We have seen him multiple times on TV and in numerous films as the South Asian cabbie or the stoic doctor, the bearded, kohl-wearing terrorist or the nameless ‘Indian guy’. Actor Aasif Mandvi has done it all. But now, with Evil, the American-British-Indian actor finally has a role which breaks away from the ‘South Asian’ character trope. Mandvi, 54, plays Ben Shakir, a technical expert and equipment handler, in the psychological drama. The show revolves around a team of people who investigate supernatural phenomena. “I thought this was a really smart idea, created by Michelle and Robert King — the same people who made The Good Wife and The Good Fight. I am a huge fan of those shows. It was originally written for a white guy and then I was cast. So, they decided to make him a South Asian Muslim,” shares Mandvi over a Zoom call from the US.
Mandvi had never played a character like Ben before, and the role, he says, was quite a stretch for him as an actor. “Ben comes from a Muslim family, but he’s an atheist. He’s a scientist, but he’s also an empiricist. He only believes in things that you can touch, taste, smell and feel. He doesn’t believe in any of this ‘religious mumbo jumbo’ as he would call it, and he doesn’t believe in psychology either. So, for me, he was a bit of a devil’s advocate, but he doesn’t believe in the devil. I found that very funny,” says Mandvi. The actor adds that Ben’s voice is a necessary one, especially in today’s times of extreme faith and belief systems. “I wish we had his (Ben’s) approach, and more people looked at life the way he does. People just go blind nowadays, where they either just believe in faith or they only believe in science.”
Born as Aasif Hakim Mandviwala in Mumbai, in a Dawoodi-Bohra family, Aasif Mandvi’s family migrated to England in the late ’60s. Mandvi describes himself as a ‘working-class kid from Bradford’, where his father worked in the textile industry and eventually ran a shop, and his mother became a nurse. The family moved to the US in the early ’80s and settled in Florida. As a child, Mandvi wanted to be a doctor, but eventually ended up studying theatre at the University of South Florida. “It was an unconventional choice. Anybody who has immigrant parents can attest to the fact that the idea of their child wanting to go into the arts is kind of the worst nightmare. I have to say my mother was incredibly supportive and for whatever reason, maybe as an Indian woman, she had suppressed many of her own dreams and desires in order to become a wife and a mother and followed her husband across the globe. I think she saw potential in me and that I had some talent, and she also realised that I was not good at math or science, so maybe she sort of encouraged me and left me alone at the same time,” adds Mandvi. He also believes that venturing into acting was more of an accident, as his parents were distracted. “My parents moved to the US when I was 16. We were trying to build our lives and they were distracted. I went to high school and started doing theatre there. I got a scholarship to the University of South Florida in Theater. Before they knew it, I was a theatre major and was doing pretty well and then I started getting work. As parents go, once I start getting work and could support myself, it eased their anxiety a little bit,” says the actor.
Mandvi, who started off with performing at Disney-MGM studios and Walt Disney, later appeared in off-Broadway presentations. But it was his one-man play Sakina’s Restaurant and the web show Halal in the Family that got him recognition. Both channelled his own immigrant experience. In 2006, he joined The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He would comment on issues related to the Middle East and South Asia, with the designation of ‘senior middle east correspondent’ or ‘senior foreign looking correspondent’. “I didn’t have dreams of being on The Daily Show, it happened to fall in my lap. I got to work with incredible comedy writers and comedy talent. Just doing that — satire day in and day out — sharpened my skills. On a career level, it changed my life. I was suddenly a recognisable entity, which is a currency that you can’t discount in Hollywood or in this entertainment business. The Daily Show helped me find a voice that I didn’t know that I even had inside of me and that voice has stayed with me since then,” shares the actor, who was part of The Daily Show till 2015.
It has taken Mandvi more than three decades to land a pivotal role in Hollywood, and that too one which doesn’t stereotype him. “Hollywood is no different than the rest of America. Ills of America are the same ills of Hollywood. It suffers from systemic racism, and some of it is just pure capitalism. But with international streaming platforms, there is an economic and financial interest in doing shows for a billion people in India and such. Suddenly the landscape has become broader and there is an advantage in having different type of stories. We move forward progressively and socially in some ways and that’s how we are including more voices in the conversation in Hollywood.”
“All the stories were told through the lens of white men, all the heroes are white and people running the show are white. If you have white men who are directors and creators of content, then the stories are all going to be about white men. Once that changes, you start to see what diversity can do and you see more inclusive stories. Behind the scenes, you have creators who are creating different kinds of narratives. We finally have a Mindy Kaling, who has the power to change things. You can’t blame Viola Davis, who said in her Oscar speech that you can’t blame actors of colour for not being nominated for the Oscars, as there are no roles being written for actors of colour. We are seeing a change in the last five years. I hope as a creator and a writer of colour myself, that we start to see more voices and more interesting stories being told.”
Aasif Mandvi has voiced the audio books for VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. His play Sakina’s Restaurant, which he wrote and starred in, won him the Obie Award, and he has also written a book, No Man’s Land. Is there anything he can’t do? “I cannot tap dance. Just can’t,” he responds with a chuckle. “But as a brown actor, I was growing up in a world where there were no parts being written for people like me. I had to figure out, okay, what can I do? You then try to do everything, you create your own opportunities. You’re just trying to create a traction in the business in some ways. If you’re an immigrant actor in the West, for long time there was nobody to look up to. So I inculcated this thing in me, that I’m going to be ready for any opportunity at any time. I think it sort of lends itself to a versatility, that was necessary,” he adds.
As for now, Mandvi is enjoying spending time with his newborn son, but he is equally excited about Season 2 of Evil. He is also working on an animated feature with his wife Shaifali, which is set around the partition of India. “It will be told through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl,” says the actor.
Evil is currently airing on Zee Cafe.