30 Rock’ star, NU alumnus speaks

Lark Turner

From his portrayal of a stereotypical South Asian on a teenage sitcom to his experience as a character on “30 Rock,” actor and Northwestern alumnus Maulik Pancholy has certainly seen the roles of South Asians in the entertainment industry evolve over time.

Pancholy, Communication ’95, spoke to about 150 students in Leverone Hall Thursday about his acting career, as part of the South Asian Student Association’s annual fall speaker event. SASA Co-president Jaspreet Banga said Pancholy was one of the best speakers the group has had in recent memory.

“The way he interwove his South Asian heritage, but at the same time kept it relevant to everyone who wasn’t South Asian, really impressed me,” the Weinberg junior said.

As he spoke about his different roles, Pancholy showed clips to the audience and described his acting history, which began at NU.

“There were actually no brown people in the theater department at this time,” Pancholy said.

His first acting job was on the set of a show called “USA High,” where he played a turban-clad character named Achmed who ate “camel nuggets.”

“I remember turning to my roommate at the time and being like, ‘I can’t go to work, I can’t do it,'” he said. “I was demoralized. I decided to do it because I felt like I needed to get my foot in the door.”

The NU grad said he quickly became frustrated with an industry looking to stereotype South Asians.

“I feel like this was the pervasive attitude in the industry: ‘Let’s make fun of other cultures, let’s make the joke about how different they are and let’s laugh about it,'” he said. “I got kind of fed up with it.”

To further his career, Pancholy attended the Yale School of Drama. By the time he graduated in 2003, he said the industry was starting to change, and he landed a part on the popular show “Weeds,” a series about a suburban mother who sells marijuana.

“Do you guys still have Dillo Day? I wonder what that was like. Must have gone on ‘vacation’ for Dillo Day,” Pancholy said jokingly as he described “Weeds” character, Sanjay.

Sanjay, originally introduced as a timid South Asian college student, became a more developed character throughout the series, Pancholy said.

“I feel like he defies any stereotype – he’s a gay, drug-dealing baby daddy,” he said to the laughing audience.

Pancholy then transitioned to discussing his current role as Jonathan on “30 Rock,” and students listened with rapt attention. He has been on the show since it started in 2006.

“To have gone from playing Achmed in a turban to playing Jonathan is obviously this huge upward journey,” Pancholy said. “It kind of begs the question of what’s changed.”

Pancholy attributed this to a greater South Asian presence in the industry, but he said the increase of South Asians playing terrorists was cause for concern. On an episode of “Law and Order,” he played the role of a Muslim who killed his sister for his family’s honor. He said it was difficult and insisted to the show’s creators that his character show remorse.

“I had a lot of reservations about doing it, but I chose to do it because in true ‘Law and Order’ fashion, it was ripped from the headlines,” Pancholy said. “I certainly did get some backlash, but on the other hand, this is based on a true story.”

Music junior Jonathan Thompson said Pancholy’s emphasis on South Asian stereotypes in the industry dovetailed with a media class he took last year.

“We talked a lot about racial and cultural infiltration in media,” he said. “I thought it was very relevant for what’s happening today in the world of entertainment.”

Following his presentation, Pancholy answered a wide array of questions ranging from what remains to be done for South Asians in media to what activities he did as a student on campus. He encouraged students to use their education to help change perceptions of South Asians.

“You’re at one of the best universities in the country – it produced me,” he said. “Whatever you do, you’re going to have a big voice in affecting the way people view South Asians and in terms of how you want your story to be told.”[email protected]