by Bill Smyth
photography by Walling McGarity
I happen to catch Aasif Mandvi a few days after he caught Springsteen at one of his last Meadowlands show. Any serious New Yorker, or East Coaster/Jerseyite, would have killed for these tickets and Aasif was blown away by The Boss’s agility. “I’m amazed… the guy’s, like, how old? He’s going to be 60 years old, and he performed like three solid hours, he didn’t even talk between songs, he just goes out – bang, bang – three solid hours, one song after the next. I was very impressed.”
After talking to Mandvi, I was impressed. I was expecting to laugh throughout my phoner, but what I left with was this: a political conscious actor whose perspective on the state of America was sharper and more keen than I expected – and his acting resume does, and will, prove it.
His next big film – he’s had supporting roles in Ghost Town with Ricky Gervais, and Music and Lyrics By with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore – is Avatar: The Last Airbender due out next summer, an M. Night Shyamalan flick based on the popular Nickelodeon cartoon. Shyamalan has made a live action version in which Mandvi plays Admiral Zhao, leader of the Fire Nation. He trained in martial arts and was “brutally” tortured.
“I trained for about a month with very well-built martial artists and they kicked my ass and called me a pussy every day,” Mandvi laughs. “I was belittled and was told I was a big, wet pussy… I asked for a mirror so I could see what I was doing and they made fun of me for about three weeks. The thing is I’m an actor, I’m lame, whatever. I used about 1 percent of what I trained.”
The topic of getting one’s ass kicked turned to Mandvi’s political and social musings on alleged torture at Guantanamo, the CIA being tried for such torture, America’s immigration crisis, his thoughts on Obama, and how the United States views “brown” people. It’s Mandvi’s political projects that show his many skills. It’s one thing to star on a hit TV show that brings a humorous aspect to politics. But it is much more daring to go out and create such important media on some of the toughest topics facing the state of the nation. Mandvi has his hands, and mind, on all things politics.
Growing up in the UK and then in Florida – Tampa area – Mandvi always felt like an immigrant. “As an immigrant kid, you’re always living that life in between cultures,” insists Mandvi. “My Parents are from India, but I grew up in UK and the US, so I’ve always been an outsider. I always felt like I came from another country.”
On immigration, Mandvi says, like most do, it is a complicated situation. “I don’t know what the answer is. I know it’s a complicated subject… I did a piece for The Daily Show where we went down to the Mexican border and talked with people about the immigration issue, about illegals coming across the border, and stuff like that, and I think there’s a lot of interdependency when you get down there in that culture, down there in Texas. People who are dependent on those migrant workers… it is a dysfunctional interdependent relationship that I think Americans have with illegals, and I think it’s complicated.”
From Florida, Mandvi went to New York and starred in the critically acclaimed Sakina’s Restaurant, an off-Broadway play where Mandvi starred in his own one-man show, playing multiple characters across his South Asian culture. He just wrapped Today’s Special – loosely based off Sakina’s – a New York style Tandoori comedy, which he co-wrote and stars in. Mandvi plays “Samir,” a talented cook who dreams of being a great chef who is forced to abandon his dream and run his father’s Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights.
His thirst for showcasing cultural identity in his work was also evident in the docudrama/ stage production, 2004’s Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. The play took “real life interviews from family members of prisoners of Guantanamo, took letters written by prisoners, and took interviews of Jack Straw and Donald Rumsfeld and various members of the military at the time. We did it at the time of national election, doing the play while the Republican National Convention was going on and it was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever been a part of.”
Mandvi more recently did a film written by Sig Libowitz about a series of Guantanamo military tribunal transcripts called The Response, a short film “playing at The Pentagon, was already at the Washington DC Film Festival, and it is a very powerful dramatization about one detainees [experience] taken from a composite of various detainees’ tribunals and it is also taken from actual transcripts of tribunals. It highlights the absurdity of the nature of the military tribunals… it is a kind of paradox on how the detainees have fallen down a rabbit hole. Nothing makes sense and after you see the movie or read the transcripts, to a logical person there is an absence of logic.
It’s the absence of logic in the American justice system that irks Mandvi. He believes that torture has never been proven to “give us anything of value. I think that we could get most people to confess to a horrific crime if you just torture them enough. I think it is proven as not a method that achieves any information we can use. Most of the information achieved by torture is not admissible in court.
“America, this is what I feel like: Are we living up the standards that we want to spread throughout the world? Or we don’t live up to the standards. It is a very simple equation for me. We don’t want people to torture our guys and people get pissed off when they torture our guys. So you can’t do it. It’s like the nuclear equation: As long as you [US] have a nuclear bomb then everyone else can’t have one. Everyone has one or no one. We’re allowed to have a nuclear bomb, we’re allowed to torture, we can have one, but you’re not allowed to torture and you can’t have one. That is unfair. Even if you’re talking to Iran. Even if you are talking to a nation you feel is irresponsible with that, who is the judge, who judges that? There is only one country that has been to war constantly since 1945 and that is the United States.
“Show respect for the other side who have a different point of view. We can’t go into a country and say we are here to spread democracy and we’re here for the rights of women and freedom and then we do things that have been outlawed by the Magna Carta. You can’t have that hypocrisy. People see that and it invalidates everything we stand for.”
On the current president, he breathes a sigh of relief. “What I love about Obama is that I feel that we now have a president that actually listens… The image of a black man whose middle name is Hussein is the president of the US, the fact that that exists means something that it is a symbol the way the Statue of Liberty is a symbol, but I think America has a long way to go, we’ve already seen the backlash in the eight months that Obama has been president and how much of the underlining fear of him has been generated and brought up and instigated within this country. I do believe a lot of it is directed at him because he is not a white man, that a ‘black man being president will automatically run America inside out.’”
We chat about the word socialism and how the term conjures up images of Hugo Chavez. He believes America is not ready for it; Capitalism has a firm grip. “I grew up in a socialist country, grew up in the UK, so I grew up in both capitalist and socialist societies. I also think that this is country where the consumer culture runs everything. Whether it is the government running everything or whether it is corporations running everything, this country is run by corporate interests. And everything we are a part of is a corporate feeding cycle and every one of us is. It is the reality of the culture and the society. Is it better than socialism? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem that way right now.”