A few weeks ago, the trailer for the new CBS sitcom United States of Al dropped, and immediately sparked controversy. The show follows war vets Riley (Parker Young) and Afghan interpreter Awalmir, or Al (Adhir Kalyan) as they try to rebuild their lives after having spent so much time away at war. 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.
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, Adhir Kalyan is not Afghan.
What is Adhir Kalyan's ethnicity?
Actor Adhir Kalyan is 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.
So, why exactly is it a big deal that an Indian and South African-born actor is playing someone who is supposed to be from Afghanistan? Well, it's a common issue that's plagued Hollywood for a long, 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.
Series producer Reza Aslan defended himself by tweeting that four out of five Afghan characters are played by Afgahs, and that even though they had 100 Afghan leads, Adhir ended up being the best choice: "There are five Afghan characters in the show and four of them are played by Afghans. 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."
Someone 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."
Reza explained, "The dream for us has always been to get a Muslim protagonist on network television, someone who could really reframe the perceptions of so many Americans about Muslims or people from this broad region. We knew that Dave and Maria would be the perfect shepherds for this and that Chuck would be the kind of person who could take very heavy topics like immigration xenophobia and transform them into something entertaining and palatable, but without necessarily taking the edge away."
At this point, it's unclear if "doing something about it" means recasting — a tough call to make, considering Adhir is the face of the show.
Watch United States of Al every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. EST on CBS.