The Indian women blazing a trail on US TV
These actresses show there's more to Indian characters on US TV than just arranged marriages
With diversity in Hollywood still an issue, there is some cause for celebration as casting agents and producers appear more open to the ethnicity of their lead characters.
And this TV season, that means lead roles for actresses of South Asian descent.
Earlier this week, Viola Davis cemented her place in history after becoming the first African American woman to win an Emmy for Lead Actress.
Davis' beautiful speech touched on the need for diversity in Hollywood.
She said: "You cannot win Emmys for roles that are simply not there."
It is great that it finally happened, but that it has taken until 2015 to happen puts a slight cloud over the celebrations.
Of course, Indian characters are not usually well served in Hollywood. While there have been several notable roles for Indians, they usually fall into certain tropes.
Even then, they may not be played by actual Indians.
Since the 90s, one of the more recognisable Indians on the small screen was Indian mart owner Apu on The Simpsons.
He spoke in a stereotypically Indian manner — and was voiced by white actor Hank Azaria.
One can only imagine the outrage if they tried a similar casting decision today.
In 2006, the now-cancelled American TV series Outsourced also featured a primarily Indian cast that played heavily to stereotypes.
Top-rated sitcom Big Bang Theory features British Indian actor Kunal Nayyar as Raj Koothrappali. Again, he plays the typical "Indian nerd" complete with thick accent and inability to talk to girls.
Fortunately, there appears to be a shift as there are now considerably fleshier, more complex and realistic roles for actors of Indian descent.
Hollywood – especially on the small screen – is seeing more lead roles been given to Indian actresses.
Here are some who are making an impact in Hollywood right now:
After Bollywood success, actress Priyanka Chopra now has a foot in Hollywood with the hotly anticipated drama, Quantico.
Chopra plays Alex Parrish, part of a diverse group of fresh FBI recruits.
Like other popular shows such as How to Get Away With Murder and Arrow, Quantico jumps between two timelines. (Almost a decade and we are still suffering the Lost hangover).
In the present, Parrish is investigated as the prime suspect of a deadly terrorist attack in New York.
She then has to figure out who among the recruits is responsible.
The FBI recruits in Quantico are diverse - they include a gay character as well as a Muslim hijab-wearing woman played by Yasmine Al Massri.
But with Chopra's face on billboards along US highways for the heavily-promoted show, her lead status is clear.
In the premiere episode, Parrish is strong, sexy and confident.
So when Parrish, just like other lead actresses on TV, is in charge of her sexuality, it is a welcome change to the stereotypical Indian woman.
In the premiere, Parrish has a quickie with a stranger she meets on the plane.
In an almost inevitable twist, the stranger turns out to be an FBI recruit.
When they meet again in front of other recruits, he pretends that they have never met.
With swagger, Parrish reminds him: "We just had sex six hours ago". You go, girl.
Chopra might just be the best part of Quantico, No mean feat in a show full of heart-stopping, jaw-dropping twists.
Despite the rapid developments, it is Chopra's character that keeps viewers grounded as she brings a level of vulnerability and presence to the screen.Premiering on Sept 28, it airs every Monday at 9.45pm on AXN (StarHub TV channel 511).
Meanwhile, American born Mindy Kaling is also breaking boundaries for Indian entertainers in Hollywood by writing and starring in her own critically-acclaimed show The Mindy Project.
Kaling too has no qualms about showing off her sexuality. Her character, Mindy Lahiri, proclaims her love for sex – and alcohol.
Another refreshing change is that Mindy is unapologetically confident and attractive without being a size zero.
Kaling is the first actress of South Asian descent to have her own TV series – so of course, Indians are clinging on to her for hope that they may finally be represented in a realistic way.
Thankfully, The Mindy Project, now in its fourth season, delivers.
Lahiri, who plays a gynaecologist, is intelligent and yet flawed. Crucially, her ethnicity is not the lynchpin for the entire series, making her extremely relatable not just to Indian women, but women as a whole.
Another actress of South Asian descent is Archie Panjabi, who played Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife.
She left the show earlier this year.
Panjabi won an Emmy award for playing a tough, no-nonsense bisexual investigator to perfection.
The Guardian described her character as a smart and "almost-but-not-quite distractingly sexy".
Panjabi said in an interview with the UK newspaper: "I like the fact that she is a woman of colour and that she's bisexual... Kalinda is Kalinda. And I think that's probably something I wanted to do without realising it. The purpose of her role is not her 'culture'.
"And I think after that, there are more Indian women on TV in America and it is slowly changing," added Panjabi.
Chandra is part of the cast of Code Black, a new medical drama set in the fictional Angels Memorial Hospital.
Time is of the essence as Angels Memorial is meant to be one of the busiest and most notorious ER hospitals in the country.
The TV show, which will air early October, stars Oscar-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden and features Chandra as Malaya Pineda, one of the newer medical residents in the hospital.
Admittedly, she does not enjoy much screen time in the first episode – that honour goes to Harden – but she is seen as intelligent and empathetic.
But Code Black is exciting and has a lot of promise. As with many of these dramas, characters are basic cyphers that will be filled as the series continues.
Thankfully, arranged marriage does not appear to be on the horizon for Chandras' character.
Melanie Chandra. PHOTO: AFPCode Black premieres on SONY Channel (starhub TV Ch 501 and SingTel TV ch 316) on Oct 1. It airs every Thursday at 8.50pm
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