In sixth grade, during the early aughts, I harbored dreams of becoming an actor. Short, gangly, with a nose disproportionate to the rest of my face, I was far from telegenic. I was more like the fulfillment of every noxious stereotype of dorky South Asian boyhood that's permeated our cultural consciousness, from Kevin Gnapoor in Mean Girls to Ranjit on How I Met Your Mother.
Common sense returned to me soon enough. My mother, doing all she could to ensure I wouldn't entertain such abjectly myopic fantasies, expressed shock and dismay over my career aspirations. We'd also seen my sister, nine years my senior, go to college for acting and suffer helplessly afterward. She was extremely talented, and attractive to boot. No matter: The roles just weren't there for a girl with brown skin. After some time, she lost the drive to keep going in an industry built against her.
The prospect of a South Asian child aspiring toward acting felt especially difficult because there was no ideal for me to look up to. There was, barring half-Indian Ben Kingsley, a considerable dearth of South Asian male actors occupying any screen, small or large, in the United States. Who would serve as my idol?
This was well before 2016 — before Aziz Ansari became the first South Asian man to receive an Emmy nomination in a lead acting category, as of about three weeks ago. It's a historic achievement. Before Ansari, according to Vulture, South Asians had amassed a whopping four nominations for their primetime television work: three for The Good Wife's Archie Panjabi and one for Lost's Naveen Andrews. Both were in supporting categories; Panjabi won once.
Yet those who proclaim that Ansari's lead acting nod signals a turning point in South Asian representation tiptoe around a fundamental, and crucial, truth: Ansari had to give this role to himself. His show, Netflix's Master of None, is a writerly two-hander, co-authored by Ansari and Alan Yang. The fourth episode of Master of None, "Indians on TV," is even topically concerned with this very issue endemic to the television industry, in which multiple desi actors are competing for the same thankless role because it's the only one that exists.
Roles like Dev Shah weren't there for Ansari in real life, either, forcing him to create it. So is his nomination a signal of progress? Or is it a sign of worse problems under the surface?
Ansari is nominated for his work in Master of None, a performance that also netted him a nod in the analogous category at the Golden Globes. His work on the show came in what some termed a watershed year for South Asian representation on television. In addition to Ansari, Mindy Kaling (Hulu's The Mindy Project) and Priyanka Chopra (ABC's Quantico) both headline major shows. The year also saw an sizable stable of South Asians in supporting roles: Naveen Andrews (Sense8), Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Hannah Simone (New Girl), to name but a few. This fed the illusion that South Asian actors were hypervisible after decades of invisibility.
In Master of None, Ansari plays Dev Shah, a 30-year-old actor who frequently performs in yogurt commercials. He's pursuing a career well outside the universe of heavily accented nerddom that South Asian actors tend to find themselves in; consider how many roles for South Asian males focus on their perceived intelligence and insist on othering them. Beyond the aforementioned roles from Mean Girls and How I Met Your Mother, there's also men like The Big Bang Theory's Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), a physicist who seems incapable of engaging in human contact. Or look to Glee, which features Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba). Saddled with an accent, his tenuous grasp on the English language is the butt of the joke — see his consistent butchering of Kesha's stage name.
Ansari's Dev Shah, in contrast, is a tonic. He's refreshingly sexual, unlike Nayyar's character in The Big Bang Theory. Master of None's first episode is predicated on a condom breaking during sex. This is, perhaps, the first time Ansari has been given a full-bodied role that is worthy of his multivariate talents. It's an engaging, charismatic performance that calls on his comic and dramatic fluency in equal parts. Though his Indian heritage plays a large part in Dev's life, it doesn't summarily define him.
In a recent Hollywood Reporter actor roundtable with some fellow contenders for the Emmy, Ansari made clear that the entertainment industry certainly wouldn't have trusted a South Asian actor like him for a lead role, and so he had to create one for himself.
"The thing I have learned and that I have to keep reminding myself of even now is that you have to make your own way," he quipped. "No one would have given me a show like Master of None. It definitely would have gone to some white guy."
Such anecdotes ask the question: How much will the casting landscape shift in favor of the roles Ansari has shown he wants to play, and has demonstrated he can play well?
"No one would have given me a show like 'Master of None,'" Ansari said. "It definitely would have gone to some white guy."
Some may see this form of complaint as mere kvetching, arguing that Ansari's nomination is simply part of a gesticulation period for South Asian actors. We've historically been pretty invisible on the small screen, after all. Representation has to start somewhere, right? Shouldn't we settle for any representation we get, applaud any incremental sign of progress like Ansari's nod while acknowledging every outcome won't be ideal?
This reeks of respectability politics, not entirely dissimilar from what Michael Caine pleaded for black actors during this past Oscar season when the #OscarsSoWhite conversation peaked. Caine asked them — along with other actors of color — to wait their turn. "Be patient," he said, according to Vulture, as if to suggest complacency breeds sea change. "It took me years to get an Oscar."
This form of rhetorical deflection doesn't hold much water, for it continues to turn away from the problem at hand instead of addressing it outright. In shattering this glass ceiling, Ansari has also highlighted the fact that rich, varied roles aren't there for men like us — like him. He had to take matters into his own hands. In November, Ansari took to the New York Times to pen a righteous piece that detailed his travails in finding plum roles as a South Asian actor.
"Even though I've sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I'm offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents," he wrote.
It'd be scrooge-like to begrudge Ansari this moment. There's something comforting about the fact that this proverbial glass ceiling has been shattered by an artist who's, in the past, been so eloquent about the entertainment industry's lack of parity when it comes to South Asian representation. His nomination is a corrective to the very problem he's identified, experienced firsthand and vowed to play a part in solving.
But when a USA Today reporter asked Ansari about his nod, Ansari laughed, calling it "a very specific accomplishment," even if it made him "very happy." The remark was a touch self-deprecating, a hallmark of Ansari's comic persona. Yet implicit in his offhand comment was a nod to the fact that Ansari had to literally write this role for himself. Men like Dev Shah, as Ansari said, don't necessarily exist in the limited imaginations of casting directors and screenwriters. Until they do, we will have to write these roles for ourselves.