At the start of Rizwan Manji’s acting career in the 1990s, the only roles available to him were those playing convenience store clerks and cab drivers. The parts usually required him to fake an Indian accent — just for laughs.
“We would joke about it. ‘This is so offensive, this is so offensive,’” recalls the Toronto native. “It’s not like we didn’t know.”
More than two decades later, Manji’s grin-and-bear-it perseverance has paid off. At 46, Manji now boasts a long — and diverse — list of TV and film credits. In September, he joined castmates from the hit CBC comedy series “Schitt’s Creek” in celebration as the show nabbed a record-breaking nine Emmy Awards.
That doesn’t mean, however, he still doesn’t grapple with questions about his acting choices.
While “Schitt’s Creek,” about a wealthy family that loses its fortune and is forced to move to a backwater town, won raves for its messages of inclusivity and positive queer representation, a segment of viewers took to social media to criticize Manji’s character, Ray Butani, the town’s bumbling jack of all trades — who speaks with an accent.
What irked them was that Ray, one of the few recurring people of colour on the show, seemed like a caricature — a rehash of the stereotypical, emasculated South Asian male. They also complained that Manji’s accent came across as “cringey.”
“Why go to the effort of writing in a character with an Indian name, played by an Indian actor, whose main personality trait is that he is stupid and has an accent?” Rishi Maharaj, a Port Hardy, B.C., engineer and avid TV viewer, wrote on Twitter days after the show’s Emmy sweep.
Across North America’s TV and film industry, there is broad consensus about the need to fight stereotypes and offensive tropes in casting. But the debate among actors of colour over whether they should fake accents remains fraught.
Some Hollywood actors, such as Aziz Ansari and John Cho, have reportedly turned down roles, citing the history of Hollywood playing up accents for laughs. (Think Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 romantic comedy “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” complete with taped eyelids, buck teeth and cartoonish accent).
They worry that parts requiring them to speak with accents do nothing to help the cause of minority actors who are often typecast in secondary roles or as sidekicks, and who continue to be under-represented on TV and film.
Others say it’s important to represent linguistic diversity and see no harm portraying characters who speak in broken English, as long as their accent is not the butt of a joke and in keeping with a character’s backstory.
In a candid conversation with the Star, Manji said “Schitt’s Creek” producers did not instruct him as to how Ray should sound.
“It is a very slight Indian accent — somebody who was probably raised in Canada, but probably was born in India or Pakistan,” he said from his home in Los Angeles.
“I don’t regret that because I think it actually works for Ray. He wasn’t like everybody else in that town. He was from somewhere else.”
Manji said he’s OK with viewers questioning his choices, but rather than focus on accents, he said, critics could ask why his character didn’t have a more fully developed story, like a relationship or a family.
“If you want to criticize something, do that,” he said. “We need to have three-dimensional characters.”
The character that has generated one of the most heated debates in recent years when it comes to accents is Apu, the Indian-American shopkeeper on the long-running animated series “The Simpsons.” Until recently, the thick-accented character was voiced by actor Hank Azaria, who is white.
In 2017, American comedian Hari Kondabolu came out with a documentary, “The Problem With Apu,” in which he pressed the case that the show fomented racial stereotypes about Indian people.
In interviews at the time, Kondabolu shared that, as a kid, Apu was “the only Indian we had on TV” and that he was happy for “any representation.” But then on the playground, he had to deal with kids mimicking Apu’s accent.
In the documentary, he gets Dana Gould, a former writer on the show, to admit, “There are accents, that by their nature, to white Americans, sound funny. Period.”
With criticism mounting, Azaria, who had voiced Apu for three decades, announced he was stepping away from the role, telling the New York Times earlier this year: “Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore.”
There is growing sensitivity among artists, writers, directors and producers to avoid stereotypes and invest in “fully humanized, realized characters,” Steven Eng, an actor and voice and speech instructor at New York University, told the Star.
“There’s certainly been a whole history — that I don’t think any of us can deny — in film and television and the theatre where characters were stereotyped,” he said. “I think there’s so much more awareness, so much more determination to not go that route.”
But even “groundbreaking” shows, such as “Kim’s Convenience” and the recently cancelled “Fresh Off the Boat,” which were heralded for elevating Asian-Canadian and Asian-American visibility and immigrant experiences, have not escaped criticism, accused by some viewers of employing storylines and accents that do not ring true.
Cast members, in turn, leapt to the defence of their shows — and their accents.
“Some people are like, ‘Oh, stereotypical accent!’” Constance Wu, lead actress on “Fresh Off the Boat,” told Time magazine regarding her character’s Taiwanese accent. “An accent is an accent. If there were jokes written about the accent, then that would certainly be harmful. But there aren’t jokes written about it. It’s not even talked about. It’s just a fact of life: immigrants have accents.”
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, the lead actor in “Kim’s Convenience” told Maclean’s his character’s Korean accent is “part of who he is, but it isn’t the joke.”
“Yes, we’re in the entertainment field, and we will mine some of that because it is situational humour. You will get a point where we’ll say, ‘Here’s where some fun can be made, playing with the accent, and his inability and people mishearing what he says.’ But at the same time, that’s not all it is,” he said.
Jimmy O. Yang, who starred in the HBO series “Silicon Valley” and whose character spoke with a heavy Chinese accent, told Huffington Post the key is to portray immigrants with humanity.
“It’s maybe a better thought to change the perception of an accent than to avoid it all together,” he said. “I take offence (when people don’t go for parts with accents) ― it’s like saying, ‘I’m better than my immigrant brother with an accent.’”
Yang added he drew inspiration from his mom and relatives in Shanghai to develop his accent for the show. “It’s not just a (lousy) impression of a Cantonese Bruce Lee accent.”
Still, some actors have declared outright they will not do it.
“For me, personally, any time I’ve been asked to do that, I feel like — it feels like it’s making fun of people that have that accent if I do it and don’t have that voice,” comedian Aziz Ansari told NPR in 2015, years before he faced a public allegation of sexual misconduct.
“It feels like you’re doing it so white people can laugh at Indian people,” he said at the time.
That’s kind of how Maharaj felt watching Ray on “Schitt’s Creek.”
“I did find it cringey. The first thought that came to mind was it reminded me of Apu in ‘The Simpsons,’” he told the Star.
In The Problem With Apu, South Asian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu confronts his long-standing “nemesis” Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – better known as the Indian convenience store owner on The Simpsons. Creator and star Kondabolu discusses how this controversial caricature was created, burrowed its way into the hearts and minds of Americans, and continues to exist – intact – nearly three decades later. Featuring interviews with Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Whoopi Goldberg, W. Kamau Bell, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aparna Nancherla
“To me what it sounds like is what a person from Saskatoon thinks a person from India sounds like. … I’m sure he could’ve been a funny part of that show without an accent.”
Maharaj wasn’t alone. Arif Silverman, an actor and playwright in New York, posted a lengthy Facebook post in October sharing his conflicted feelings about the show.
“Schitt’s Creek has become one of my all-time favourite shows. But they did their South Asian characters dirty,” he wrote.
“Especially Ray, who plays directly into the racist South Asian trope of being an emasculated, goofy buffoon who no one takes seriously, not least in part because of his accent.”
Silverman told the Star Ray’s accent seemed “part of the joke” and struck him as a “betrayal” from a show that preached inclusivity and whose main romance was a gay love story.
“I’m half South Asian — my mother is from Bangladesh. … And so I think a lot about representation of South Asians in the media,” he said. “If you’re really going to talk about inclusivity it can’t be at anyone’s expense.”
Manji says he faced a lot of struggles as a brown actor at the start of his career.
Back then, he was often pigeonholed into narrow roles, such as the cabbie or 7-Eleven store clerk. One hundred per cent of his roles required him to fake a South Asian accent.
“It was very strictly, like, the joke was on the accent,” he said.
But he accepted the parts because he needed the work.
He did draw a line with one type of role.
“I’m Muslim, so I was more the guy who was like, ‘I’m not being the terrorist.’”
There was one time, however, when he auditioned to play an Islamic Studies professor on the show “24.” He was given limited information about the character. It turned out he was a bomb maker.
But the money was too good to pass up. He took the part.
“I rationalized it in my head, ‘Oh, it’s season 8, and they have good Muslim characters. … I don’t know if I made the right decision,” he said.
“To be clear, I’m OK with being the bad guy. I’d love to play the bad guy. It’s just when it’s this kind of thing where you’re screaming ‘Allahu akbar’ and bombing people.”
In 2010, Manji was cast in the short-lived NBC sitcom “Outsourced” set in an Indian call centre. He and his castmates employed accents, which some critics derided for lack of authenticity.
It’s fine if people want to criticize the quality of the accents, he said, but it wouldn’t have made sense for these characters not to have accents.
“The show was shooting in America about living in India. I don’t know what the other option was,” he said, adding that he channelled his father in developing the accent for that show.
Another thing to keep in mind is that accents have to be understandable to North American audiences, Manji said. For instance, during the filming of the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Manji, who played a Pakistani colonel, said he settled on a “sweet spot” where his accent “sounds foreign” but is “not so thick that it becomes comedic or unintelligible.”
Manji said he did not have to audition for “Schitt’s Creek” but was offered the role of Ray, the town’s real estate agent, travel agent, photographer and Christmas tree salesman.
When he went for his first table read in Toronto, he’d had no prior discussion with the show’s writers or producers about what Ray would sound like.
Because most of his demo tape consisted of his work on “Outsourced,” Manji assumed that was the kind of voice producers were looking for. He went with a slightly toned-down version.
“Afterwards, I went up to Dan (Levy, the show’s co-creator) and said, ‘Hey just want to check in.’ He said, ‘I love what you did. It was funny.’ That ended up being the character for six years.”
Maharaj says he can’t help but feel Manji was selling himself short — playing to what he thought “a white audience might expect or respond more favourably to” to get the job. He likens it to job applicants of Asian descent who anglicize their names on resumes.
“I’m encouraged to hear he had agency, that they weren’t like, ‘We need you to do the accent,’” he said.
“I’d feel better if they were asking him to do a British accent or Brooklyn accent because if you’re doing this Indian accent and the character is comedic, it is nonetheless playing into that trope.”
Levy, who is also from Toronto, declined an interview request. Instead, he released a statement through his publicist.
“Ray was conceived as a character of Indian (descent) which we cast with Canadian-born actor Rizwan Manji, who is of Indian (descent). No accent was called for in the casting or specified in the scripts,” it said.
“The thoughtful choices that Rizwan made in his portrayal in the audition room perfectly encapsulated the warmth and the energy of Ray. All characters on our show were created with love, respect and humanity. It has been gratifying to have these intentions reflected through the overwhelming audience support for these characters. That said, I welcome any perspectives that encourage conversations about diversity, especially in entertainment.”
Despite what critics might think, Manji said he has felt more empowered in recent years to make creative decisions about his characters.
Manji, who had a role in NBC’s musical comedy “Perfect Harmony,” which was cancelled this year, said when he was approached about playing the part of a pastor, he was the one who initiated the idea of giving the character a foreign accent.
Because the character was raised by missionaries, it wouldn’t have made sense for him to not have one.
Conversely, when he was asked a couple years ago to read for a pilot for a dramatic series in which his character was a Muslim father he told the casting director he didn’t want to do an accent.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’d rather not. That’s not going to excite me about this part,’” he said.
“I ended up getting the job. I found my voice.” (The pilot never made it to series).
Manji, who guesses about 60 per cent of his roles in more recent years have involved accent work, says remarks by actors who refuse to do accents are “dangerous” because they could end up limiting the types of roles available to minority actors.
His worry is casting directors will go to India in search of authentic accents, overlooking North American-born actors, like him.
“I’m already marginalized.”
Nobody fusses when Meryl Streep performs with an accent, he adds.
Ishani Nath, a freelance entertainment and lifestyle journalist in Toronto, says anytime she sees an accented character who also provides comedic relief, it raises a bit of a red flag.
But she’s hesitant to criticize actors for taking those roles, knowing that opportunities are not easy to come by.
“I’m way more interested in criticizing writers, producers, (and asking): Why are you asking for these roles to be accented? … Is there an actual reason and backstory?”
Nath says she is starting to notice deeper conversations about how different cultures are represented on screen and what nuances can be added to make characters more complex.
She says a good example of this is the hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” whose actors exhibited a range of regional Asian accents.
“It’s important to note that the problem with accent roles isn’t the accents themselves — plenty of characters in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ have accents, but no one has the exaggerated or generic ‘Asian’ accent that has historically been played for laughs in Hollywood,” she wrote in a 2018 article in Flare.
Jhanik Bullard, a writer and member of BIPOC TV & Film, a collective of Black, Indigenous and people of colour working in Canada’s entertainment industry, says it is no longer acceptable for characters to have accents “just because.”
“It should actually have an authentic origin as to why this character sounds the way they sound,” he said.
Audiences are also not as forgiving as they may have been in the 1990s if the accent sounds botched or inauthentic.
What is encouraging, he says, is that more doors are being opened for people of colour to tell their stories and there are more platforms for those stories to be to told.
To that end, Manji says he and his partners have initiated a handful of projects that are in various stages of development. One is a show about a Muslim guy who becomes mayor of a major city. Another is a sitcom about a “normal Muslim family” — something that “resembles me more.”
Does the character he envision for himself speak with an accent?
“Since I want it to be closer to me, then I would say not.”
Clarification — Dec. 29, 2020: This article was edited to clarify the statement from Dan Levy.
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