Beyond Apu: Raj Koothrappali’s impact will survive even after the end of CBS series The Big Bang Theory

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Beyong  Kunal Nayyar with the cast of The Big Bang Theory (Courtesy: Twitter)

In 2007, when the first season of Big Bang Theory unfolded, it was unique to have a different kind of Indian on screen rather than the caricatured ‘Apu’ of the Simpsons. Not that this new character, Rajesh ‘Raj’ Ramayan Koothrappali, most well-known as Koothrappali or Raj, (played by British actor Kunal Nayyar) did not carry its own historical baggage. This man carried elements of the stereotypical, acutely shy American perception of the Asian male caricatured eons ago by Peter Sellers in The Party. But he departed in some important ways from that stereotype to portray an emerging image of Indian-Americans in the U.S. – the nerdy, smart, astrophysicist, simple yet complex, accepted relatively comfortably by a group of white friends. Far and away from the all white cast of “Friends.”

This Aug. 22, CBS tweeted out its decision – “We, along with the cast, writers and crew, are extremely appreciative of the show’s success and aim to deliver a final season, and series finale, that will bring #TheBigBangTheory to an epic creative close.” -Warner Bros. Television, CBS and Chuck Lorre Productions.

The most common response from fans on the site was “Noooooooo.” And a man named James probably voiced a lot of people’s disappointment, when he said, “Just keep it on for a few more years. Pay them the money they’re all worth it for Pete’s sake,” adding three weeping emojis.

At 33, Kunal Nayyar has managed to carve his own niche in the west as Raj Koothrappali in popular TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory (Source-Reuters)

Global Reactions

According to some fans of Big Bang, that Desi Talk spoke to, Koothrappli breaks several stereotypes and a different levels– being an accomplished academic scientist — a very popular stereotype among students and university types, but not among the popular audiences; presenting a picture of the Indian ultra-rich (through indulgent parents who underwent a divorce midway) – as different from the traditional image.

Koothrappali also portrayed the shy Indian male differently at least for the Indian and Indian-American audience – breaking from the traditional stereotypical Bollywood strong male, and his initial trepidation vis-a-vis women, and the projection of a ‘feminine’ friendship with his closest man friend, Howard Wolowitz, almost like the close friendships common in India between men and between women.

“Koothrappali did the geeky Indian nerd, maybe less stereotypical than Apu, but still kind-off playing off the Indian accent etc., and the tough time getting a girlfriend bit,” said Ray Sharma, an IT professional in Toronto, who watches the show off and on.

According to an anecdote a friend of this correspondent recounted from China – an Indian-American professor told his Chinese colleague that if his trouble understanding the Indian accent prevented him from teaching in India, he should watch Koothrappali to get some tips.

In India, TBBT watchers squabble over his name as if he is a real character and fault the producers for not doing enough research into where exactly Koothrappali is and how it should have been spelt. But one Rajesh George sets it right writing in the news site Quora.com May 5, “My name is Rajesh Koothrappallil. Koothrappallil is my family name and my village is Koothrappally ,a small village in Kottayam district, Kerala. So nice to see my name as a fictional character’s name.!!!”

“He plays an endearing character who is simple and gentle. Naive compared to the rest. Is that how most Indians are perceived … possibly very bright but very simple and naive?” asks one TBBT-watcher from India on the WhatsApp account of this correspondent when she put out a call for reactions. She calls the ‘simple and gentle’ part “quite ridiculous” and adds, “But there’s nothing new here,” and also dwells on the Hollywood history of mashing up Indian names. “In a famous Peter Sellers movie, he played an Indian character by the name of Hrundi V. Bakshi. What, pray, is Hrundi?????? So I guess “Koothrappali” has more credibility.”

Kunal Nayyar (Courtesy: Twitter)

Bringing It Home

Nayyar, whose Twitter feed has 1.14 million followers, and has launched his book, Yes, “My Accent Is Real and Some Other Things I Haven’t Told You,” traces his real-life journey. And it appears to follow to some degree, the arc of his life on screen in TBBT. Simon & Schuster which has published the book, says the book is about Nayyar’s transformation “from a shy Delhi boy who mistakes a first kiss for a sacred commitment to the confident guy on the set of one of television’s mostwatched shows! … You’ll be inspired, amused and mildly appalled!”

At an event he was attending, Nayyar was asked what inspired him to go into acting. His response is telling, “There was an Indian actor in Bollywood called Aamir Khan who was my favorite actor of all time. So I’m gonna say Aamir Khan.”

Through Koothrappali’s eyes, America got a glimpse of India, one which is possibly closer to the truth of a rapidly changing India in the life and times of the ultra-rich; one where norms could be broken, including divorce and borderline acceptance that a son could be gay; where servants are the norm, the lifestyle that Koothrappali tried to recreate in the U.S. sometimes.

The series also brought very individual foibles of a character who could exist in any culture, including mainstream America, with Koothrappali’s many ins and outs of relationships with women and his ever-present blunt awkwardness.

“He presented a complex kaleidoscopic view of the new Indian male,” one intrepid fan told Desi Talk but did not wish to be quoted by name.

The book jacket of Kunal Nayyar’s book (Courtesy: Twitter)

‘So Indian’

The fansite for The Big Bang Theory describes Koothrappali has the son of a wealthy gynecologist in India, an astrophysicist who lives in Pasadena and works for Caltech, and more recently, began doing shows at Griffith Planetarium; who suffers from “selective mutism” especially toward women until well into the series. Though Raj tries to play down his wealth, Sheldon’s “notarized” proof shows his family is “Richie Rich” rich, and that his parents had a number of servants growing up, and his father drove no less than a Bentley.

The arc of Koothrappali’s life through the series, is more real than real life itself – the contradictions, the weaknesses, strengths (somewhat less), realizations, the fluctuating low and high self-esteem, woven into the problems of keeping a work visa in the U.S., and his ‘meteoric’ rise after identifying a planetary object in 2008, which he nicknamed “Planet Bollywood” making him a celebrity in People Magazine’s list of “30-Under-30s”; moving along to being in a band.

Though he is like an open book, Koothrappali is also difficult to read. Perhaps because his personality is inspired by an actual person – a former colleague of The Big Bang Theory’s co-creator Bill Prady when Prady was a computer programmer, according to a Variety magazine piece in a May 5, 2009. Prady told Variety, “he worked with people who were very bright but couldn’t fit in well in the world and that this was the genesis for the characters,” who became so loved by audiences. Ironically Koothrappali was not even in the original script, and when created, he was supposed to be “Dave”, the America-born son of Indian parents. But when Nayyar went for the audition, the producers were bowled over because he was “so Indian,” thetvaddict.com reported in an April 17, 2009 article.

On the day that CBS announced it was ending the series next year, the gang at TBBT tweeted Aug. 22, “We are forever grateful to our fans for their support of The #BigBangTheory during the past twelve seasons…”

And as the Twitter feed says, “Whether you’re a gamer, a reader, or a stargazer, The #BigBangTheory’s Apartment 4A has something for everyone.”

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