The hour-long special, dealing with the chronic under- and misrepresentation of South Asians in American pop culture, has generated a lot of buzz since it aired back in November. For decades, The Simpsons convenience store owner Apu (voiced by white actor Hank Azaria) was the only South Asian figure to regularly appear on mainstream American TV, setting the scene for the kind of stereotypical characterization which still persists to this day — take Raj from The Big Bang Theory, for example.
But things do seem, finally, to be looking up. In 2012, Mindy Kaling became the first person of South Asian descent to write and star in her own network TV show: The Mindy Project, which has just completed its sixth and final successful season. And the past few years have seen an increasing number of young South Asian personalities following in her footsteps to create their own shows and characters which challenge the Apu archetype.
It’s a welcome diversification of pop culture content and — from a name-lover’s perspective — a fascinating insight into a whole new world of names.
Here are some of the most recognizable monikers from this exciting new movement:
Aziz: Actor and comedian Aziz Ansari (shown) got his big break as Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation, and has gone on to co-create and star in in his own series on Netflix: Master of None, which has received glowing reviews and a recent Golden Globe. His energetic name, together with its feminine form Aziza, is of Arabic origin and means “powerful; respected; beloved”.
Dev: Ansari’s main character in Master of None bears this bold Indian name, meaning “god”. But it’s young English actor Dev Patel who really brought this one into the limelight. He burst onto the scene in 2009 as Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire, and more recently starred as Saroo Brierley in the blockbuster Lion — so named for the meaning of Brierley’s original Hindi name, Sheru.
Hasan: Another up-and-coming actor/comedian, Hasan Minhaj is a regular correspondent on the satirical Daily Show who last year hosted the prestigious White House Correspondents’ Dinner, as well as writing and starring in a critically acclaimed stand-up special dealing with the American immigrant experience. Hasan is an Arabic name, meaning “handsome”.
Kalpen and Kalinda: Kalpen Modi, better known by his pseudonym Kal Penn, is an actor-turned-civil servant whose character had to be written out of House to allow him to join the Obama administration in 2009. His unusual Hindi name means “fit; proper”. Another notable Kal– name is Kalinda “sun”: borne by a ruthless, fiercely intelligent private investigator in The Good Wife, played by Archie (Archana) Panjabi.
Kumail: Quirky alternative romcom The Big Sick was one of the surprise hits of 2017, chosen by the American Film Institute as one of its top ten movies of the year. Its co-writer and male star is Kumail Nanjiani: an actor and comedian who based the film on his own real-life experience of cross-cultural courtship. The name Kumail is of Arabic origin and means “whole; perfect”.
Priya and Priyanka: Raj’s sister in The Big Bang Theory is Priya, as is Mindy Kaling’s lead character in her upcoming series Champions. This light and pretty Indian name, meaning “beloved”, is already catching on in the UK, where it ranked #444 last year. Soundalike Priyanka, meaning “amiable”, is borne by actress and model Priyanka Chopra: star of the ABC thriller Quantico, and the first South Asian actor to headline an American network drama series.
Ravi: This dynamic name, which belongs to a Hindu sun god, was first brought to international attention by sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. But there’s now also a younger namesake in actor Ravi Patel, who together with his sister Geeta directed and starred in the 2015 romantic comedy Meet the Patels. Fun fact: Ravi Patel is also the name of the title character’s brother in the 2012 blockbuster Life of Pi.
Sakina: American actress Sakina Jaffrey’s career has spanned three decades, but she’s most familiar to younger viewers as White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez in House of Cards and as Mindy’s mother Sonu in The Mindy Project. Her beautiful Arabic name means “peace”.
Sanjay: The only non-actor on this list, neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta is nevertheless a familiar and hugely influential media personality. His lively name is of Sanskrit origin and means “triumphant”.
Sunny: Sunny Pawar, the five-year-old star of Lion, was cast from among thousands of young hopefuls after auditioning at his school in Mumbai. His bright and happy sounding name is often used as a nickname for Sunil, Sundeep or Sunita, but it’s also bestowed as a standalone with the literal meaning of “sunny; radiant; cheerful”.
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