Ami Sheth is among the crop of South Asian television and film stars challenging the cultural stereotype and paving the way for better, fairer representation of Indians in the American entertainment industry.
Currently, she plays Afreen on NBC’s Blindspot – an unafraid South Asian Muslim scientist clad in a Hijab, saving America. Afreen entered the scene at the end of Season 3 of the show that is going to premiere its final season this fall. Previously, Sheth was on AMC’s hit show, Dietland, where she garnered ample good press for playing an acid attack survivor.
Dietland’s success landed her a feature in Vogue India’s Jan 2019 issue, where she was hailed as among the most influential Indian women of the year. “That was very exciting and awesome,” says Sheth. “It’s very reassuring that these instances have made the next generation (of Indian Americans) feel that there’s all these other things we can be doing with our lives.”
Sheth is among growing crop of South Asian artists in America currently doing a balancing act between being embedded in their roots and soaring free. Growing up, she “never saw anybody who looked like us on mainstream TV here in the US.” Much like her other Indian peers, she couldn’t imagine such representation in mainstream television and cinema were possible, let alone plausible.
“I’m glad it’s changing, we still have a far way to go,” she says. “It’s exciting to be an actress wearing a hijab, for instance, and be the good guy – working for the FBI and helping solve crime. It’s different representation than a lot of people have been used to seeing in the past,” Sheth says of her role as Afreen in Blindspot. “She’s smart and strong and she kicks butt.”
Sheth was born to Indian immigrant parents and grew up in New Jersey. Her inspirations are Priyanka Chopra, “amazing as the lead in a mainstream TV show”; Mindy Kaling, who she says is creating content that will enable more South Asian faces to be in TV and films, Hassan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari, whose comedy has universal appeal.
“It’s not just South Asians that are watching these stars, their content is universal and so are our stories, especially when they’re not looked at stereotypically,” Sheth says. “A few years ago, there would never be an actress in a hijab who is not a terrorist, we’re moving away from all that which is great.”
The recent blockbuster success of Crazy Rich Asians has further encouraged the Asian American community in taking deeper strides towards greater and fairer representation. “The film is an example of how a minority group of Asians in the US were able to do something amazing. And now there’ll be a second and a third, and that is just paving the way for us,” Sheth says.
Her success has led her and others like her to give back to the community. Kalakars, a South Asian actors’ collective was solidified last year, even though it existed as the South Asian Film Labs for some time. Sheth is a member of the committee where she provides her expertise as an artist liaison for other upcoming actors. “We had to have a platform where we’re fostering our own talent, getting writers, getting skilled people for post-production, helping them make their projects and help our stories be told in a non-stereotypical way,” she says.
Apart from committee members like Sheth, Kalakars hosts eight writers in addition to five female and five male actors on a rotational six-month basis. The group has grown to achieve success through projects that have shown at festivals such as Sundance. “We are proud to have a great network of people all of who are really passionate about South Asians in entertainment,” says Sheth. “Every 6 months, we take in a group and help lift their project off the feet. There is a small entrance fee, and that’s it.”
The future looks bright for actors like Sheth, born and raised in the US, morphing into different roles for different projects while not just playing the South Asian characters but roles that can be meant for any skin type. Usually, for a trajectory like hers, Bollywood, increasingly producing world-class cinema, can be another station to showcase talent.
“Growing up here, it was not ever a dream of mine to work in Bollywood, not to say I wouldn’t consider a great opportunity if it comes along,” she said. “Not every Indian here grew up watching Bollywood and Indian serials.”
And that’s another stereotype shattered.