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Desi Making Waves

By Swati Patel

Ajay Mehta: Acting Day-by-Day

Ajay Mehta is a South Asian actor whose career boasts roles in films and on television shows including 24, The Sopranos, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Without a Trace. His recent projects include Ode, a film about a young, gay South Asian, and Americanizing Shelley, which deals with assimilation, a topic quite relevant to our community. A multitalented actor, Mehta's work has demonstrated that South Asians in film and television can move beyond stereotypical roles such as gas station owners and cab drivers.

Mehta took the stage for the first time at age three and a half, encouraged by his father, himself a theater fan. Mehta's mother also supported his acting ambitions. Having parental support meant a lot to Mehta: "[Acting is] just something that's always been there, as opposed to being a doctor or a scientist." In addition to his parents’ influence, Mehta cites role models ranging from Hollywood to Bollywood: Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Prithviraj Kapoor, Mehmood, Jeremy Irons, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable and Betty Davis. He is inspired by their "craft and commitment to acting which shows in their work, be it drama, romance or comedy."

Ajay Mehta

Although he grew up in New Delhi, Mehta moved to Hong Kong early in his career. It was there that he achieved some success in television and commercials. His first big break, however, came with the mini series, Around the World in 80 Days, where he worked alongside heavyweights such as British actor, Sir Peter Ustinov. Mehta eventually settled in New York and continued to develop his acting skills in many different roles on stage, in films and on television.

However, Mehta’s path hasn't been without challenges. There have been occasions when Mehta found his own beliefs conflicting with the demands of the entertainment business. One such problem arose when he was asked to smoke on camera: "I am a non-smoker and sometimes you're asked to smoke; that's been the extent [of] any 'problems' I have had." More significant problems arise, however, when directors request that Mehta exaggerate South Asian stereotypes. Mehta takes such situations in stride, negotiating the delicate balance between his own opinions and the demands placed on him: "One has to deal with stereotypical characters played by South Asians, and it’s tough to be an actor, so my responsibility is to portray [such a] character in the best light that I can."

Mehta is cognizant of the difficulties inherent in his chosen profession. He notes that the most important qualities that one needs to succeed in acting are "integrity, goodwill…being able to build your reputation and—[this is] the most important thing, remembering everyone [who] has helped you [along the way]." Although Mehta is pursuing a career in which he is invested and from which he derives great joy, he is careful to note that acting is not quite as glamorous as it might seem: "It is hard work, and you may think it is easy to do but it's not. There's a lot of work that goes into it. Every aspect is about understanding what is going into a character and what's coming out of it."

Top Row: Jayne Atkinson, Ajay Mehta, Peter MacNicol. Bottom: DB Woodside

As a South Asian working in a business where our community is underrepresented, Mehta notes that "a lot of Desi writers, directors and producers are [now] working on primetime shows and making independent films.” This recent development, according to Mehta, “in turn brings about change and exposure. [Commitment towards diversity] has to come from within the community and Hollywood will change accordingly." Although South Asian actors are still limited in scope in the types of rolls they are being offered, Mehta sees "a healthy change within a few primetime shows." The key to increasing South Asian presence on television is "to applaud the network when a Desi character is well- represented and not just…complain if you didn't like the portrayal."

Mehta feels a sense of accomplishment when he can "make people laugh, even if just for a second, and…relieve them from a hard day or [from] problems." Mehta also tries to keep disappointments in perspective, so they are short-lived: "You feel bad for a bit but as I always say 'disappointed but not defeated,' and I go to the next project. It's a tough, tough business to be in and you need to have the stomach to deal with it."

Currently, Mehta is continuing his work on 24. "It's a brilliant show,” he says, “and I just finished working on my fourth episode—'10p.m.-11p.m.'—this week. I have to say it was a wonderful production team to work with…such an excellent cast, directors and crew…an experience I'll never forget and most certainly cherish."

In addition to working on screen, Mehta has been exploring life on the other side of the camera: "I have a comedy project [called] Are You With Me? In 2005 I did a one-man presentation in Los Angeles, and I'm currently shopping it around to the industry."

Mehta also has some tips for aspiring actors and actresses. His technical advice is that "as an actor you do bring your own personality and personal experience[s] to the character, so...[what's most important is] the fusion between the two and how you create that balance and [create] the character that you play." Mehta suggests that budding actors focus on the act of creating and communicating a character and try forgetting themselves temporarily: Additionally, Mehta indicates that "acting is a very personal thing, and it needs a lot of passion and conviction because every role is different. Ultimately, it's what you have that day that goes into it."

Swati Patel is currently a senior at New York University who studies economics and pre-dentistry. She aspires to be a TV personality for a morning news show and is originally from Tampa Bay, Florida.

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