Aasif Mandvi on the Legacy of Race in America

Aasif Mandavi
Aasif Mandavi

Actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi is a square peg in a round hole. As a person of color, an immigrant Muslim of Indian descent, Mandvi stood little chance of breaking into television and movie industries dominated by white people, especially in post 9-11 America.

With no connections and few professional credentials, except for a one-line role as a doorman on “Miami Vice” and stints doing improv at Disney and playing Aladdin at a children’s theater production, Mandvi moved to New York in 1991 and began auditioning for theater roles.

“We used to get up at five o’clock in the morning, go to Times Square on 46th Street, and line up [along with] 300-400 other actors. You get a number… They call you and you do your monologue or 16 bars of a song,” says Mandvi. “There were no parts that [I could play]. You end up playing just white people. Because in all the plays there were no characters except white people… No monologue that really spoke to my DNA.” 

Although Mandvi landed bit parts in movies and television, he says he quickly realized there was no defined path to achieve the representation he sought on the big screen. 

“When I wrote ‘Sakina’s Restaurant,’ it was sort of the aha moment, the realization that… I was going have to tell my own stories…of my experience of America, to write those [parts] rather than trying to ape somebody else’s experience, or culture… Your life changes as a result of it.”

“Sakina’s Restaurant,” written and directed by Mandvi, first premiered on June 24, 1998, as a one-act play featuring an Indian Muslim immigrant family that owns a restaurant in New York City. Mandvi plays all six characters, both male and female, with just a few props turning from a young Indian immigrant waiter to older Muslim couple that owns the restaurant, to Sakina, their young daughter who is a confused desi struggling with a dual identity.

The play was produced by Mandvi’s acting coach, Wynn Handman, an influential director who taught acting to the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway and Richard Gere, at the American Place Theater in Manhattan (Handman died last year at the age of 97 of complications from Covid). “Sakina’s Restaurant”
received critical acclaim and caught the attention of legendary filmmaker Ismail Merchant, who cast Mandvi in a lead role in “The Mystic Masseur,” based on  Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s novel set in Trinidad.

But Mandvi’s biggest break came when he was plucked out of relative obscurity by Jon Stewart of the “Daily Show.” Mandvi’s portrayal of a Muslim correspondent, the first non-white correspondent on the show, catapulted him from a relatively unknown artist to someone who people knew and recognized. 

“It was post 91, Mandvi points out. “America had undergone a change. And to see a brown guy, a brown face, on TV, in that role, at that moment in time, speaking to the American culture from the vantage point of being an insider and an outsider at the same time… That was huge,” says Mandvi. The satirical news format called bullshit on a lot of rhetoric, says Mandvi, and penetrated the zeitgeist. 

“A Muslim talking about this news [was] a perspective that nobody in America was hearing,” he says. “I’m standing on that fence and talking about Islamophobia and what was going on in the Middle East and here. That wasn’t happening anywhere else. There was no conversation on that. So it was incredible.”

But for Mandvi, his most meaningful role was in 2012 the Obie-award-winning play “Disgraced.” Written by Pakistani American playwright Ayad Akhtar, who later won the Pulitzer for this work, the plot centers on Islamophobia and the self-identity of Muslim American citizens. A casual dinner party turns into a powder-keg of emotions surrounding politics, religion, prejudice. Mandvi plays Amir Kapoor who rejects his Muslim heritage for the sake of his career. 

“That was one of the most phenomenal roles written for a brown man in American theater, the first of its kind in the way that it was written,” says Mandvi. “That role of the lead in … ‘Disgraced’ was probably one of the most fulfilling of work that I didn’t write or create… but used all of me in every way.”

While Mandvi is optimistic about the progress made in American, he says being Muslim is still complicated.

“After 911 suddenly there was a label,” he says. “’Muslim’ became a dirty word, and ‘Muslim’ became a frightening word. Islam became a scary word, and Muslims became synonymous with terrorism.” And yet, this April, Riz Ahmed will become the first Pakistani Muslim to be nominated for an Oscar in a movie. 

We sat down with Mandvi to talk about his childhood and his own journey of self-identity.

Q&A

What was your childhood like, growing up in the UK?

I was born in India, in Mumbai, and my family moved to the north of England, to Bradford, where I grew up. It was a very normal … middle-class childhood. I went to public school, rode my bike around the subdivision, and was a relatively normal Indian kid. It was the ’70s in England. Nothing stands out. Bradford has a large Pakistani population and a large South Asian population…For me it was about discovering acting and performing at a very young age.

You lived in a community of Pakistanis and Indians. While growing up, did you ever feel you were different – as a person of color?

Yes, I dealt with a lot of racism, a lot of bullying, and being made fun of by white English kids. That was a big part of it… I also ended up going to boarding school when I was 13, which had more racial violence…. I did have my [community] of South Asians that my parents were part of, and so, by default, became friends with their kids. [But] they weren’t the kids I went to school with; they were the kids that I got together at South Asian events. I did experience being chased home from school and [being] called a Paki. We all did – South Asian, Indian, Pakistani kids that grew up in that time.

When did you discover that acting was your calling? 

I fell in love with it. But I didn’t really know whether I could make it my career. My parents were not wealthy. My father owned a small business, and a lot of our Indian friends were doctors and had nice houses. They made a lot more money than we did. Life was not always easy. It was a struggle. My dad worked really hard, had a store and would sell paper and plastic bags to Pakistani shopkeepers. He would drive in his van in the dead of winter from one town to the next – a traveling salesman for a while. So life was sometimes hard.

How did you get into to acting?

I told my mom I wanted to be an actor because I saw this movie called “Bugsy Malone,” with Scott Bale and Jodie Foster. It’s a gangster movie, and I told my mom, I want to do that for a living. I never watched Bollywood movies. I saw “Sholay” when I was a kid, and that was about it. [I watched] movies with Paul Newman … “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and “Bugsy Malone” and …that’s what I wanted to do.

You didn’t get pressure to be a doctor, engineer or lawyer? 

I was interested in acting, and, to be fair, I wasn’t a good student. I was good in English but got terrible grades [in math and science], and they didn’t offer drama in high school in England. I always knew there was a performer in me. So [my mom] said, ‘Why don’t you find a local theater company and try things out. I went to the library and [looked up] names of local theater companies… and wrote letters (my mom helped me). One wrote back to me… The Brighouse Children’s Theatre in a town called Brighouse, 10 miles outside of Bradford. I could get there on the bus. I started going there on Wednesday nights… We would do scenes from plays and improv games. That was the beginning. I was 14.

So your parents, especially your mother, helped you chase your dream?

Look, did my parents want me to follow a traditional doctor, lawyer, engineer path? It probably would have been their preference. But I think my mother was smart enough to also recognize that her kid was not an engineer, doctor type, and so she encouraged me. My mother was a woman who had a lot of talents. She could have done a lot of things. She could have been Oprah. Because of who she was and her status in life, the fact that she came from a very conservative Muslim family in Bombay…, married my dad [in an arranged marriage] and [moved] to England…, a lot of her own personal dreams did not get fulfilled. That is common for a lot of South Asian women of her generation. I wrote about this when I did “Sakina’s Restaurant.” I actually did a character that was my mother. There was a direct link between her own dreams being squashed and not being fulfilled …and encouraging me to [pursue my] dreams. Her favorite saying, when I was a kid: The saddest words in the English language are “Too late.”

How did you come to America? 

I took a left at Greenland. That’s the Beatles, isn’t it? John Lennon? … 

The 1980s in England was a mess. Unemployment was high…the National Front …Racism… The economy was bad. My dad wanted to get out of England… I don’t think he knew quite how. One day, he read an ad in the newspaper…[from] a real estate company [offering] to set you up in West Palm Beach, Florida. If you [bought] a home in a brand new subdivision they were building… and a business in the mall they were building, they would … get the business visas and help you emigrate. He fell in love with the place… the sunshine, big houses – America. The land of opportunity … Streets paved with gold … He planned to open a bike shop [although he’d never even ridden a bike] and move to West Palm Beach. His friend persuaded him to go to Tampa instead, where business was booming. So we moved to Tampa. It’s very different now. You can’t do any of this. But back then you could come on a business visa and start a business. And that’s how we came to America. I was 16 and went straight to junior high school.

When did you get your first acting role? 

My first professional job was on the TV show, “Miami Vice.” I was still in school when I auditioned for the part. It was [all of] one line. I borrowed my dad’s car [and] drove from Tampa to Miami, which is about a four-hour drive…, showed up at the casting office, walked in and said the one line. They said, “Thank you very much. That was great.” I got in my car, drove four hours back to Tampa. They called me the next day and said, you got the part.

I was ecstatic. I was so excited. Oh my God… And I remember we shot it on election day the year that George Bush beat Michael Dukakis. It was November 1988 and I shot this scene outside the Biltmore Hotel with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thompson. They were looking for a suspect… They come out of the hotel. And they ask, “Did you see him? Which way did he go?” My line was, “He went that way.” And that was that.

I had a party when it aired. All my friends came over. We all watched [the] whole thing. This was before Twitter and Instagram. So you couldn’t even … share the little video of yourself.

From that one liner in Miami Vice, how did you end up in off-Broadway shows. You are a serious actor. 

I left school to go work at Disney MGM as a street performer in a comedy improv company, then worked at Universal Studios, Orlando theme park. Then I was dating a girl [who was] moving to New York. I was working with the Asolo [Repetory] Theatre in Sarasota, Florida … doing a children’s theater touring company production of “Aladdin.” We would go to preschools, kindergartens and first grade schools, and I played “Aladdin.” So I had my Equity card, and I had my SAG card from “Miami Vice.” I literally just hopped on a train and moved to New York … and just started auditioning and trying for theater.

You did some important work in that period. Who was your biggest influence in those days? 

I don’t know if there were a lot of role models to look up to because when I was starting out in the 1991-92, there were very few brown actors. I didn’t see any other South Asian or Middle-Eastern actors. There was nobody. 

I remember, when I first read in the paper about Sakina Jaffrey, another Indian actor, I wanted to meet her. And when I got into acting school with artistic director Wynn Handman and his acting class. He was a influential teacher for me. Not only that, he helped me develop “Sakina’s Restaurant” and helped me produce that play at his theater. [It] was the biggest thing that happened for me… That took me from zero to one. He was a tremendous person in my life who helped me to get [on] the first step on the ladder.

Let’s talk about an aha moment that changed the trajectory of your life.

Wow. An Aha moment!  I think when I wrote “Sakina’s Restaurant,” when I realized, there isn’t a set avenue for me to walk. I have to basically chop down a lot of trees … and build that road. So in the end, the only people I could look up to were people like Madhur Jaffrey and Ismail Merchant, who I ultimately ended up working with [and] who had also struggled in a previous generation.

I’m having another aha moment right now, where I just became a father. That is a life-changing experience. I started to realize, how much of the way I think about the world has now changed and how I not only think about the world, but … about my relationship to my own creativity and what I want to write about – just based on the fact that I’m now a child’s father. It’s a big moment, I think, for everyone. But also for me…I waited much later in life to [get] married. I spent so much of my life, really [focused] on my own career and myself and now for the first time…thinking about [our child] with the reality of being an older parent … in the middle of a pandemic [the boy was born on March 14, 2020]. So he’s being raised in this world … A very different world … A whole new world. 

We’ll come back to the legacy part, but I wanted to ask you about the famous story about auditioning for “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and being hired on the spot. Why was it such a such a big hit?

Yes, that’s true. I auditioned for “The Daily Show.” It was one of the many auditions that I had. I think often in our business, it’s the job that you don’t care about…, when you are the freest…, [that] you perform the best, because you’re not belaboring it … You end up being just open and free to your own creativity. So I auditioned for this job thinking I don’t care if I get this or not. And Jon hired me on the spot and I was on that night. Then he just kept bringing me back. And I’ve talked about this story a lot, it’s in my book as well, “The Daily Show” was for me personally, a seismic change in my career, because I went from being somebody who was a working actor seen on Broadway and who popped up in movies now and then to somebody who people knew. I was on TV on a regular basis. And it was a different experience for me.

A lot of times in my career, I feel things have happened to me that wasn’t what I was planning. There’s an old adage, “Tell God your plans and listen to him laugh.” I had other plans and along came “The Daily Show.” The same thing happened to me when I was on Broadway. I was in a musical on Broadway in Oklahoma. And I [thought] What the fuck am I doing here? This is not what I envisioned; I’ve gotten to do a lot of things in my career [that I never imagined]. The most defining thing about my career is that I’ve gotten to do a lot of things that I’ve gotten to wear a lot of hats.

I’m thankful for that. Ismail Merchant saying…, I want you to star in my movie. Suddenly, I’m in a Merchant Ivory film… with Om Puri, and shooting in Trinidad. And I’m the star of this movie with Jimmy Mistry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Om Puri, Zora Sehgal and Sakina Jaffrey, and I’m thinking, what am I doing in this movie? And Ismail Merchant is directing it. I’m glad that I have gotten to do a lot of different things. And I’ve gotten so far to do a lot of different things. 

Is there one particular role out of those that  roles you’ve played, that you are most proud of?

Two things I’m most proud of thus far… work that I’m doing currently on “EVIL,” especially this second season, which nobody’s seen yet. I’m very excited about my work there. But outside of my own film…, “Today’s Special,” which was a labor of love, I got to tell a story that I really wanted to tell for a long time and with “Sakina’s Restaurant,” which then led to “Today’s Special.” Telling those stories [was a] cathartic experience … But then in 2012 I got to do “Disgraced” at the Lincoln Center, and it was really new. That role of the lead … was probably one of the most fulfilling works [I’ve done].

You’re still a rarity in mainstream television and Hollywood – a brown actor, Asian American, Indian American.. How do you feel about that? And how do you feel about the lack of representation in mainstream? 

Things have changed. We’re at a moment in history right now, where Riz Ahmed has just been nominated for an Oscar as the first Muslim, the first Pakistani Muslim guy to ever get nominated for an Oscar in a movie. A couple years ago, Dev Patel was nominated for an Oscar as well. And so you seeing more [brown] people… in more roles. Even the role that I get to play on “EVIL” … I wouldn’t have been cast in that role 10 years ago. That role would have gone to a white guy. So things have changed. Today, we do see more diversity, and more willingness to tell stories. 

The more people we have — not only the storytellers, but the gatekeepers of Hollywood – [the better]. Right now, it’s a boon. Right now, being a brown creator or person of color is a great thing to be. 

Now, it could be a fad. In three or four years we could be back to white people again. But I hopewhat has happened is that we’re starting to integrate these stories into an experience that is larger. The emergence of streaming [services] like Netflix and Amazon [is] creating a global audience. When you have a global audience, what you realize is tjat the world is made up of not just Americans.

That is an uncomfortable truth for a lot of people – that there are stories that can speak globally, I’ve never been so excited about where we are right now. 

Is it perfect? No. It isn’t. We need to have more creators, more people telling stories, and more gatekeepers inside the establishment of Hollywood that represent [people of color]. But are we getting to tell stories that we’ve never gotten tell before? Sure. I think I think we are today, there’s a willingness to hear those stories. And, and there’s a market for those stories. 

What’s it Like Being Muslim in America now, How do you break stereotypes.

You see all the hatred that’s going on against the Chinese, the Asian Americans? The direct line between Trump calling [the coronavirus] the China virus and the hate crimes now happening against Asians in this country? The same thing with Black people… I do think that we are in an era where … [we’ve] uncovered the fragility of American democracy… How fragile we are and how our democracy can be taken away from us if we are not diligent about it – and the underbelly of America. 

The election of Barack Obama led to the white supremacy [going] underground, and then erupt with Trump, and now infiltrate the mainstream. You suddenly realize how much race and white supremacy has been a part of American history… We have been talking about Muslims…, those people over there when the reality is that we’ve had a cancer here, under the surface, from the very beginning. 

The only people who have been talking about it are the Black people, and nobody believed that because all the immigrants [didn’t] want to associate with the Blacks. 

All along, the Black people were telling us and we didn’t want to listen to them – that there’s a lot of white supremacy… This shit happens to us. The police are killing us.

But I don’t think we’re gonna go back to 1950s America. I think there’s a woke-ness emerging. Even what happened in the Capitol on January 6 [the attack by supporters of Donald Trump]. [Without that] we’d never know, that these people felt – [that] they owned America, they felt they are America, [that] you and I are not America in their eyes. They are America. That is changing, and it will inevitably change. I mean, the privilege of being white in America is slowly going away.