tv & movies

Aasif Mandvi: ‘It’s not easy being Muslim in Trump’s America’

The actor, comedian and writer discusses his latest TV show ‘Evil’, representation of south Asian talent in Hollywood, his time on ‘The Daily Show’ and more

Aasif Mandvi recalls a funny incident when he was visiting India once and having dinner with Naseeruddin Shah.

“We were eating at a restaurant, when two people interrupted us having recognised me — but they didn’t know who he (Shah) was! I was properly embarrassed. The irony is, that when I was shooting Million Dollar Arm in India, lots of fans would throng the place to meet Jon Hamm — but they had no idea who I was (laughs). It just goes to show how much access Indians have to content from Hollywood today, and that everything is watched everywhere,” he muses.

And that — in a nutshell — defines the British-American multi-hyphenate perfectly. For viewers in south Asia, he’s always that “Indian” guy you’ve seen somewhere in a movie or a show, making his mark always with a couple of zany one-liners, but perhaps not in the centre of the spotlight.

But in Hollywood, he’s recognised as one of the most coveted talents in the industry; a giftef actor, producer, show creator, writer and comedian, right from when he got his breakthrough on The Daily Show in 2006 as the senior “Muslim correspondent”.

Aasif Mandvi (left) and Jon Hamm in ‘Million Dollar Arm’
 
| Photo Credit:
Ron Phillips

Since then, Mandvi, who was born in Mumbai, but moved to England and then finally Florida when he was 16 to settle down with his family, has played a range of memorable roles in movies such as The Proposal, Ghost Town and The Internship, while also forging his own path on television with shows such as The Brink and Halal in The Family.

Currently, he stars in the psychological-supernatural mystery series Evil, which examines the origins of evil along the dividing line between science and religion. Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show follows a skeptical female psychologist who joins a priest-in-training and contractor (played by Aasif) as they investigate the Church’s backlog of unexplained mysteries, including supposed miracles, demonic possessions, and hauntings.

In the U.S currently where he is weathering the pandemic at home with his wife and new-born baby (Mandvi’s a new dad!), the actor is as outspoken, clever and quick-witted as always while getting on a Zoom call with us to discuss his new show, future projects and more. Excerpts from an interview:

Most of your popular roles fall under the realm of comedy — is it safe to assume that Evil is a departure from that genre?

Of course, Evil is by no means a comedy. But I think that after they cast me, the Kings (creators) saw the opportunity to draw more humour, especially from my character Ben. In Season One, as you go along, the writers exploit more of Ben’s sarcasm. Even in a drama, there is always scope for comedy and they have explored it after I came on board.

Mandvi in the psychological-supernatural mystery series ‘Evil’
 

Evil has been renewed for a new season but obviously will take time to take off, given the circumstances. How have you been keeping busy?

The fact is that for the last few months, there’s been no film production going on. We are hoping to get back to it again soon, and I’m excited about season Two. The writers have been hard at work, and we are going to take it up a notch, especially my character.

As far as keeping busy goes, well I just recently had a baby! My wife and I have been in this insulated reality with a four-month-old. The perimeters of your life become really small until the baby grows up, and that’s where most of my focus goes.

Having said that, I have been working on a couple of writing and movie projects. My wife and I have been pitching an animated feature, inspired by a book called The Night Diary (authored by Veera Hiranandani), set in India during the Partition. We have been having meetings and I am finding time to write while changing diapers (laughs).

You belong to a limited group of south Asian actors — Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani — who have represented the community on screen in Hollywood for the last two decades or so. The success of recent titles such as a Never Have I Ever, for instance, seems to indicate that more opportunities are coming?

You know, it’s a very fickle business in Hollywood, so I’m always wary of saying we have turned a curve or something emphatic like that. But I will admit that we are definitely at a point where there are more roles available for those who are non-white. What has happened in the last few years is that the streamers have recognised that the audiences in India/ south Asian diaspora around the world don’t see themselves being represented on screen enough — and have taken steps to remedy that.

Mandvi feels it’s an exciting to be a non-white creator/ actor in Hollywood
 

 

Take Master of None for example; an actual market for that show is present today. When I first started out 25 years, it would have been unheard of to even pitch a show like Never Have I Ever. I myself made a movie called Today’s Special (2009), but it didn’t come close to having the kind of traction and energy that projects from the community do now. So times are-a-changin’ and it’s exciting to be a non-white creator/ actor in Hollywood.

You have used your platforms to address stereotypes, Islamophobia among others. Does this put you under any sort of pressure?

When I was given the role of a “brown” Muslim correspondent on The Daily Show, it was a necessary thing to do and I am thankful for the opportunity. Are there stories I still want to tell? Absolutely. But being Muslim in America is no easy task with (Donald) Trump in office. As far as we have come, we have also taken steps backwards with this administration. There’s so much more to be talked about, be it the diversity of America, be it Muslim, Hindu, African-American… immigrant stories, especially, are so important to tell.

But we also see now that we are not married to our geographic cultural location —we see stories from all over the world — and that makes storytelling richer than ever today in cinema.

(In 2015, Aasif created Halal In the Family, a series about an American Muslim family which takes on Islamophobia in a light-hearted fashion. The show has an animated series which is currently underway)

With all your Indian connections, why haven’t we seen you in a Bollywood film yet?

It is because nobody has offered me a role in Bollywood! I am not sure if they are looking to cast actors outside the Indian diaspora. But if they do, I am definitely game.

Finally, can we see you back on The Daily Show at some point?

Maybe in the future I’ll take on something that relates back to the kind of work I did on it, but it won’t be on The Daily Show. I think of it as an incredibly creative time, which opened up a new aspect of my own comedic talent as a writer and performer.

I have always juggled a lot of different balls when it came to drama and comedy, and I’m hoping that at some point, I’ll play that type of character again.

Watch Evil airing weekdays at 2PM only on Zee Café SD and HD

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