By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Underneath its addicting storylines and romantic gloss, ABC’s new series, “Pan Am,” seems poised to tackle the societal and cultural shifts of the 1960s. The show borrows its title from Pan American World Airways, the largest international air carrier in the United States during the 20th century, also known for being ultra luxurious. With just three aired episodes, the series has only begun hinting at the racial tensions of the late 60s.
Kal Parekh plays supporting character Sanjeev, the navigator in the cockpit of the Pan Am aircraft featured in the series. Sanjeev defies expectations. For one, he’s an extrovert, providing the occasional comedic relief in the form of smarmy comments. Sanjeev also speaks with a perfect American accent.
Getting cast for the show was a quick process.
“I ended up getting an agent [in New York City], and they had sent me out on an audition for a new pilot being shot in New York about the 1960s airline,” said Parekh. “I did the audition and everything happened relatively fast after that. My agent gave me the good news, and I was called in for the first reading of the pilot with the cast, where I met the production team, including writer Jack Orman and director Tommy Schlamme. It was very exciting. The week after that, I was doing costume fitting, and the following week, we were on set filming the pilot episode. That was back in April of this year.”
Parekh was born in Gujarat, a state in western India and one of its most industrialized. Parekh’s father, however, struggled in India, having very little. He moved the family across the world, settling in New Jersey in the late 1980s.
Parekh attended Verona High School. He said at that point, he was shy — an introvert.
He did, however, have a way of expressing himself through paper and pencil.
“I’ve been an artist ever since I can remember, always drawing and sketching,” said Parekh. “After being introduced to the Disney films in the early 90s, I wanted to become an animator. The animators at Disney were superstars to me.”
After graduating high school, Parekh attended the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York’s Manhattan. SVA is considered one of the leading arts schools in the United States. At SVA, Parekh created an animated short film that was screened at a few festivals.
Parekh’s parents have remained two of his strongest supporters.
“I have to say I am very fortunate to have parents that are open-minded and support me in whatever I choose to do,” said Parekh. “My dad is very proud that all my hard work is finally paying off. He didn’t have much growing up in India, so for him to come to this country and for his son to make it this far is a very big deal for him and my entire family.”
During his first year at SVA, Parekh picked up dancing through music videos. Though not formally trained, Parekh’s innate talent led him into dance troupes on both coasts of the country.
“Dancing liberated me, I was no longer an introverted individual, which I had been my whole life,” said Parekh. “Dancing came very naturally to me. I never took classes. It’s something I just picked up and ended up being good at.”
He ended up teaching for four years at Arya Dance Academy, which is the leading South Asian dance academy in the United States.
“Dancing ended up being very essential because it opened me up enough to try out acting. I think it was a natural transition. I do mostly Bollywood dancing, which is pretty much a fusion of East and West. It encompasses hip hop, jazz, modern, and classical all rolled into one. It takes the best of everything and presents it on a grand scale.”
After graduating from SVA, Parekh took live action film classes at the New York Film Academy.
Initially, he intended to simply expand his understanding of storytelling. However, something stuck inside of him. He found himself enrolling in an intensive acting course.
“It was a very abrupt decision,” said Parekh. “It ended up being the most amazing summer. I fell in love with acting and even did a few short films before finishing the program and getting my resume going. I never looked back after that. I’ve been acting ever since. That was seven years ago.”
APIs on TV
Each year in January, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition releases its report card on television diversity, looking at the inclusion of Asian Pacific Americans (APA) in front of and behind the camera on network television.
There were 37 APA actors cast in regular prime time roles for the 2009–2010 season, an increase of four over the previous season.
“I think 10 to 15 years ago, it was much more difficult to be an ethnic actor, but there are a lot of opportunities opening up these days. It’s a great time to be an ethnic actor,” said Parekh. “But there are also many more Asians and Indians pursuing acting now, which is great, but it also creates more competition as well, so it kind of evens out.”
Despite improvement in the number of APAs appearing in front of the camera, APAs are still less likely than actors from any other racial group to appear in primary roles.
“I will only be sent out for roles that fit me,” said Parekh. “Those leading parts for ethnic actors need to be written, so we can go audition for them. It starts with the writers. I am so grateful to Jack Orman, who wrote the [“Pan Am”] pilot, for writing an Indian character for a show that would not normally have ethnic actors. The show may be set in the 60s, but it’s very forward thinking in terms of its characters.”
A role model?
The increased presence of Indian Americans on TV has been dubbed the ‘Slumdog Millionaire effect’ by a TV executive. Last year, NBC aired a comedy that featured a nearly all-Indian cast. Unfortunately, “Outsourced” didn’t last more than a season, but perhaps it signaled a cultural change.
Today, prime time TV has a fair number of South Asians in regular or notable recurring roles. In comedy alone, Kal Penn is returning to TV starting with a stint on “How I Met Your Mother,” Dani Pudi is a co-star on NBC’s “Community,” Kunal Nayyar is one of a quintet on the super popular “Big Bang Theory,” and the two celebrity heavyweights, Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, are both doing quite fine in careers outside and inside of their respective shows, “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office.”
The increasing numbers mean that South Asian and other APA kids are seeing more people like them on TV.
“I never thought of myself as a role model, but I guess it comes with the territory,” said Parekh. “I don’t feel responsible [for being a role model] because [acting is] something that I love to do. It just happens that what I do is presented to the world and anyone can watch. [But] in terms of being an actor and the way I behave off set — yes. In terms of the discipline and perseverance it takes to be an actor — yes.”
“I hope young kids out there are inspired and don’t give up on their dreams, whatever they may be,” added Parekh. “I think it’s great that kids can watch the show and see someone like them on TV. It can inspire them and give them hope that ‘Hey, I can do something like that, too.’ The responsibility lies on their parents, to support their kids if they want to pursue a career such as acting.”
“Since [“Pan Am”] is about aviation, someone might even be inspired to become a pilot. Wouldn’t that be great?” (end)
“Pan Am” airs Sunday on ABC at 10 p.m. For more information about the show, visit abc.go.com/shows/pan-am. For more information about Kal Parekh, visit kalparekh.com or follow him on Twitter at @i_Kal.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.