Since Raj spoke at length about the power of seeing himself reflected in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None for the “First Time I Saw Me” campaign, we reached out to him to talk to us more about representation and diversity in Hollywood. For ISAASE’s Diversity & Representation Initiative, Raj chatted with ISAASE director Dr. Punita Rice about the importance of representation. Here’s some of the conversation…
Talk to us about South Asians in American media.
There’s been a social norm, [starting with] Apu [Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner from The Simpsons].
Later, when Slumdog Millionaire was popular, it was just like 500 other Indian movies — but at least now, non-Indians are exposed to a side of Bollywood. It put Indians on the map as source material, and won an Oscar… but there are so many better songs than Jai Ho.
How has media representation of South Asians changed?
[Now,] we see people like Aziz [Ansari], or Mindy [Kaling], or even Russell Peters.
It’s because of Harold and Kumar in 2004; standard “guy in a buddy comedy doing something,” but he happens to be Indian. That disrupted the social norm. I just got to pre-screen this show from Hari Kondabolu, The Problem with Apu, and it’s amazing.
What was the biggest support in helping you get involved with the entertainment industry?
I was fortunate to have my parents’ support. My parents were kind of rebellious… they were very supportive of everything. My parents came here in 1979. My mom danced, and my Dad wanted to write. So they were like “we’re not going to stop our kids [from pursuing their interests].”
One time, an aunty said [to my parents], “are you paying for him to watch Netflix and disappoint you?” I remember approaching her at a wedding, and I was like “Yo, thank you — you are so future — thank you for saying ‘Netflix’ and thinking digital.”
But [my] parents let us do whatever the hell we want. A choreographer friend [I] grew up with, from New Jersey, whose parents are like mine,
says, we shouldn’t play by the rules. He says, “if you’re not disrupting the conversation, then what are you even doing?”
What would you say to young people interested in going into the entertainment industry today?
Just start making your own stuff. Spend your after school time in that. You can experiment with stuff, film things with friends. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. Start creating and doing it on your own.
(And when it comes to telling your parents? Present your parents with ideas. But take your time to be so good at something, and then show them your hobby [and show them that] this is what you can do for a living. Remember, they want you to be successful, but they want you to be happy too.)
If you’re like 13 or 14, the good thing now is kids now have materials to [make] whatever the hell they want. You can make things in high definition. You can be your own pre-production, post-production, and distribution arm. You can make your career.
Be consistent, and keep going, going, going. People are able to build their careers by 19 or 20. That’s the beautiful thing about the internet — the sky’s the limit.
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More information about our Diversity & Representation Initiative: ISAASE’s focus on improving South Asian American students is demonstrated in the ongoing Diversity & Representation Initiative, which seeks to help provide diverse stories and representations of South Asian American cultures, experiences, and voices. Through this initiative, we hope to elevate platforms that highlight this diversity. Learn more here.
More information about our “Be Inspired” project:
We believe role models who look like you matter. We believe diverse stories of success matter. And we want to show them to you. #ISAASEinspired is an effort to collect and share profiles and vignettes of South Asian American success stories, including those that break the mold, in order to inspire the next generation. Learn more here.