Discussion of NBC’s Outsourced has been making its way through the my part of the Internet - is it offensive or funny - and a quick trip to the official Facebook page reveals a huge list of angry people venting their feelings about outsourcing AND the portrayal of Indian characters. I, like most of you, was turned off by the bickering over identity politics and economics and gave Outsourced a pass. It wasn’t until I heard that it had been picked up for a full season that I decided to tune in. They couldn’t fill an entire season with jokes about how silly Indian names can sound to American ears, could they?
Imagine my surprise to find that, beyond the clunky pilot episode, the show is basically an Indian version of NBC’s The Office, with a good dose of cross-cultural comedy. I was charmed. And then I looked up the actors on imdb and saw that the cast was made up of some very talented people who had spent years playing Dr. Kumar on one episode of a sitcom or terrorist no. 1 on a cop show.
Rizwan Manji, who plays assistant manager Rajiv on the show and kindly agreed to speak with me earlier this week, was one of those actors. Although, he wasn’t just terrorist no. 1 – his character had a name.
“The only person from the regular cast I got to work with was Kiefer Sutherland. He killed me.” Rizwan laughs as he remembers his time on Fox’s 24. “I’ll admit it, I was really, really scared to be shot. I didn’t know what it was going to feel like and it was just the anticipation of waiting for that moment and not knowing what was going to happen. The first time [I got shot] there was just this little cardboard in the gun and there is just this smoke that comes out and a piece of the cardboard actually flew and hit me. It didn’t hurt but something actually hit me so I was like ‘Oh my god, I’ve been shot, I think I’m dead!’ It was a very scary experience. And then we did it like 10 other times and I was like fine.”
(Rizwan as "Ahmed" on 24...)
It was a big jump going from being killed by Kiefer Sutherland to landing a lead as a series regular. “It’s really only my first experience on this level and it happens to be with a primarily South Asian cast so I would say I’m really lucky,” says Rizwan. “It’s definitely an amazing experience. The first time that I got to really do anything with a primarily South Asian cast was a film that I did about almost a decade ago – American Desi. As you know on TV we were lucky if there is ONE South Asian person in the show, so this experience is quite amazing; everyone is wonderful – the entire cast is a pleasure to work with – I know that sounds so cliché but we’re really good friends we actually talk on the weekends.”
And one of the nice things about having a primarily South Asian cast? “And the thing is - there are five series regulars so you’re literally looking at five different characters; you just can’t be laughing at their accents,” explains Rizwan, whose own accent is very Canadian with just a hint of masala. “With Rajiv you are laughing at his diabolical insaneness about wanting to become the manager and Gupta who you want to run away from... The whole accent thing gets old and I can’t imagine that a show would even go on the air if that was the single joke that they were going to have.”
(In character as Rajiv... Picture from NBC.com)
But Rizwan acknowledges the concern about the jokes at the expense of Indian culture. “I can understand the apprehension. We are the butt of some of the jokes in the show but we also give out our fair share as well and I think this is a definite sign of progress where we can be funny and we can be quirky. That’s a sign of being included in society when you can also be made fun of and it’s okay.”
Although Rizwan is from Canada, his parents are Indian by way of Tanzania and Rizwan himself didn’t even speak English until he went to kindergarten. He draws some inspiration from his parents for Rajiv – the accent. “The accent I would say I’m using is my Dad’s accent – that’s the way he speaks. When I talk to my parents in real life, you know how you … I just feel like I have an Indian tinge to my voice anyways. I might be putting on a little more of it for this character but I feel there is a lot of Indianness about me already.”
Rajiv may be diabolical and determined to get ahead at the office but he also has a heart of gold, which we’ve gotten hints of already, thanks to the talented Rizwan. It’s not every actor who can milk some humanity out of comic archetype and he has put a lot of thought into his character. “You know, despite [Rajiv’s] ambition and stuff, I get it a lot with me Rizwan as a person. I feel like I’ve been very ambitious and not that I’d do the crazy things that Rajiv would do but I can totally understand his desire to have this and to go to great lengths. So I kind of definitely have that ambition that Rajiv has, I might now go around it the way that Rajiv does.”
(Dat mouche! Photo taken from here)
Another thing that is pure Rizwan – the moustache. “My wife hates the moustache. I had a little baby moustache when I first went in for the audition and when I got the part, I asked, ‘Are we going with the moustache?’ ‘Oh, were definitely going with the moustache.’ I think I’m stuck with it until the show has run its course, so, hopefully it will be the new trend.”
Perhaps this is why Outsourced works – the characters are just people, and some of these people have moustaches or wear turbans or headscarves. They aren’t trying to make any grand statements about politics or life. “I’m Muslim and after 9/11 there were issues with flying because of my name but I don't personally feel like targeted or anything like that. I don’t know how to put this… I don’t know if there is this dire sense that there is anything evil going on here [in the US].”
Unlike the makers of My Name is Khan or Kurbaan, Rizwan has more modest ideas about the ability of popular culture to shape politics. “However, it’s also a concern to take a sitcom as something that is going to change the political discourse. At the end of the day it’s a sitcom, it’s a comedy and we’re there to make you laugh and I know some people are concerned about accuracy but I wouldn’t take this show as a documentary as what Indian culture is like.” He laughs. “And having said that, to play devil’s advocate on my comment, television does also do that, so we have a slight responsibility as well.”
But let’s get to my favorite topic: Bollywood. I know a lot of South Asian actors in Hollywood don’t really keep up with Bollywood but it’s always worth asking. So, does Rizwan keep up with Bollywood? “I’ll tell you the honest truth,” he says, his interest perking up a bit now that we’re done with the tough political questions and are on to something fun. “I try to watch all [the new releases]. It’s hard because the closest movie theater I have is 30 minutes away and I hate watching Indian movies at home.” I totally agree, it’s not very fun to watch Indian movies by one’s self.
“Well,” he continues, “My favorite film of all time is Qurbani. And then recently I was blown away by 3 Idiots – I thought it was phenomenal.”
This is perfect segue to ask about Omi Vaidya who managed to go from playing “the IT guy” on an episode of The Office to a featured role in 3 Idiots. Would Rizwan ever be interested in doing something like that?
“I would love to!” exclaims Rizwan. “I think I was sitting there so jealous [while watching 3 Idiots.] He was so, so brilliant but it was one of those times as an actor that you’re like, ‘WHY DIDN’T I GET A CHANCE TO AUDITION?!’ I loved his performance so much that I just wanted to have that part. It was such a juicy, nice part and he was so great in it.” He laughs. “My Hindi is not that great and I don’t have the Bollywood star looks that they want but if somebody is going to knock on my door, I am not going to say no.”
You heard it here first, Bollywood producers!
So, where can you see Rizwan Manji? He has Outsourced (Thursdays on NBC!) and a small part in the upcoming Morning Glory, with Harrison Ford, Dianne Keaton, and Rachel McAdams.
Lucky residents of Los Angeles will also have the chance to meet the cast of Outsourced at the Partnership Walk to end global poverty on November 14th. More information on that can be found here.
Note from Filmi Girl:
I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.
If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.
xoxo Filmi Girl