Indian-themed comedies a new TV trend
Exec: 'Slumdog Millionaire' effect has 'a lot to do with it'
They are the two comeback stories of this pilot season, projects developed years ago that have been resurrected and have landed orders at the broadcast networks.
The two comedies -- "Nirvana" at Fox and "Outsourced" at NBC -- have something else in common: They both are ensemble shows about Indians and Indian Americans.
A third project, a U.S. version of popular British comedy "The Kumars at No. 42," about an immigrant Indian family, also is poised for revival. Eight years after NBC took a stab at the format, the show's British producers are shopping it to U.S. networks, including FX.
Is it a coincidence or a delayed "Slumdog Millionaire" effect?
"I do think that 'Slumdog' had a lot to do with it," a TV studio executive said of India's rapid emergence on the U.S. pop culture scene. "It was boiling, hovering there, with the increasing popularity of Indian clothing, food and Bollywood movies, but with its mainstream acceptance and critical success, 'Slumdog' pushed it over the tipping point."
In Hollywood, consciousness grew exponentially last year with Danny Boyle's runaway hit and Oscar winner as well as the $1.2 billion deal between Indian conglomerate Reliance and DreamWorks.
Reliance also is bidding for MGM and has signed production pacts with eight A-list Hollywood actors, including George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
On the small screen, India's growing impact has been dramatic as well, albeit more slowly developing.
When producer Gavin Polone brought "Kumars" to the U.S. in 2002, its Indian roots were stripped away and it was remade as "The Ortegas," a show about a Mexican American family. (The project eventually migrated to Fox, which ordered it to series but never put it on the air.)
In 2004, when NBC shot two pilots of "Nirvana," one starring then up-and-comer Kal Penn, and one starring creator Ajay Sahgal, there were only two Indian actors in primetime, Sahgal recalls: Ravi Kapoor on NBC's "Crossing Jordan" and Parminder Nagra, who had just joined "ER."
That is not the case anymore. Most successful shows launched in the past five years feature a prominent Indian actor: "The Office," "The Big Bang Theory," "30 Rock," "Chuck," "Parks and Recreation" and three hot freshmen: "Community," "Glee" and "The Good Wife."
"24" also has regularly featured Indian actors, including one of Bollywood's biggest stars, "Slumdog's" Anil Kapoor, who has a major role this season. Additionally, Penn co-starred on Fox's "House" until he left to pursue a career in Washington.
"There are far more Indian actors today that can do this kind of thing than there were six or seven years ago," Sahgal said.
To find them, he is launching an international talent search for "Nirvana," an ensemble multicamera comedy about grown-up Indian American brothers and their Indian immigrant parents, with casting taking place in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, London and Mumbai.
"Outsourced" -- a single-camera office comedy about an American shipped off to India to manage a ragtag group of customer service reps -- has hired casting consultants in Toronto and India.
There was some luck involved with the comebacks of "Nirvana" and "Outsourced."
Sahgal ran into Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly while accompanying his wife, "Lie to Me" co-star Kelli Williams, at a Fox event last year, and Reilly, who originally greenlighted the project at NBC, encouraged Sahgal to revisit it.
Meanwhile, NBC approached Ken Kwapis, the driver behind "Outsourced" in its first incarnation during the 2007-08 season, to direct another pilot for the network. Instead, he urged the network to revisit "Outsourced."
That the film and TV industry are seizing on the growing popularity of Indian culture isn't surprising, according to TV historian Tim Brooks.
"Hollywood, and TV in particular, always tries to jump on a trend," he said.
Another ethnic comedy making a comeback is ABC's "Funny in Farsi," about a family of Iranian immigrants living in Newport Beach. The single-camera project directed by Barry Sonnenfeld earned a green light this season after failing to secure a production order last year.
Cultural momentum notwithstanding, "Nirvana, " "Outsourced" and "Farsi" all face long odds.
There been only a couple of successful ethnic comedies on American television, mostly with Mexican American characters, including the 1970s "Chico and the Man" and ABC's "George Lopez." Even with the phenomenal boxoffice success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the film's Greek American-themed series offshoot on CBS lasted only seven episodes.
"American audience is very American-centered and not interested in other cultures for their own sakes," Brooks said. "For a show such as these to succeed, it can't be just about an (exotic) culture. Americans want things that they can relate to."
"Nirvana" has what it takes to do it, said Polone, who attended the taping of the project's second pilot in 2004.
"That show is the one that would work; it transcends the India-centered idea and is very accessible," he said.
Kwapis believes "Outsourced" will have no problem connecting with American audiences either.
"This is really a show about America as seen outside of America," he said. "It is unique and, at the same time, relatable. Unique, because how often do you get to see a comedy set in another country? And relatable because we all have experience talking with a call center worker. It's an important aspect of our lives but we don't see what is on the other side of the phone."