the race to primetime

Das Racist Rapper Heems’ New Project: Shaking Up South Asian Representation on TV

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photo by Getty Images

Over FaceTime from his hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Queens-bred rapper Himanshu “Heems” Suri looks exhausted but elated. He’s just wrapped a show, and is supposed to be working on a novel and a performance-art residency, but he’s taking a break to explore the broader Asian rap scene. He loves what he’s found so far. “Yesterday I saw seven Indian dudes onstage wilding out,” he says in slight disbelief. “It’s cool for me to see that, you know?”

Back in 2008, Suri’s old group Das Racist found freak success with “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” a kind of an anti-comedy novelty song that they recorded by accident while checking microphone levels in the studio and subsequently released as a prank. For some inexplicable reason, the song was a perfect match for the early LOLcat-obsessed internet culture. Uneasy about getting pegged as a joke rapper, the Wesleyan grad and former finance guy quickly decided to use his 15 seconds of viral fame to do more serious stuff. He campaigned for his childhood friend Ali Najmi’s failed run for Queens City Council and, more successfully, to keep the taxi-driver-beloved Punjabi Deli open after construction screwed up its parking situation. He organized a show of contemporary artists of South Asian descent, and squadded up with Salman Rushdie and Waris Ahluwalia. Three years after Das Racist’s 2012 breakup, Suri channeled his experiences in post-9/11 America into his first solo album, Eat Pray Thug. Grimy New York hip-hop and global politics served as the backdrop for the raw memoir of an album, which made a respectable showing on 2015 year-end album lists.

And now, after all that, Heems is ready to make people laugh again.

Within the next few weeks, Suri is slated to find out if Fox is going to produce a single-camera sitcom, also called Eat Pray Thug, based on his real-life experiences as a rapper on the verge of 30 who moves back in with his immigrant parents on Long Island. Utkarsh Ambudkar, best known for playing Mindy Kaling’s brother Rishi on The Mindy Project and the rapping member of the Treblemakers in Pitch Perfect, will play Suri. Co-producer Sanjay Shah — a writer and executive producer on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, and a former writer for King of the Hill — just turned in the pilot’s script. (Should Fox pass on the series, the trio will have the opportunity to sell it elsewhere.) The all–South Asian creative team is partly a reaction to a glaring lack of representation in the entertainment business (”I do a head count whenever I walk into a meeting,” Ambudkar says), and partly due to chance. Ambudkar, who first met Heems in 2009, when his old rap group the Beatards played with Das Racist, actually went to 21st Century Fox earlier this year with an idea to produce a family comedy about a rapping South Asian millennial. He even had the idea of bringing in Shah, right around the time Shah himself was pitching Eat Pray Thug. “We decided to Wu-Tang that shit and put our powers together,” Ambudkar jokes.

As all three are quick to point out, they probably wouldn’t be working together on a sitcom about an Indian family if it weren’t for shows like Black-ish, Empire, and Fresh Off the Boat. The recent hits have, thankfully, shown networks that prime-time shows led by minority casts and directly addressing race appeal well beyond their expected demographic. “There’s a huge Asian audience who, for obvious reasons might relate to the show, but there’s a huge African-American audience, and just a huge minority audience in general,” Shah says of Fresh Off the Boat, also based on a celeb’s life (chef Eddie Huang, who has distanced himself from the show over time). “Our jokes are pretty specific sometimes to Chinese-American, Taiwanese-American culture, yet people outside of that culture find something that they can connect with.”

Still, some things can get lost in translation. At the heart of Eat Pray Thug’s premise sits the idea that Heems’ character moved back in with his parents not because he can’t hack it in the outside world, but because he’s done so well assimilating into mainstream culture that he’s afraid of losing touch with his roots. That’s something mainstream American culture has a hard time wrapping its mind around, whereas in first-generation immigrant families, as Shah points out, moving back in with your parents doesn’t carry the same baggage. When a Brooklyn Vegan story about Eat Pray Thug (the album) mentioned that Heems had moved in with his parents while making the album, the usual scourge hanging around the BV comments section piled on the cracks about Heems being “an indie rock failure who had to move back home.”

“It’s so depressing to me that Americans think that way,” Suri says. “What American society teaches you is that if you move home that means you’re broke, or that you need your parents’ money. For me, moving home was wanting to help my parents out, wanting to connect myself with who I was before 9/11, before Wesleyan, before Brooklyn. It was definitely part of a growth process, because I recently turned 30. I wanted to be around the people who have been there from the beginning, as I progress into what I consider to be real adulthood.”

Besides, Suri says, “Rappers are from New York, man. We live with our moms. We’re talking like we out there clubbing and making money and then we go back home. I love on [Young Thug’s] Barter 6 when Young Dolph says, ‘Momma say all my big booty bitches trashy.’ That’s a line I can relate to. When you bring a girl home and your mom’s like, ‘Nah, not this one.’”

Heems’ own mother, Veena, came to New York from India in 1980 after her arranged marriage to Gireesh Suri, who’d emigrated the year before. At this point, after raising a son who’s career was built on a song about fast-food chains, both seem unfazed and open to having their lives mined for sitcom plot material. “As the child of immigrants,” Suri says, “even up until a couple months ago I always had this thing of, ‘Oh, what will parents think?’ I’ve finally lost that. They’re always curious about me. They always kind of look at me like, How is this our kid? My sister’s a pretty normal Indian-American. My 16 cousins in Queens are all pharmacists and engineers. In Punjabi culture they rhyme things a lot to lessen the impact of it, so it’s always like, ‘What is this art-shart thing you do?’ They always look at me and scratch their heads, but they have a trust in my capability.”

Suri, Shah, and Ambudkar hope that getting the fictional Suris on TV will help open doors for real-world South Asian actors. “Ten years ago, I was auditioning for, like, cab drivers and gas-station attendants, and I had to do an accent for every audition. Five years ago was Outsourced,” Ambudkar says of the now-infamous, thankfully short-lived NBC sitcom about a white American working at an Indian call center, which TV Guide called “a sewer of offensive caricatures and lame jokes” and “the comedy equivalent of ethnic cleansing.” “There’s an argument that can be made that anything cultural moves our people forward, but that show — not to disparage the actors or writers — didn’t do many things for my people.”

“There’s a lot more variety now for South Asian actors,” Ambudkar continues. “We used to all fight over the same role, which was really only right for one of us to begin with. Now, for the 20 or 25 of us that are working regularly, there’s enough variety out there in television and film that all of us get to eat.” It’s a common enough issue for actors of South Asian descent that Aziz Ansari devoted an entire episode (“Indians on TV”) of Master of None — another show whose recent success could help Eat Pray Thug’s chances of getting picked up — to exposing the rampant typecasting.

The show’s main priority is to make people laugh, but like much smart comedy, there’s a larger motive at work that involves changing people’s minds. Eat Pray Thug’s creators want the show to represent the unique and highly specific aspects of South-Asian-American culture while underlining the fact that those experiences have universal parallels. If they succeed, it’ll be through more subtle tactics than Very Special Episodes and heavy-handed moralizing. “The exciting thing about the work,” Ambudkar says, “is that by creating strong characters who have great relationships with each other, you’re able to broach these larger subjects. We’re making a musical comedy. If we can make them cry laughing, that’s the goal. If we can make them nod their heads and bounce to the music, that’s great. And if they start changing their worldview of what a South-Asian-American looks like, that’s a start.”

Inside Heems’ TV Dreams, With Eat Pray Thug