When Aziz Ansari cast his real parents as his fictional ones in acclaimed Netflix series Master Of None, he had no idea they would become fan favourites and get recognised on the street.
The actor and stand-up comedian says getting Fatima and Shoukath Ansari to play his character Dev’s parents was “in hindsight … a pretty crazy gamble that I’m stunned we got to pull off”.
But since the June 12 Orlando nightclub shootings in Florida in the US, the Asian-American comedian has been worried about a different kind of attention being directed towards his Muslim immigrant parents, who moved from Tamil Nadu in India to South Carolina in the 1980s.
In a moving New York Times column on June 24, Ansari, 33, said Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Islamophobia and proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States make him scared for his family.
“Being Muslim American already carries a decent amount of baggage,” he writes. “In our culture, when people think ‘Muslim’, the picture in their heads is not usually of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, (basketballer) Kareem Abdul Jabbar or the kid who left the boy band One Direction (Zayn Malik). It’s of a scary terrorist character from Homeland or some monster from the news.”
Now, with Trump and others like him “spewing hate speech” against immigrants, “prejudice is reaching new levels and it affects how people live, work and pray”.
Ansari – star of the hit political comedy Parks And Recreation (2009-2015) – goes on to highlight the absurdity of the thinking that the three million or so Muslims in the US are all connected to violent extremists or terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans have “as much in common with that monster in Orlando as any white person has with any of the white terrorists who shoot up movie theatres or schools or abortion clinics”.
He notes that more than half of the 49 mass shootings in the US since Sept 11, 2001, have been committed by white males – yet Trump is neither calling for the freedom of white men to be restricted, nor suggesting that all whites “know who the bad ones are”, as he has said of Muslims.
A popular comedian, Ansari often calls out prejudice against minorities and women in his stand-up routines. His series Master Of None, scheduled to return for a second season on Netflix next year, has been praised for highlighting bias against Asians and other underrepresented groups in the US.
The sitcom, which is about the romantic, familial and professional misadventures of a young New Yorker named Dev, is also a touching portrait of an immigrant generation that includes Ansari’s and co-creator Alan Yang’s parents.
It draws on real experiences – for instance, how Ansari’s father, an endocrinologist, was snubbed by his white colleagues when he first moved to South Carolina.
Despite having no acting experience, Ansari’s parents have been scene-stealingly funny as Dev’s mum and dad, but the actor, who is single, tells reporters it was almost an afterthought casting them.
“It’s so crazy. When we were trying to cast that dad role, I talked to Alan and we wrote this character kind of based on my real dad. And Alan, luckily, knew my dad a little and we were like, ‘Should we have him do it?’ But it paid off. He did such a great job, and my mum too.”
Now, they are minor celebrities in their own right, although the comedian jokingly hints that his dad might need to be reined in a little. “My mum doesn’t want to do any press. My dad has been banned from doing press.”
But this has not stopped his folks from basking in their newfound fame. Ansari says: “Yeah, people recognise them. They said they got recognised at (fast-food restaurant) Chipotle a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s very surreal and I’m happy people enjoyed their performance.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network/Alison De Souza