Riz Ahmed (Photo by Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images)
THE movie everyone has been talking about is November’s biggest blockbuster release The Eternals, and a major highlight is the presence of Kumail Nanjiani playing a path-breaking superhero.
This is another major step forward for south Asians in Hollywood, after almost exclusively appearing as stereotypical caricatures, including ones where a non-Asian actor played the role with a ropey accent.
The slow shift started to occur in the first decade of this millennium with actors like Kal Penn, Parminder Nagra and Noureen Dewulf breaking ground for Asian actors in mainstream projects.
This led to an exciting last 10 years that has seen a wave of stars light up high-profile Hollywood films and TV shows in a way never seen before.
Although there is still a long way to go, these pioneers are smashing open doors to make Hollywood the most exciting it has ever been for south Asian talent.
Eastern Eye decided to celebrate 20 of those leading the way and carving a path for future generations.
Riz Ahmed: The British rapper turned actor has had a meteoric rise in the past seven years. After a series of acclaimed performances in British projects like Four Lions, he broke into Hollywood with hit film Nightcrawler opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, and hasn’t looked back since. His superb stateside successes like Rogue One, Jason Bourne, The Night Of and Venom also include a stunning performance in Sound Of Metal, which saw him become the first Muslim to get a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars, in 2021. He will next be seen in sci-fi thriller Encounter. With even more projects on the way as an actor and producer, he has incredible momentum behind him.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: The Indian actress stepped out of her Bollywood comfort zone and broke new ground in Hollywood. She has had winning turns in high-profile projects like Quantico, Baywatch and Isn’t It Romantic, but more importantly she has been vocal about creating increased opportunities for south Asians and made her presence felt at major events. With big movies on the way like Text For You and The Matrix Resurrections, Priyanka’s relationship with Hollywood isn’t going to end any time soon, and will create a path for Indian stars to follow in her footsteps.
Kumail Nanjiani: The most successful Pakistani in Hollywood history has worked his way up from the bottom. After low-key appearances in a number of projects, he had a star-making turn in successful sitcom Silicon Valley and acclaimed movie The BigSick, which he co-wrote. The comedy star has now become massively popular and gone interstellar with a lead role in mega-budget film The Eternals, which sees him play a superhero. His forthcoming projects include a role in Star Wars spin-off series Obi-Wan Kenobi. He was also executive producer on successful web series Little America and has more projects in development.
Geraldine Viswanathan: The latest hot property in Hollywood is an Australian actress with an impressive range as a performer. After winning turns in popular comedy Blockers, powerful drama Hala and anthology series Miracle Workers, she stepped up to play a lead role in hit romantic comedy The Broken Hearts Gallery. That accomplished performance has now set up the 26-year-old for what is sure to be a long career, with major film and TV roles under her belt.
Her interesting forthcoming projects include a part in the big-budget animated feature Rumble, a lead in romantic comedy film 7 Days and a role in psychological thriller Cat Person.
Kunal Nayyar: The British star became one of the highest-paid TV actors on the planet when superhit sitcom The Big Bang Theory was in full flow. He helped break ground for a generation of actors with his hilarious portrayal of Raj Koothrappali in the TV show. Kunal is firmly entrenched in the heart of Hollywood and regularly appears in diverse projects that range from voicing characters in animated projects to acting in films. The actor received a well-deserved BAFTA nomination for his chilling turn in Netflix series Criminal: UK. He will next be seen in the movie Spaceman and TV series Suspicion.
Archie Panjabi: The British actress was part of UK film and TV projects for many years before landing a star-making role in smash hit series The Good Wife, which won her a Prime Time Emmy and nominations in various other award ceremonies. What made the character special was that it was colourblind and not culture-centric. This led to the actress doing further such roles in major projects like disaster movie San Andreas, suspense drama Departure, comedy series Run and a voice-over in the animated series Star Wars: The Bad Batch.
Avantika Vandanapu: The US-born teenager found success in India and then returned home with the sole mission of cracking Hollywood, which she has done. After strong supporting roles, the 16-year-old played the lead role in 2021 Disney movie Spin and will next be seen in Senior Year. The trained actress, who is fluent in English, Tamil, Spanish, Hindi, and Telugu, already has plans to become a producer, and will mix that up with her acting work.
Himesh Patel: After a long stint on iconic BBC soap EastEnders, the British actor got his big breakthrough with a lead role in hit Danny Boyle-directed comedy musical Yesterday. He has followed that up with major projects, including a starring role in mega-budget movie Tenet, science-fiction comedy series Avenue 5 and upcoming mini-series Station Eleven. His upcoming projects include US black comedy film Don’t Look Up and providing a voice in the animated fantasy film The Amazing Maurice.
Mindy Kaling: Arguably, the most powerful star of south Asian origin in Hollywood at the moment, the actress, writer, and producer has had a prolific career in film, TV and the web space. Although she got her big break in the US version of The Office in 2005, it is the past decade that has seen her blaze a trail with TV series The Mindy Project, teen drama Never Have I Ever and wonderful movie Late Night, which are just some of the many successes she has had. The hard-working star has also written books and is constantly in demand to put together new projects. She is leading the way with many more major projects in the pipeline.
Hasan Minhaj: Although the American comedian is an accomplished actor and brilliant stand-up performer, he is at his very best hosting. He made headlines as the featured speaker at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and his Netflix series Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj set fire to convention and took on the establishment, including bringing Indian politics into western mainstream conversation. The multi-talented star has shown you don’t need to follow others in Hollywood and there is a space for speaking your mind about important issues. He remains unpredictable and in demand on multiple projects, including as an actor.
Aziz Ansari: There is far more to the US star than being a world-class stand-up comedian able to fill out big arenas. The actor, producer, writer, and director has used his all-round talent to become a major power player in Hollywood. Although he has appeared in films, Aziz is at his best on the small screen and seen major success, from superb sitcom Parks And Recreation to his multi-award-winning Netflix series Master Of None. By writing a lot of his work and now directing, his own creativity has been a big part of the conversation.
Lilly Singh: The Canadian YouTube star has been one of the biggest success stories of the past decade. She has gone from uploading home-produced videos online to smashing glass ceilings by landing her own late-night talk show on American television, where she interacts with huge stars. She has popped up on a host of other film and TV projects since breaking into Hollywood, including her own sketch show, which was filmed during lockdown. The super woman has a whole host of projects in development or on the way, and in all of them, she is unapologetically herself.
Dev Patel: The British actor has been unstoppable since his stunning debut in Slumdog Millionaire and scored big successes with superhit films like the Oscar-nominated Lion. While he has won acclaim for playing Indian characters in hugely successful projects like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, what has really turned him into a dynamic Hollywood disrupter is colour-blind characters in films like The Personal History of David Copperfield and The Green Knight. Dev will switch to an even higher gear with the 2022 release Monkey Man, which is a unique superhero film that he has written, produced, and directed.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: The 19-year-old beat off tough competition from around the world to play the main role in 2020 Netflix coming-of-age TV series Never Have I Ever, which quickly got picked up for a second and third series. The talented youngster has become a star and earlier this year landed a lead role in Netflix-produced romantic comedy The Netherfield Girls, which has been described as a fresh and contemporary take on classic Jane Austen novel Pride And Prejudice.
Naomi Scott: The 28-year-old British actress and singer became a major Hollywood name after a stunning 2019, which saw her play the lead in backto-back blockbusters Aladdin and Charlie’s Angels. The in-demand star is now balancing projects in America with ones in the UK, so has an interesting variation of work in the pipeline that includes science-fiction comedy film Distant and anthology drama serial Anatomy of a Scandal. A sequel to Aladdin is in the works and Naomi is on the wish list of major studios.
Jameela Jamil: The British radio and TV host has become a fierce female icon in America since making the move to acting with a lead role in smash hit comedy series The Good Place. She has also used her unmistakable voice for a whole host of animated projects and a popular podcast, which regularly features major stars, and mostly recently she was cast as villain Titania in the new She-Hulk series. Her presence as an outspoken activist has put Jameela in the middle of important conversations currently being had in Hollywood.
Freida Pinto: The Indian actress has had a meteoric rise since coming to global attention with a supporting role in Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Her major projects have included starring roles in sci-fi thriller Rise of the Planet of the Apes, fantasy action film Immortals, romantic comedy Love Wedding Repeat and a lead voice-over role in pathbreaking children’s animated series Mira, Royal Detective. She has been vocal about representation and has actively been trying to make a change. Her forthcoming films include period drama Mr. Malcolm’s List and playing Noor Inayat Khan in TV series Spy Princess.
Anya Chalotra: After strong performances on television and the stage, the British actress got her big international breakthrough with a lead role in Netflix sci-fi action series The Witcher, which has been, not surprisingly, renewed for a second season. The successful series has put the actress on the wish list of major producers in the US and she looks like becoming a major breakout star. Her confirmed projects include providing the main voice for sci-fi animation NEW-GEN and animé series Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas.
Pallavi Sharda: After finding success in Australia, India and the UK, the actress is now taking her first big steps in Hollywood. The Australian actress will follow up a sterling supporting turn in 2020 film Tom And Jerry with a lead role in romantic comedy Wedding Season. The multi-talented star’s incredible versatility will stand her in good stead going forward and inevitably result in a lot more projects.
Iman Vellani: She may not have had anything projects released yet, but the teenager from Canada is already very well-known and a symbol of hope in Hollywood. She beat off global competition to land the main role in forthcoming superhero series Ms Marvel and will also be seen playing the same role in mega-budget movie The Marvels. The first Muslim superhero in the Marvel universe is expected to be a major game-changer in Hollywood and like the others in this round-up, she is one to keep an eye on.