Rukh Khan and everything from Devdas to Chennai Express. I have explored my Russian side now, so I’m thirsty to explore and express my Indian side. Help me!
KARAN SONI, 25 Actor, funnyman, future sitcom star Claim to Fame: Jurassic World director’s Sundance-award winning film Safety Not Guaranteed and IT comedy, Beta Watch him next in: Paul Feig’s sitcom, Other Space, and Jack Black-starrer Goosebumps, among others
He went to school in LA because of The OC. I would watch The OC and think, ‘Wow! What a magical world!’ I secretly applied to colleges here after watching it. When I did tell my parents, they thought I was doing business studies here! I kept tricking them until I had to tell them that I am studying theatre, and even then I lied to them saying I’ll be a producer because they never thought I could be an actor. But now they’re super on board, and even have google alerts on me.
His worst audition is definitely is definitely one of the worst auditions ever. In my first audition, they asked me to play a terrorist, gave me a plastic AK 47 and a scene where a white woman is crying, ‘Why are you doing this’ and there’s a bomb about to go off. I was asked to pray *anything* in Hindi that sounds scary and them my character is shot. It was the most horrifying experience of my life (laughs).
Safety Not Guaranteed’s Aubrey Plaza is his cool friend and Jake Johnson is his weird uncle. Working with Aubrey and Jake was like the best acting class in comedy ever. Aubrey is so cool, she once called me to her house for a board game night and I walked in to find Michael Cera there, and the three of us played ‘Apples to Apples’ all night long. And Jake’s like this cool, weird older uncle, who I’d have discussions on life with and who’d force me to drink whiskey and stuff and I’d refuse!
He’s ultimately a Delhi boy who likes Karan Johar movies. I’m a big Shah Rukh Khan fan. I love Bollywood and I love Karan Johar kind of movies; my favourite is Kal Ho Na Ho. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do a song-and-dance movie, no one will buy me as a Bollywood hero. I’d love to continue working in TV because I love playing the same character for a long period of time, and of course, having a job for 9 months of the year too.
NATASHA CHANDEL, 30 Actor, Host, Digital Creative, Multi-tasker Claim to Fame: Her web series Mumbai Chopra that she created, produced, directed and starred in, and hosting MTV News What she’s upto next: Directing and produced the web series, The Can Check out the full series, Mumbai Chopra here: https://www.youtube.com/user/MumbaiChopra
Her first short film won awards everywhere. My very first camera gig when I was a 17 year old in Canada. It was a short film called Pria, about an Indian girl who uses her love for the movies to tell this boy that she loves her. The film went to over 15 film festivals worldwide and won a lot of awards and got me my first meeting with NBC in the US. People would even ask me to quote lines from the film all the time. It was surreal!
She did everything on Mumbai Chopra. I grew up watching sitcoms and Russell Peters and I have always just preferred comedies because I’m a happy person. I created Mumbai Chopra as a spinoff of Paris Hilton. She is a socialite with a good heart, who could be the daughter of a spiritual guru. I was working with MTV News at the time, so had to write, produce, direct, fund, and act in this in my off time.
Casting directors find it hard to think of her as an Indian.
I’ve been going to a lot of auditions for Hispanic and ethnically ambiguous roles because casting directors don’t believe I am Indian. They usually think an Indian is a dark-skinned or quirky looking person. Once, a casting director said, ‘How can you be Indian? You are pretty!’ I was so angry… I mean, have you even seen our people? They are some of the prettiest in the world!
She wants to be a comedy showrunner. I made Mumbai Chopra because I wanted to make a show where people would realise that Americans and Indians are not all that different. I wanted to create someone who’d be funny for American audiences. Also, the only way to change the status quo for Indians is to write our own stuff. I love creating and I love comedy, so my dream is to be the next Mindy Kaling or the next Tina Fey.
SANJAY SHAH Writer, Producer, Occasional stand-Up comedian, All-round storyteller Claim to Fame: Writing/producing Courtney Cox’s Cougar Town He last worked on: Military comedy Enlisted. What he’s upto currently: Producing and writing on ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat
He started off in politics! My dad was an engineer for 25 years before he decided to be a small businessman and get a Burger King franchise. I started my career as a legislative aide at the California State Capitol. I worked for a state assemblyman. But I really wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and I also wanted to have a family. Writing for comedies on TV was a pretty good compromise.
He’s had an eventful Hollywood career. In 2007, I wrote an episode of King of the Hill called ‘Grand Theft Arlen’, and threw a party because I was so excited. Since then, I wrote for Trey Parker and Matt Stone at South Park, became a writer/producer (which means you have more responsibility running the writers room on occasion, giving notes on cuts of episodes, communicating with executives and actors, etc), sold a semi-autobiographical comedy that didn’t get picked to series but helped me buy a house, and almost got run over by Mel Brooks once.
He’s never faced racism. People don’t care what you look like behind the camera. Every year that I’ve done this, Hollywood has gotten more diverse both in front and behind the camera. I think it’s a good thing. Why Indian actors may get stereotyped on TV shows just comes down to the writers. I think there’s lazy writers and then there are good writers. Good writers can nail the nuances.
He would love to write for Indian TV… or not. I’m very interested in writing for Indian television. I would love to write a show about a daughter who doesn’t get along with her mother-in-law. Do you guys have anything like that already?
SHRIPRIYA MAHESH Filmmaker, Entrepreneur, Mother-of-twins extraordinaire Claim to Fame: Directed a short film starring James Franco and Jessica Chastain that will release in December as part of an anthology, The Colour of Time What she’s directing next: Varenya, an international feature film to be shot in India
She’s used to manage a $400 million business for eBay before films. I wanted to be a photographer at 7, but growing up in Chennai, I realised that if I wanted to pursue something creative, I had to first find a way to support and sustain myself. So I got into Harvard Business School, then eventually into eBay. Only when I got engaged to someone in New York, I decided to do a three month intensive filmmaking course at NYU. I loved it so much that I got into filmmaking.
She believes working in tech is a lot like working in films. In tech, I was doing something creative too – coming up with an idea for a product and making it happen, which is like films. Also, like films, in tech, the last 10% takes up 60% of the time. It can get overwhelming but you push towards perfection, because millions will sample your product. That training has helped me in films.
She took a James Franco class on Directing Poetry at Tisch School of Arts James insisted that we shoot our entire short films with temporary locations and actors, in the exact same way, before shooting the actual film. He does that with every film he directs too. So you get to see what works, what doesn’t, what angles need to be changed; and you save time, effort and money on the actual shoot.
Dev Benegal is producing her first full-length feature film. We became friends through an acquaintance, so when I wrote Varenya, I coerced him to produce it. He loved it, read each draft, came to every pitch session, and has been a fantastic producer. The film is personal so I want to make it right. I would rather take time and make a good film than make an average film fast.
She has worked for legends like JJ Abrams, Alfonso Cuaron and David S. Goyer already. They are all legends and so different from one another! I think the biggest thing is that they all have strong points of view and a vision that they are able to communicate with confidence. The idea-generating part of their brains is also very strong. It’s like a muscle that has been strengthened with years of practice.
She is fascinated by the dark side of things. I am a happy person but I’ve always been attracted to things where the stakes are raised to life and death. I like exploring what makes human being be and do bad. My family had to emigrate from Kuwait because of the Gulf War so perhaps it is to do with hearing stories about that. It’s become a joke in The Americans writing room now that I love writing action and torture scenes.
She’s made it even as an Indian in a white male-dominated TV writing environment. People tend to hire who they know and usually its white males because they can have a boys club in the writing room, where they don’t have to be politically correct when making jokes. However, people are also more accepting that diversity provides the kind of perspective needed for complex writing. Eg. I got hired on The Americans because my parents had an arranged marriage just like the spies on the show.
She is looking towards India next. India is a rich setting for stories. I’d love to do a coproduction between two countries; a story about a clash between two cultures, or that involves an interweaving of the two cultures, would best represent me, since I’ve grown up in the U.S. but I’m still connected to my Indian heritage.
TIYA SIRCAR, 32 Actor, comic star, next big thing Claim to Fame: The Internship with Owen Wilson & Vince Vaughn, 17 Again with Zac Effron and Matthew Perry You can see her next in: Sabine in the animated series Star Wars Rebels and the lead in movie Miss India America
She was cast as the female Barney in How I Met Your Dad. (Laughs) If you had to draw parallels, that’s the closest one I guess. I played Juliette Banerjee, a no-holds barred, unapologetic and sassy girl, who was such a departure from the sweet and cute roles I get to play because Indian women are usually not given roles that are too ‘liberated’, right? It was a really fun character and I wish the show had been picked up, but it was a privilege to get to play it.
She’s worked with comic legends Robin Williams, Owen Williams, Vince Vaughn and Matthew Perry. When I was sitting opposite Matthew Perry in the first table read of 17 Again, I almost got a heart attack! And Robin Williams (in The Crazy Ones) was obviously such a legend. I mean, these guys are the best at what they do. To get to actually do comedy with them and get a free master class in improve comedy from them was surreal.
She’s made it big by overcoming a lot stereotypes. Hollywood at present is more willing to make a male character on a TV show Indian than a female. I was once finalized for a supporting role in Whitney but it had come down to whether they should make the male best friend Indian or the female best friend Indian and they went with male because that’s more user friendly. There are more Kunal Nayyars and Aziz Ansaris than Mindy Kalings.
She has a good head on her shoulders. Getting my family to come to the premiere of The Internship was a special moment for me. I just hope it made my father feel that her kid has a legitimate career and isn’t just chasing a pipe dream. My mom’s proud of me but always asks me not to get into trouble by putting my thoughts on issues out on social media. I think social media can be used for a lot more than just selfies and what you eat for breakfast so if I see any injustice or believe in a cause, I would definitely talk about it on Twitter.