Before he was Ranjit, the computer-savvy host of the Metro PCS-created Tech and Talk or the head of an Indian call center on Jimmy Kimmel Live, actor-producer Anjul Nigam, had quite a different ambition when he was a child growing up in suburban Connecticut during the late 1960s and early 1970s. What started as an innocent ambition of a pre-teen living a couple hours north of New York City turned into a real-life dream, what with Anjul setting up a production company (Brittany House Productions) and landing roles in Terminator Salvation, Cloverfield, Grey’s Anatomy, and CSI:NY, to name a few. While all the other kids were running around pretending to be “cops and robbers” or wishing upon a star to be a fireman or a doctor, Anjul set his eyes on becoming an actor.
Yet the production company, the Ranjit character with Metro PCS, as well as a recurring sketch comedy gig imitating a call center employee on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live were all the result of a dream followed by tough times, endurance, and hard work.
“Every kid is always talking about what they want to be when they grow up. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I wanted to be an actor,” Anjul excitedly recalled during a lunch interview with Buzzine. “At that time, for me, it was Charleston Heston and The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin. I wanted to be the next TV hero or movie hero. And that’s a very important word, ‘hero,’ because that’s what was inspiring me. It wasn’t stardom but heroism.”
But the New York University-trained actor certainly had his work cut out for him. While he knew where he wanted to go, little did he realize the road to his final destination would be as arduous as it ultimately became.
At first, all seemed to come too easy for Anjul. In 1982, at the ripe age of 16, he simultaneously landed three part-time gigs at local businesses in order to pay for a car his parents promised him. Yet, at the same time, he was also accepted into a scholarship program for the arts. Ironically enough, it was his parents who convinced him to forget about the part-time gigs and instead pursue the scholarship program. Accordingly, Anjul paid heed and pursued the opportunity.
Alas, when he graduated the program, he was convinced acting was the route for him. When it came time to apply for college, he applied to the best theatrical schools America had to offer, eventually landing at NYU. During NYU, his first acting gig was as a terrorist in a video produced for the U.S. Armed Forces called Hostage Crisis and Terrorist Management.
Then came the move to Los Angeles in 1989 where, in the first 13 days, Anjul bought a car, rented an apartment, signed with an agent, landed a job at a restaurant called Star Gazers at The Roosevelt Hotel, and secured his first acting gig in town as a young kid working the late shift at a convenience store opposite Kirk Cameron in Growing Pains.
“Within a month, I thought I was all set. I just did a guest lead … that got coverage on Entertainment Tonight and a few other shows of that time. I thought this was too easy…but it wasn’t. I didn’t work (as an actor) for another year.”
Instead, he worked as a waiter at several restaurants and as a character actor doing magic tricks for private parties. Yet, after working similar gigs for nearly four years, Anjul’s luck started to change and his patience began to pay off. First came an audition for 1994’s The Jungle Book, then a fateful move into an apartment building that was purchased by the Metro Transit Authority. When the government paid out the tenants under eminent domain, Anjul received enough money to get out of debt and still have enough left over to survive without work, ergo giving him time and energy to focus a little more on his acting career.
Over the next few years, his career entered the “work begets work” phase, with one audition leading to another, with the small gigs piling up and acting resume finally starting to have some substance to it. It was not long before the Indian-American started to become one of the most visible ethnic actors of his generation.
Of course, Anjul did not see himself as a role model of sorts. Sure, he was one of a select number of Indian-Americans to have had any sort of success as an actor, yet Anjul sees it as merely being at the right place at the right time.
“I think every ethnicity, every group, every minority has people who are pioneers, and many times they are not pioneers who did it for those who were following but because they had their own vested interest in succeeding in a field that previously hadn’t been broken into,” he frankly told Buzzine.
As for his Metro PCS alter-ego, Ranjit, Mr. Nigam feels the protests and negative disposition against the apparently stereotypical character — one who speaks with a thick Indian accent and plays into common Indian misconceptions — are misplaced.
“The characters, I think, are quite well-researched. It’s about whether the character … is three-dimensional. Do they have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Do they fit in the story arc in a way that it moves it along and is integral to it?” Anjul rhetorically asked. “If they are perpetuating a negative stereotype, that is something different. A negative stereotype is perpetuated when the character is on the fringes of the story arc because it needs to fulfill an idea the audience had as quickly as possible.
“But when a role is significant and substantial, we (Ranjit and Chad) do have a beginning, middle and end; we do have a certain character arc the creators are building toward.”
Anjul added that the ability to make fun of oneself is not necessarily a bad thing but instead indicates an understanding of one’s place in their life.
“I think the Jimmy Kimmel sketches and Metro PCS commercials are hysterical because it is milking a joke that is based upon a truth. Yes, it’s a stereotype, but all stereotypes are based on a truth. If we are not yet in a place to make fun of ourselves, I don’t know who is,” he said, adding that Indians as a minority have already arrived in the United States, in that we are financially well off, professionally respected, and now a member of an ethnic group that can lay claim to an Academy Award for Best Picture in Slumdog Millionaire.
“It kind of upsets me when I hear Indians particularly having an issue with it because they haven’t recognized their own position in society, which is, ‘God damn it, take a bow!’”
While he feels Indians in the United States should recognize how far they have come as an ethnicity, perhaps it is only a matter of time before Anjul himself is recognized for the doors he has opened for Indian-American actors since he first appeared on Growing Pains more than 20 years ago.