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November 22, 2016

Are Foreign Desis Now Headed Our Way?

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

There are countless tales of the diaspora making their mark overseas in diverse fields, but we examine the slow wave of cross-migration taking place…

Mornings begin with a newspaper and a cup of tea. The other day I almost dropped the hot liquid on myself. The first page — where any self-respecting newspaper should begin with the lead news — had a full-page advertisement with a bearded white man, who at first glance looked vaguely like actor Pierce Brosnan, plugging a brand of paan masala. Couldn’t be I thought. So, I peered closer and realised to my horror that it was indeed the Irish actor who had stolen millions of hearts, first as Remington Steele and later as James Bond.

Was he in the poorhouse? Are Indian ads the last resort for falling international stars? Of those who have been un-Bond-ed? I know there is nothing exclusive about this fact: the news about Brosnan went viral. There he was, like other Bollywood stars such as Ajay Devgn, pushing a very desi and addictive something you put in your mouth — something we all know might not be good for you. And that, too, with the surreal tagline ‘Class never goes out of style’. No irony intended here, which is usually the case in the one-liners mouthed by 007s. There was something oxymoronic about the paan masala tin being held by the actor overtly signalling class with his black bow tie, evening apparel and elegant black cufflinks.

Entrepreneurship muscles
There is a reason for this preamble. The thrust of this issue is Global Indians. One of the more symbolic (and certainly not the first) examples of the Empire striking back and flexing entrepreneurship muscles was Mumbai-born Sanjiv Mehta’s takeover of the legendary, over-400-year-old East India Company (that once ruled us), and relaunching it as a luxury goods company headquartered in London. There are countless Indians and those of Indian descent who have made their mark overseas in diverse fields — ranging from medicine, business, rocket science, politics, the higher echelons of the government, law and, increasingly (and more visibly), the entertainment business.

Second-generation desis have had a longer presence on the small screen in the UK, including Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar in The Kumars at No 42, and earlier Tandoori Nights with the late Zohra Sehgal and Saeed Jaffrey. However, they are fortunately beginning to move away from caricature depictions and stereotypical roles — graduating to larger scripted roles from being mere add-ons. And, beyond, as credits roll after films and TV series, South Asian names can be seen: producers, script writers, directors…. They are now populating primetime TV series the way the obligatory Latinos, Koreans, Italians, Jews and Blacks once did. South Asians began to immigrate to the US in significant numbers in the late 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson encouraged people to come in from all parts of the world. US-born South Asians now form a critical mass. Once limited to nodding, heavily accented characters (Glee, Community, Rules of Engagement….?) they now lead from the front.

The latest headlining example is Priyanka Chopra as an FBI agent on American television with Quantico.

The series rests on her shoulders, and has added another season. She, however, is a desi from our shores. Home-grown, and an export. Similarly, Irrfan Khan and before him Om Puri and a sprinkling of others have and are acting in mainstream international movies. However, preceding Chopra are British and American actors of Indian origin carving huge portions of mainstream American television for themselves.

There’s Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project and the saucy, British actor Archie Panjabi who made quite an impression on the American series The Good Wife and will soon be seen in a leading role in yet another courtroom drama — the ABC series called The Jury. Those who paved the way for actors of Indian origin were film directors like Gurinder Chadha. Her film Bend It Like Beckham not only launched British actor Keira Knightley but also brought into the spotlight Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers and desi Brits like Panjabi and Parminder Nagra. Nagra had successful incarnations across the pond in ER, The Blacklist and Psych.

Cross-migration
The Indian presence is more discernible in the entertainment business, not just in cinema and television but in art and the performing arts: music, theatre and dance. They are also a considerable presence in the business of food, fashion and design. The borders are increasingly porous. And the migration is in both directions. Firangi desis are now headed our way, into the ambit. This trend, too, is more discernible in show business. Now you see why I jumpstarted with Brosnan: the simple rule is ‘Follow the money’.

Bollywood is increasingly being populated by European and American actors, sound engineers, cameramen and music composers. From the long-legged Ukrainian backup dancers to actors with speaking lines — they are also pitching their tents in Bollywood. Most of these imports have been white actors: from Bob Christo to Amy Jackson. Tom Alter doesn’t count: he is a ‘white desi’. But there are other ethnicities coming in, proving Indian cinema is going more international. Salman Khan’s new leading lady in the yet to be released Tubelight is Chinese actor Zhu Zhu.

So yes, Brosnan appears in a very desi ad, and the latest coup: the expression ‘aiyo’ has just entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Enough to exclaim, ‘Aiyo ma!’ Rudyard Kipling must be turning somewhere.

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