When I first saw the ad, my heart leapt. There, in the background, was a Muslim woman in that now-infamous Muslim garb. A headscarf, to be precise. I knew what it meant. NBC’s Outsourced, a new sitcom just picked up for a full season, may one day be mentioned in the same breath as The Office and 30 Rock—legends of contemporary comedy. At least South Asian Americans and Muslim Americans might hope so. Because what’s most distinctive about Outsourced is where it’s set.
In the last few years, South Asians—often touted as a model American minority, like Asian Americans more generally—have featured much more frequently on television, giving some networks the look of college campuses. There’s Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Danny Pudi (Community) and now a whole show about ethnically ambiguous brown people who are not Latino. As if Nikki Haley’s hybrid religiosity wasn’t alarming enough. Because India’s not just ethnically unusual for many Americans, it’s also religiously unfamiliar.
Valarie Kaur and Sharat Raji have documented the ugly confusion that marked many Sikhs as Muslims, and led to retaliatory attacks, after September 11, against members of the wrong religion. (In the annals of bigoted ignorance, it ranks only above Terry Jones’ aborted plan to burn the Qur’an, which is also how Muslims respectfully dispose of their sacred text). How can NBC handle these questions? Are Americans really ready for an ethnic comedy set in a country most Americans don’t know too much about? Will Mark Williams’ brain short-circuit?
Because India isn’t just home to Hinduism and Sikhism. Considering how toxic Islam has become, the idea of a show set in a country with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations (probably the world’s third-largest) strikes me as inspiring, worrying, and terribly intriguing. Many Americans might be surprised to know that over half the world’s Muslims live east of Afghanistan (that is, outside of the Middle East), and South Asia itself is home to nearly a third of the world’s Muslims.
I reached out to Sarah Zerina Usmen, a background actress on the show, to ask her these questions and to get to the larger issue: Is Outsourced changing the face of Muslims in the media? Can it, and should it? What kind of effect might this show have on a wider environment where Islam is usually accompanied by strong emotions and deeply-held anxieties? In addition to her role on Outsourced, Usmen is creative director at Queens of Waban Entertainment (they were behind the documentary Muslims in Love), and kindly took time to tell me about her role on Outsourced, what she thinks the show means for America’s increasingly multicultural television, and what it’s like to be fasting on the set.
Which, admittedly, had never crossed my mind.
HM: How did you get involved with NBC’s Outsourced?
SZU: I was called in to work as a background actor on the show during the filming of the pilot episode in March 2010. There was a shortage of Indians to fill in the world outside the call center and it was essential to show that it was possible to recreate Mumbai for American television, so I participated.
What’s your role on the show?
You can spot me as a sari vendor fluttering fabric behind the call center and haggling with customers. My function is mainly to keep the world colorful and energetic. So far my character is a recurring one, as are most background actors on the show.
What’s it like being a Muslim woman in Hollywood? How have people in the industry reacted to you?
It’s fantastic being a Muslim woman in Hollywood. I think people have the impression that it’s a disadvantage, but having a strong identity has kept me grounded in the face of challenging situations. There are so many opportunities in the industry to abuse positions of power, or to feel powerless with massive goals ahead of you, so a sense of self helps keep you from compromising ethics and navigating the show of show business. Even wearing the hijab has been an advantage in that people remember you. It’s different and noticeable.
That isn’t to say it’s been a pleasure cruise. Film is all-consuming and standard shoots are twelve-hour days, at least, and the work is fast paced. You really have to be conscious of the shooting schedule and rhythm of workflow to determine how best to meet the daily prayers. Ramadan is also challenging. Making a million decisions during the creative process on an empty stomach, I’ve found, is harder than a full day of hiking up a mountain during the fast. You can also forget about tarawih prayers and seeing friends and family for iftars. You basically miss the things that fasting prepares you to benefit from. That can be depressing and a challenge for the spiritual development meant to happen that month.
How has your community and family reacted to your career choice?
The Muslim American community has been generally supportive, especially among people who are versed in Islamic interpretation across the ages, the resonance of art and media, and the necessity of media as part of a healthy democracy and vibrant society. It’s more difficult for an elder generation to understand if they’ve only been exposed to a singular, rigid Islamic interpretation from their homeland that considers film, music, and art haram—but it’s a reflex that’s not based on any critical understanding of the breadth of Islamic interpretation. It’s taken a while for family to adjust to my career choice, but it’s part of the process in pursuing something unconventional. If you really want to make change, you can’t expect things to be easy.
Do you see any obstacles in balancing religiosity and acting?
I’ve noticed that in casting calls women are still cast according to descriptions such as “hot surfer chick,” “super sexy party girl,” “cute drunk college girl” 95% of the time. You have to wonder about the kind of people who refer to women as “girls” and only care to cast them when they’re “hot.” It kind of makes me glad to wear the hijab so I’m not even bothered to be on sets that objectify women. For one of my films I’d love to make a casting call for a non-alcoholic, burka-wearing troll and throw them all off!
I feel for actors. They’re in such a powerless position, cast at the mercy of whatever concept the production wants. It’s been easier for me as a director among other producers and directors to introduce ideas than to do so as an actor. There’s an elitism that exists that productions aren’t aware of, and it takes exceptional people to realize they have the power to change things.
This is the first major network show about a culture that many Americans know very little about. How do you make it funny without either going over people’s heads or resorting to stereotypes?
The writers, especially Robert Borden, who developed the show, have done a remarkable job balancing humor with tact. I think it helps that the film production community is more familiar with India and Indian culture than, say, 20 years ago. People have filmed there or have been invited to visit by friends or have been exposed to its culture through Bollywood or the music scene. So the knowledge of India reflected in the show is coming from a more realistic place, and the show can play with stereotypes Americans have of Indians in an honest way. Of course, there are cultural differences that are exaggerated for humor, but they’re not offensive, as Americans get jabbed just as much as Indians.
Another set dynamic that gives the show an authentic feel is the contribution of Indians working on the cast and crew. Our two Assistant Directors are Indian and Indian-American, and the ethnically South Asian cast and background actors also provide insight during the creative process from which the production departments have benefited. For example, wardrobe and props feel more like they’re from South Asia than the generic “oriental” lump of Hollywood’s past.
An Assistant Director might place a woman doing puja in one location, or find the more accurate representation of a certain kind of vendor in another location, and it comes from insight and personal experience of what would happen in India. There are many culturally illuminating conversations that happen among a predominantly white crew and South Asian cast, in which we discover and learn from each other. Discussions arise in about what you would really see in India—what the difference is between a Sikh’s turban and a Muslim cap, would a woman wear a bindi and a headscarf, would a man in street vendor garb walk through an office building hallway, etc. That enhances the show’s production value and realism, and I think that’s one of the unique aspects of the show. Granted, there’s a time limit to recreating authenticity and I’m sure cultural critics will cry about stereotypes and inaccuracies, but many cultural critics aren’t familiar with the limits of the production world. Given the resources available to Hollywood and the tastes of American culture at this point in time, Outsourced is revolutionary for American television.
This is the first show I can think of with a regular character wearing hijab. The show deals with religions that are often misunderstood, or feared. What kind of effect do you anticipate the show can have?
For the first time, Americans can experience a contextualized India in all its diversity. There are Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims and different personalities among them—the ambitious ladies’ man, the shy girl, the office pest, the love interest, the insecure assistant manager, the stoic Sikh (Guru Singh), and the hijabi (Rashmi Rao). That goes a long way to show that not everyone who is brown is the same person. As minorities in America it’s hard to prove that as people’s token brown friend, and you have to carry the burden of representing an entire people without anything to really point to that validates you.
I hope when people watch Outsourced, they can relate to Todd as he stumbles through the difference between “all the head gear” and “strange holidays.” There’s so much diversity in India that I hope, as Todd encounters this, the audience will come to realize it’s not that different from America. Both countries are multiethnic and multi-religious, with culture cross-fertilized by many traditions.
Most popular sitcoms and comedies shy away from religion. Do you think Outsourced might change that?
Absolutely. Outsourced is navigating uncharted waters and proving it can be done in today’s climate. American society is more than ready to discuss hot topics in comedy in good measure. The show works because it knows the primary goal is to make people laugh. When people try to hard to make a point or to educate it stops being interesting to a popular audience. In fact, I think we need shows like Outsourced. America is in an identity crisis, and trying to reconcile its past isolation with a rapidly changing global present. There’s a lot of tension in society around race, religion, and economics in recent years spiking in election seasons. If we can’t laugh about difficult things, how can we get through them?
What do you think is standing in the way of Muslims improving their image in the media?
Honestly, I think the only thing standing in the way of Muslims improving their image in the media is Muslims. We spend a lot of time talking and not doing. We have good intentions but little know-how or respect for the process. We’re also crap at recognizing that what appeals to Muslims might not appeal to broader American tastes. If you want to make a film about Hajj, everyone and their sheikh wants to fund you, but if you want to make a film about an African-American, Muslim single mother in the hood who’s torn between protecting her daughter and running a drug ring she inherited, good luck! The latter is a script by new filmmaker Nia Malika Dixon, and would probably interest a more popular audience than a Hajj film. And for all the talk about bridging gaps between affluent immigrant Muslim groups and the longstanding African American Muslim community, this film would be an opportunity to show commitment to that goal. We really need to start thinking outside the box as a community and start being receptive to people who do—regardless of their age, race, or gender.
Another step the Muslim community really needs to take is to understand film financing. It’s great that Muslims are writing scripts, but without funding the public will never see the film. It would be great to see the producers invited to speak at ISNA and other forums on the ways in which communities have supported films in the past, through in-kind donations from businesses (say, travel discounts from travel agencies, food from restaurants, building material from construction companies), and tax incentives for major donors in various states.
And beyond Outsourced: What’s your favorite television show? Favorite author?
I haven’t really watched a show that hooked me since The X-Files or the Australian sci-fi series Spellbinder. And my favorite authors are as of yet unpublished! I would look out for the upcoming fantasy novels of Janica Ingram, whose vivid imagination for characters and storytelling far surpasses mine.
If you could play any role…
I’m primarily a writer-director. While I don’t have an ideal role that I would play, I’ve written scripts with characters that I would love to see onscreen. The first film that I want to make is “Point of Plastic,” which is a cross between It’s a Wonderful Life and Heathers.
A guardian angel drops coffee on his Watch-a-Mortal (much like a GPS but for destiny tracking) and fries the fate of his human, a gothed-out Muslim girl whose college grant gets canceled at corporate while she’s pulled in all directions by housemates with loser boyfriends, conservative fathers and vegan tofu chipotle nuggets. I would love to have John Cusack play the fieldwork-averse guardian angel and Natalie Portman play the miserable yet resilient lead with many quips on life. And I can’t wait to use the film as an opportunity to work with new talent from South Asian and Arab backgrounds.