“People think Rajiv Gidwani is a jackass!” – Rizwan Manji

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NBC’s new sitcom Outsourced has done what no other show has done: introduced India and the call center culture to the world. While the show opened to some initial skeptic reactions, it has gone on to create waves and one of the characters who adds to the funny quotient of the show is Rajiv Gidwani played by Rizwan Manji. The actor, who has been a part of the American television industry for many years, has appeared on a number of popular sitcoms including Glee and 24. However, it is through Outsourced that he really arrived…and how! His character, a call center manager, is perceived as rude, obnoxious and greedy but in reality, the actor is anything but that. BollySpice sat down and spoke to Rizwan as he spoke volumes about Outsourced, being Rajiv Gidwani and divulged some unknown details about the sitcom.

How did you bag the role of Rajiv Gidwani?

I actually read the script February of last year and I had read a bunch of different pilot scripts. And this was by far my favorite one. I laughed out loud and my agent at that time had said that they felt that I could possibly do either Rajiv or Gupta. Then I read it and thought I’d like to try out for Rajiv. I think that’s where I think I would fit into the script. However, at that time, the casting department saw my demo reel and they said I think he’d fit more into the role of Gupta. So I actually went in and read for the role of Gupta. There was a two day screen test where I went up against Parvesh [Cheena], for the role of Gupta and ended up not getting the part. And Parvesh has been a friend of mine for a long time so though I was upset, I sent him an email and I said, “I’m so happy for your – I hate you, but I’m very happy for you.” (Laughs) And then I had another test to do for another pilot called Tax Man. So I was gearing up to do that. I was ready to do that and test for it. And then I got a call saying that the people that they had auditioned for Rajiv, the network had passed on all of them and would I be interested in and testing for Rajiv. I found out late one night, my wife was out of town and I was alone with the baby. I had a friend come over, we did the lines and the next morning I went in to audition. Within 24 hours the network had said, this is our guy!

Oh, cool!

Yeah, in the end it sort of worked out the way it was supposed to.

What did you know about the call center culture in India and how did you prepare for your role?

I was born in Canada, grew up there and had been in America for the last 15 years or so. And so definitely the call center culture, I just know it from our end; you know calling the call center and so on. So I’ve had a similar experience where it’s been outsourced to India. However, my wife and I backpacked around the world in 2002-2003. We were gone for a year and we spent six months in India. And the only little glimpse I got of a call center was when my wife was approached to train the employees on how to speak in an American accent. My wife is Indian but was bought up in New York. So we had literally very briefly visited it and then she decided she didn’t want to do it so that was that. That was my only real touch in the call center culture. I think for the sake of a sitcom we’re familiar with the way a call center works and at end of the day, its more about the comedy. That is where the focus is as in how are we going to make this sitcom that has characters you’ve never seen on television before funny and relatable to an American audience.

You played a Sindhi in Glee and in Outsourced. The character of Rajiv is Sindhi, like me.

Yeah! There is a whole bunch of irony in all of this because I was actually shooting that Glee episode the day that I found out that I booked Outsourced. I was on the set when I found out. It was very ironic that I was shooting for Glee and I booked the series. It was kind of strange and ironic.

A lot of the Indian viewers that have seen Outsourced watch it and say it’s funny but it’s exaggerated.

I think what’s interesting to me is that the Indian community has responded so positively to the show. We just had an event where there were 4000 Indian people and the entire cast was mobbed. I think the Indian community is responding to it so well. Even with Bollywood films, in comedy, everything is a little bit exaggerated. I don’t disagree but I think its inline with other sitcoms that are on television. It’s a sitcom! Forget about Indian stereotypes. We had My Name is Earl, we were stereotyping people who lived in trailers—these are sitcom characters who are exaggerated not necessarily the Indian community. I think there was an article in The New York Times which said they sent the pilot episode to a call center in India and asked them what they thought. They thought it was hysterical and yeah, it was exaggerated but if you came and filmed us in a call center doing exactly what they do, who would watch it? It wouldn’t be funny.

What research did you have to do into the Sindhi community and so on? Did you expect or anticipate the hype and curiosity the show has generated?

Once again, the written script was hysterical and I always felt that there was something magical about the show that it was going to go places. Of course, I’m not foolish and I knew there would be a lot of hurdles; there had never been a show like this on television so I knew there would be some hurdles. I don’t know how to put it but when I saw the pilot, before it had been picked up by NBC, there was something about it. Just by publicity, not all good, because of the political situation there was outsourcing of jobs, stereotyping and so on. But I feel now that after 8 episodes have aired, that people realize that you’re seeing more about these South Asian characters than you have ever seen. You’re learning about their friends, family and so on. And so some of the initial controversy, I hope some of it has resolved.

How have people reacted to your character?

It’s very interesting. Mostly, I’ve played a geeky nerd who has been endearing in their own right. I think this is on the largest scale where I play a guy who is kind of a jerk. And I feel like people are responding to it. When you look on Facebook and Twitter, I think they love that Rajiv is not your obedient Indian guy. Some people can’t separate the character from the actor so sometimes people are like, “Oh my god, he’s such a jackass!” But I get it; they’re saying it about the character.

How is it working with the cast and crew of Outsourced?

I know everyone says this but I honestly really mean it, but we’re sort of get along together so well and spend so much time together, it’s ridiculous. We even spend our days off together! We’re constantly texting each other. A lot of the cast flew in from New York, England and so on. So they don’t really have a friend circle here so whenever my wife, my daughter and I are going out to eat, we’ll call them. A lot of this is new to us; we’ve never been on a show like this before. We’re going through it together so we’re always with each other all the time.

What can you tell us about what will happen next on Outsourced?

Okay, there is an interesting thing that is going on, that is Madhuri [Anisha Nagarajan] who is the quiet one is actually a singer, she was in Bombay Dreams. She gets to do a little singing and in the process we have a little Bollywood dance number and I get to do a little singing, we won’t tell you if its good or bad but gets to do a little talent portion. And the most amazing thing that I’ll tell you is that they have built a full scale Mumbai train! Literally we walked in and it’s like they built the Titanic. It was insane and I don’t know what kind of budget we do the entire episode on the train as the call center employees go on a retreat. It is going to look amazing and it’s definitely an episode to look forward to.

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