As 2019 winds down, the 800 lb gorilla in America is still the issue of immigration and affects so many lives. Be it the construction of the border wall, detention centres, the elimination of chain migration and the visa lottery and the limbo lives of so many green card hopefuls – most of them Indian and the possibility they may still be waiting 50 years later.
Yet as South Asians turn to political activism and support civic organisations that fight for immigrant rights and human rights in America, we see some famous names in the arts taking on these issues on television and on the big screen.
There was a time when South Asian performers just got to play swamis, taxi drivers or terrorists in Hollywood, force-fed lines in the ‘right’ accent. Fortunately, times have changed and we have some major A-listers at the top of the entertainment mountain, and many more new South Asian names playing all sorts of roles in films and television. Three who are using their visibility to do wonderful things with immigration and a host of other vital issues are Kumail Nanjani, Kal Penn and Hasan Minhaj.
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.
It is commendable that all three are the children of immigrants and are now able to turn around and showcase a positive image of immigration and other strong issues like racism, lack of diversity and discrimination.
Nanjiani happens to be South Asian and Muslim and so has had to always fight stereotypes – the mainstream expects him to play terrorists or taxi drivers and South Asians expect him to be a shining role model of the model minority! When Nanjiani was on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People as the new comedic voice, Judd Apatow wrote: “His incredibly funny
Saturday Night Live monologue made it impossible not to see the ridiculousness of intolerance.” After the TV series ‘Silicon Valley’, he went on to co-write and act in the sleeper hit of the year ‘The Big Sick’, an American story of our times about immigration, love, sickness and multiculturalism -- and all based on his own true story.
Nanjiani has a new show on AppleTV with the joyful name ‘Little America’ and it is written and executive produced by Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon. ‘Little America’ is an anthology series that observes the heartfelt stories of immigrants and it shows how relevant their lives are to America.
The amazing thing is that even before Season 1 is premiered on January 17, Apple has already renewed ‘Little America’ for Season 2. The full season will debut globally on premiere day exclusively on AppleTV + The first season of ‘Little America’ consists of eight half-hour episodes, each is a true story about immigrants from different parts of the world. The first episode is about an Indian family titled ‘The Manager’ in which 12-year-old Kabir must run his parents’ motel in Utah on his own because they have been deported back to India. Priyanka Bose stars in this first episode.
Little America - Episode 1: The Manager, starring Priyanka Bose.
From Kal Penn, we have the popular ‘Sunnyside’ which is already streaming on NBC, and stars Kiran Deol, Moses Storm and an ensemble cast/ In ‘Sunnyside’, which is a Queens neighborhood with a large immigrant population including many South Asians, Kal Penn plays Garrett Modi, once the Pride of Queens and its youngest-ever New York Councilman – and his fall from grace. How he gets his second shot at his American Dream through a motley group of immigrants who want to become American citizens is the story of ‘Sunnyside’.
Kal Penn, whose real last name is Modi, is the son of Gujarati immigrants and has made it on the big screen in the beloved ‘Harold and Kumar’ franchise as well as the noted ‘Namesake’, ‘Van Wilder’, ‘Superman Returns’ and most recently, ‘Designated Survivor’, a political drama series. All along Penn has had a strong belief in activism and served in the Obama White House, besides being active in political and civic life. His most recent stint was on Amazon Prime time as host of the eight-part financial docu-series ‘The Giant Beast that is the Global Economy’.
Kal Penn in Sunnyside.
Which brings us to Hasan Minhaj who is now into the fifth season of Patriot Act on Netflix since 2018 and it’s a spunky commentary comedy series not afraid to touch global strongmen, taboo topics and dirty politics. A former Daily Show correspondent, Minhaj won a Peabody Award for ‘Patriot Act’ and his comedy special ‘Homecoming King.’
Witty and irreverent, Minhaj has taken on the bad guys of the world, Coke, cruise lines and a host of smaller kingpins on ‘The Patriot Act’. He is the first Indian-American to host the late-night talk shows and as the son of immigrant Muslim parents, he takes on all the dark issues and wrings humour and insights out of them.
With a gung-ho comedy gang like this behind much-maligned immigrants and would-be immigrants, one sees the erection of a mighty strong invisible, indivisible wall of laughs which keeps immigrants in and, like some secret masala sauce strengthens them and makes them more potent and able to take on the roadblocks in 2020.
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read Lavina Melwani's columns