Remember Mr Chetty, the internship co-ordinator at Google in the Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn-starrer The Internship? Yes, the one that spoke with a thick Indian accent. Or maybe, Ash Vasudevan, the bespectacled sports agent in the 2014 sports drama Million Dollar Arm. We have all seen him play Indian parts in Hollywood films or make an appearance on The Daily Show, but Mumbai-born Aasif Mandvi cannot be just introduced as an actor.
He has also penned a biographical book called No Land’s Man on growing up as an Indian in England and the US. As the logical next step, he is now back with an HBO comedy series The Brink, which he has written and co-produced as well as acted in. As the first season of the show has just kicked off in the country, we catch up with Aasif talks about his journey in tinsel town over the years.
What are your memories about your English childhood?
My parents moved from India when I was one, and I lived in Bradford, I grew up there. My dad owned a corner shop and my mum was a nurse. My childhood was working class English, West Yorkshire. I did go to a private school, though. That was one thing that my parents were able to afford. Like a good Indian family, they were like: we will not eat for weeks but we will send our children to private schools. I mean, I got a great education and also got the shit kicked out of me most of the time. But then we moved to America when I was 16.
So how do you describe yourself?
I’ve often described myself as a turducken — I’m an Indian wrapped in an English schoolboy, wrapped in an American. There’s a weird part of me that is still English — when I watch the World Cup, I’m still disappointed, just like every English person is. But at the same time, I have the Indian, and then, the American, so it actually has given me, I think, a global perspective. This is similar to the character I play on The Brink. Rafiq is the only foreigner in the core cast of this show. The rest are Americans, and he is the one person who has a perspective that is not American, and I think we use that to our advantage, you know.
How would you describe your character, Rafiq?
Jack Black plays an inept Foreign Service agent in Islamabad, and Rafiq is his driver, who ends up becoming his best friend, the guy who helps him navigate through this world in a way. It’s an odd couple, the two of us — two people who should not ever be together, really, being thrown into each other’s lives by circumstance.
How did you end up being on the writing team as well as one of the leads?
It was weird. I auditioned for the show, got cast, did the pilot, and then after about a month or so, we got picked up for the first season. They called me — Roberto Benabib, who is the show runner, and Jay Roach — and said, we have a crazy idea: would you be interested in coming and being in the writer’s room with us? And, for me it was a tremendous opportunity. I had been at the Daily Show, which is a different kind of writing. But I love this because my heart really is in writing narrative and acting.
Where does your expertise come from in that area?
I don’t know if I am an expert, but I think what I have is nine years on the Daily Show swimming in those waters. And, with the first season, because it takes place in Islamabad and Pakistan, I’ve been able to offer the perspective of the cultural nuance around this stuff. And then also just my comedy background, in terms of writing comedy and being a comedic actor and being able to bring that. It was great for them, it was great for me, so it felt like it was mutually beneficial for everybody.
There have been other shows set in Pakistan or those that have had Pakistani characters like 24 or Homeland, and there have been complaints that the culture wasn’t accurately portrayed in these. What did you have to keep in mind then?
I don’t know if you can be completely true to every cultural nuance — we’re not Homeland, we’re not 24 — this is an absurdist world that we are entering, so characters are heightened, situations are heightened. However, at the same time, I also felt it to be important for me personally, and for the writers as a whole, to get some things right.
Rafiq’s family is a perfect example of this. Rafiq’s family is the kind of Pakistani family that you wouldn’t normally see on Homeland, or the news, you know. You meet this educated, academic, wealthy Pakistani family, which is actually more like the Pakistani families of my friends. I like the fact that they actually know more about global politics than the state department guy; they know what’s going on with the CIA. Because, listen, these people are on the other side of those drones, so they know more about American and Western politics than most, than the average person in Kentucky.
How important do you think are such cultural representations then when you’re creating fiction?
As an artiste, I can’t be worried about whether or not some people are going to agree or disagree with my portrayal of a particular thing. At the end of the day, what you’re trying to do is tell a great story. With us, it’s a comedy, so like I said, I think the reality is that these things are somewhat heightened and with a satire, you’re trying to make larger national issues, point out larger absurdities.