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South African Actor Adhir Kalyan Headlines CBS Comedy ‘United States Of Al’

South African Actor Adhir Kalyan Headlines CBS Comedy ‘United States Of Al’

Staff Writer
  • His essaying an Afghan character sparks controversy for being presented as a trope.

South African-Indian actor Adhir Kalyan is set for the title role in “The United States Of Al,” a CBS’ multi-camera comedy pilot from “The Big Bang Theory” co-creator/executive producer Chuck Lorre, fellow “Big Bang” executive producers David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, TV personality and scholar of religious studies Reza Aslan and Warner Bros.TV.

Kalyan, a “Rules of Engagement” alum, made his American television debut in CW’s “Aliens in America,” another buddy/fish-out-of-water comedy set in the Midwest. Kalyan played a Pakistani exchange student staying with a teenage boy and his family in Wisconsin. 

Talking to CBS about the show and working during the pandemic, Kalyan said, “I feel so grateful to have even been able to work against the backdrop of everything that’s been unfolding in the world. But with these new protocols, rigorous testing, having to maintain social distancing and masks, sometimes multiple tests a day, you would think that it would feel stranger than it sounds.” He added, “We were able to sort of get into a rhythm quite early on, and if anything, being so contained has allowed us to get really close to each other really quickly. All we do is really be between our home lives and our work lives. I actually think if anything, if there is a silver lining to this, it’s been that we’ve been able to really band together as a cast in quite a unique way.” However, the one drawback Kalyan pointed out was, “One big difference that we haven’t been able to perform in front of the live studio audience, which I guess is the idea initially behind the show. So hopefully once we open up again, if we’re fortunate to have a decent run on the air, maybe at some point!”

Kalyan co-starred on CBS’ comedy series “Rules of Engagement,” playing the series-regular role of Timmy for five seasons. He remained on the CBS comedy executives’ radar and was cast in the network’s half-hour pilot “To Whom It May Concern” last season. He recently recurred in the fifth season of “Arrested Development” on Netflix and in Jill Soloway’s Amazon series “I Love Dick”. His recent feature credits include “A Nice Girl Like You”, opposite Lucy Hale, and “Chemical Hearts”, opposite Lili Reinheart.

“The United States of Al” is a multi-camera comedy about the friendship between Riley, a Marine combat veteran struggling to readjust to civilian life in Ohio, and Awalmir aka Al (Kalyan), the interpreter who served with his unit in Afghanistan. Riley invites Al to live with his family as Al waits for the rest of his family back in Afghanistan to emigrate to the U.S. The show kicks off with Al just arriving to start a new life in America. But the show isn’t without controversy. While the concept itself isn’t exactly offensive on its own, many people feel that not only is Al’s character presented in a very trope-y way (think jokes about not being able to drink alcohol because of Al’s Muslim faith, Afghanistan actually having things like WiFi, and the Borat-esque surprise of Al kissing everyone on the cheek when he greets them). 

Plus, Kalyan is not Afghan, but Indian and was born in Durban, South Africa. In 2005, he moved to London to start his acting career, and he currently lives in Los Angeles. It’s a common issue that’s plagued Hollywood for a long time. Brown actors have been used to represent Indian and Middle Eastern folks interchangeably, which is damaging on many levels. Although “United States of Al” had a chance to represent Afghan individuals, they confusingly chose not to, reports Distractify. 

Series producer Reza Aslan defended himself by tweeting that four out of five Afghan characters are played by Afghans, and that even though they had 100 Afghan leads, Kalyan ended up being the best choice. “There are five Afghan characters in the show and four of them are played by Afghans,” he said. We saw 100 Afghan leads but sitcom is a specialized genre and it’s very tough to play. But we also have four Afghan writers/producers on the show who’ve done a great job helping Adhir.” 

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Sahar Ghumkhor replied to Reza, saying, “Hang on so despite your “efforts” you still managed to offer us yet another Hollywood stereotype? Not even close to any Afghan accent.  A total fabrication of what happens to interpreters, the violent relationship that brings this about “war is a punchline.”

However, it does seem like CBS and Reza are listening. Reza recently spoke during a panel discussion for the 92nd Street Y, saying, “We understand. As Brown people in this country, we know better than most, the sensitivity that a lot of people have about the way that Hollywood has represented them.” He added, “[My tweet was] not anger at all. It’s not even defensiveness. It’s  an attempt to say that we hear what you’re hearing. We’re saying we understand your fear. What you don’t understand is that we have bent over backwards, trying to do something about it.” 

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