There is something refreshingly different about a new comedy series that premiered this fall on NBC – a major television network of the United States. Outsourced is the first sitcom ever in the country to feature a primarily South Asian cast, one of whom is an Ismaili Muslim.
Thirty-six-year-old Rizwan Manji plays the part of Rajiv Gidwani, an ambitious and conniving assistant manager of a call centre in India. Manji is not an unfamiliar face in the entertainment industry. His acting career includes numerous roles in TV shows such as Without a Trace, American Desi and 24. In the critically acclaimed movie Charlie Wilson's War, Manji played the part of Colonel Mahmood. The film ranked fourth at the box office.
Though it is challenging at times to be an actor of colour in the West, Manji feels fortunate that the door of opportunity for South Asian actors is finally opening.
“It is still a struggle but there are more South Asian actors showing up in sitcoms, dramas and films,” Manji states. “A South Asian actress from London just won an Emmy Award, so things are definitely looking up.”
Lately, there has been an increase in shows featuring a multicultural cast and story lines with more diverse subject matter. For example, Little Mosque on the Prairie, the Canadian sitcom on CBC, has gained a wide viewership and extensive publicity in the international media. The show is about Muslims and Christians attempting to live in harmony with each other in the small town of Mercy. One of its characters, Layla Siddiqui, is also played by an Ismaili – Aliza Vellani of Vancouver.
Manji is proud to be a part of the groundbreaking new sitcom. “It hasn't always been easy being an actor,” reflects Manji. “However, I wouldn't change it for the world. There are a lot of us in Hollywood these days, and I think it is a lot easier to get work now than it was when I first started in this business over a decade ago.”
Born in Toronto to parents who moved to Canada from Tanzania, Manji and his wife Taslim have a daughter named Ayana, and another child on the way. He realised his calling when he was cast as a dimwitted detective in Final Curtain, his first one-act play in junior high school. “Once I got my first laugh it was very clear that I wanted to be an actor,” he notes.
Years later, Manji decided to begin his formal training in the entertainment industry by enrolling at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York.
Since graduating in 1995, Manji starred in small plays and then moved into the realm of independent films and television. He has an impressive credit list, but is particularly proud of his work in Outsourced.
He describes his role as Rajiv as “a basic lovable nemesis” of Todd, the manager who is sent from the US to run the Indian call centre. Rajiv's desire is for Todd to fail so that he can be promoted to a higher position, get paid better, and marry the girl of his dreams.
“Of course he'd be more of a threat if he were actually skilled,” laughs Manji. “Rajiv's diabolical quest to become a manager makes him a great antagonist to the lead character. Hands down, this is one of the most enjoyable characters I have had a chance to play,” he adds.
Manji admires the talent, camaraderie and chemistry of his fellow cast members on the sets. “Ken Kwapis, the director of the pilot, thought it was very important that we felt comfortable as a cast,” explains Manji, “so prior to shooting he arranged for all of us to go and have a day at a Karaoke place so we could all sing and get to know each other.”
The plan worked and the cast formed stronger connections and became great friends. “We are currently shooting episode 11, and I am having so much fun that as of yet there has not been anything that I would change,” he says. “It has been a great ride so far.”
As he navigates through his career, Manji values his identity as an Ismaili Muslim. He had served in various capacities and was a principal of the religious education centre at San Gabriel Valley. He tries to do his part by extending hope and help to the Jamat at large. When Manji and his fellow Outsourced cast members decided to attend the Los Angeles Partnership Walk in November, he used his official fan pages on Facebook and Twitter to build greater excitement, anticipation and awareness of the Aga Khan Foundation fundraising event.
“Being Ismaili Muslim is a very important part of my life,” Manji states with pride. “It has instilled in me a moral and ethical compass that not only guides me through my career but in all aspects of my life.”