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ABC's 'Quantico' Is A Breakthrough for South Asians on TV

ABC/Eric Liebowitz

ABC’s new FBI drama, Quantico, starts with a bang in the debris of midtown Manhattan, where a terrorist attack has just obliterated Grand Central Station. Amidst sirens and falling ash, the camera hones in on a brown arm and hand, manicured, dusty, waiting to be identified and possibly rescued. On the woman’s stiff wrist, we can make out a bracelet bearing an “om” pendant. The hand belongs to Priyanka Chopra, Quantico’s lead and the first Indian actor to star in a primetime drama on American TV.

Priyanka Chopra is a superstar in India, and it’s not difficult to see why. A Bollywood actress and former beauty pageant queen, she’s played versatile characters with great depth in her Hindi films, including a take-no-prisoners champion boxer in the true story Mary Kom and an autistic woman in Barfi! In Quantico, which premieres Sunday night, she plays Alex Parrish, an FBI recruit who is also a suspected terrorist. 

Chopra arrives on television screens at a time when rapidly shifting demographics and lively political debate are unearthing a new round of ugly nativism in the United States. In casting a Bollywood star, the network is either taking a calculated risk, or it has finally come to believe that whitewashing diverse stories is no longer necessary for success. In the same way that Trevor Noah will give an international depth to The Daily Show during a time when national discussion on race is agonizingly narrow and stunted, Quantico may be ABC’s offering to an American audience yearning for a reframing of a national conversation that barely scratches the surface of brownness.

I’ve been waiting for Chopra’s big cross-Atlantic break for months now, and wondering to what extent her obvious Indian heritage will be embraced or erased by Hollywood. As an Indian-American woman who served in the Marines, I am particularly thrilled that an Indian woman is playing an FBI agent on primetime television. South Asians in the United States are rarely cast as tough guys (and if we are, we certainly aren’t the good guys). In American pop culture, we’re mostly reduced to absurd caricatures. If we’re not computer-fixers or engineers, we’re taxi drivers, newspaper stand owners, or outsourced call center clerks with unbearably thick accents. More often, we’re simply ignored. 

Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari are two huge exceptions to South Asian invisibility in American pop culture, but the fact that they’re comedians makes them slightly less exceptional. Voices of color often break into the American imagination through entertainment, particularly comedy. It seems if we can be laughed at, and if we can laugh at ourselves, there’s a place for us at the national table. And so I’ve been hungry for venues in which South Asians are breaking new ground, without hiding their heritage or altering their names. (Even the political ascendancy of Governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal says as much about their ability to whitewash their heritage and assimilate into a still racist southern culture as it does about the success of Indians in America.) Aside from Archie Panjabi’s fantastically rich character Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife, few serious, substantive roles have been given to Indian actors.

In this context, Quantico does something deliciously new with race. Instead of completely whitewashing the actors’ backgrounds, or forcing them into stereotyped caricatures, Quantico thrusts each character’s complex set of identities out there for us to digest and attempt to understand. The show seems to be asking us, constantly, do we really know these folks? Within minutes, we are introduced to an overview of the rich diversity in America among the FBI recruits—we’re even given an impressive crash course on various practices in Mormonism and Islam. The show wants to leave us wondering about what makes a person what she is. Is it race, or nationality? Is it gender? Is it who she sleeps with and why? Is it what our families have raised us to be? How, in fact, does one profile a human being, or a suspect, in this day and age? 

Quantico’s Academy looks nothing like the real thing. In today’s FBI, the vast majority of special agents are white men. Quantico’s cast looks more like Shondaland—people of color play authority figures, women are multi-dimensional, and there seem to be agents in training with ties to every part of the world. In real life, most of these characters would never get through an initial background check. But it doesn’t matter—Quantico is letting us play with identity, and imagine a world that is far more interesting.

Our first lesson in Quantico is that no one is as they seem; typical racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes don’t serve either the agents or the audience. It’s what allows the show to delay clarifying Chopra’s own identity and background, making her in many ways the agent we know the least about. We don’t even hear mention of Mumbai until the end of the first episode. If anything, Quantico wants us to think of the other agents as outsiders, while Alex, with her whitewashed name and slightly diluted Indian accent, remains an elusive insider. It’s unfortunate that this might be the network’s strategy in successfully casting Chopra, in doing what the industry loves to think of as mainstreaming. Even though she’s obviously Indian, let’s pretend she’s only half-so, and only if and when it’s convenient.

Perhaps the most compelling character in this diverse group is Nimah Amin, a Muslim FBI agent who wears a colorful assortment of headscarfs and speaks with an Arabic accent. Played by Lebanese actress Yasmine Al Massri, Nimah’s presence on the show puts America’s culture war with Islam in the crosshairs, and then complicates it. It’s a bold move and a delicate balance, as Americans have long fetishized and reduced practicing Muslim women to naive, subservient victims. Nimah has all the qualities of educated Muslim women around the world—feisty, quick-witted, and unafraid to speak their minds. Her intelligence and outspokenness challenge notions that she is subservient to a religion that controls her. It’s fun to watch her excel at pull-ups while her blond, all-American male colleague struggles. 

In one scene, Nimah interrogates her gay Jewish colleague Simon Asher, played sensitively by Tate Ellington; it’s a precious example of how television can sometimes elevate U.S. political dialogue about the Middle East instead of tip-toeing around it. Their conversation evokes the power of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced, in which no truth about religion and hatred is left unspoken. That Nimah is in full control of this scene, that she has the power over Simon as well as the last word, and that Simon seems to embrace it, is what brings it its vitality.

Quantico puts women’s power in the spotlight in other refreshing ways. Where institutions like the military and other agencies tend to foster an unfortunate competitiveness, even backstabbing among the few women vying for respect, Quantico seems to move beyond this. The glass ceiling in the agency is ever-present, with the head of the Academy, Miranda Shaw (played with confidence by Aunjanue Ellis), reminding her colleague that it’s by hard work alone that she’s risen up the ranks, but that it’s still not enough. At one point, a wealthy southern sharpshooter quips that Miranda is a “sexless, heartless, pontificating robot” to which her pretty-boy male counterpart responds that it “worked for Hillary.” As the men in the room laugh in unison, the diverse group of female agents universally scowl. In a later scene, where Miranda is helping Alex escape a hairy situation, I was reminded of Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road helping sex slaves flee across the desert, heralding a new age in which women have one another’s backs, in every clime and place.

Despite its main character’s whitewashed name, Quantico doesn’t pretend to be “post-racial” or “color-blind.” The show asks us to look beyond superficial layers of identity, beyond the typical boundaries that have stymied both the national debate and our collective imagination, to search for the complex, sometimes hidden truths in our own narratives, and others. The question remains if Quantico and Alex Parrish will live up to this new world order, and if the show will truly expand the definition of who has a say in the American cultural landscape. So far, they’re off to a promising start.