Aasif Mandvi and the Maxim of Humor
Aasif Mandvi's career in show business began where many American dreams take root: Disney World. A former performer in Magic Kingdom says that while he can’t speak to the rumored hierarchy of Disney employment — Prince Charmings at the top of the heap, Plutos at the bottom — he can tell me that “Chip and Dale were both played by young girls.”
The politics of Hollywood is a subject about which he’s more outspoken. “A great deal of it is marketing, and what films are being pushed into the center of cultural consciousness.” When asked to consider that the industry is becoming more global, contingent upon the success of films like Slumdog Millionaire, the Indian-born, British-and-American-raised Mandvi (best known for his work as The Daily Show’s “Senior Foreign-Looking Correspondent”) pulls no punches. “Slumdog Millionaire was an anomaly.... Essentially, it was a Bollywood film made for white people.” Perhaps referring to his upcoming project, Today’s Special — a movie the writer/actor has labeled a “food comedy” in the past, a description he modifies in our interview to “a feel-good romance about how hard it still is to get small, ethnic films made.”
Still, he seems to have enjoyed the process. The film, which he co-wrote with Daily Show staffer Jonathan Bines, is based in large part on his family’s immigrant experience in the States. Shot on a shoestring in New York’s Jackson Heights neighborhood, a destination for anything seeking an authentic Indian meal, Mandvi offers that the experience was “tremendous.” The “culturally mixed, ethnically diverse” area welcomed production with an exhilarating, if outsized, gusto.
“We had Naseeruddin Shah, a huge Bollywood actor, sitting on a chair. It was fascinating to see all these Pakistanis, Bengalis, and Indians recognize him,” Mandvi recalss. “But he was mobbed. He couldn’t go anywhere, and we eventually ended up having to assign someone to security detail.”
In the film, an aspiring New York chef leaves the high-profile world of haute cuisine (and a potential love interest/underchef, Carrie) after being passed over for a promotion, to attend to his ailing father and his parents’ equally anemic Indian restaurant. Woefully undereducated in the preparation of Indian food, he turns to a flamboyant cabbie (Shah) for help. Mandvi, who in addition to co-writing Today’s Special also stars in it, emphasizes the story is “very accessible and heartwarming.”
Such earnest fare is quite a departure from his ongoing Daily Show gig, in which the performer regularly illuminates the currents of racial tension underlying American politics at home and abroad with deadpan, misinformed buffoonery. (In a segment dissecting Obama’s possible appointment of CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta to the post of surgeon general, for example, an ebullient Mandvi proclaims, “Look out, blacks, here come the browns!”)
“We’re the class clowns,” Manvdi explains, “so what we often do is shine a light in places regular news programs are unable to. And in the end, sometimes satire is more truthful than ‘the truth.'”
From small personal projects to the broad comedy of a Peabody award–winning “fake news” show that has become a television institution, the trajectory of Mandvi’s career reflects the self-making of an entertainer who refuses to be pigeonholed. “Any actor out there who manages to traverse the terrain without being reduced or put into a niche is a hero of mine,” says Mandvi, whose resume includes rigorously dramatic turns on stage productions such as Tony Kushner’s Homebody, Kabul, and the critically acclaimed Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, based on real human rights violations that occurred against British-Muslim detainees at the Cuban-leased American military base.
Next summer Aasif Mandvi will inhabit the role of villain in the creepy tableau of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Pressed to reveal whether the film will contain one of the director’s signature plot twists, Mandvi is reticent. “All I can tell you is it’s very much a departure from anything he’s ever done.” He takes a beat before adding, “That, and there are a lot of flying children and animals.”
(This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of ANTENNA.)