MR. MANDVI: Thank you for having me. I love that intro. That was really something. I'm going to have to get that for myself just to watch every day.
MR. THAROOR: Well, we're going to talk through some of the elements that we showed in the intro, but I think the place to start now is the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the events and the attacks of 9/11, which will be on Saturday. I know for everybody who is not in Gen Z, we all have a lot of memories and feelings that we had of that day. Could you talk a bit about what you remember of 9/11 and how it impacted you as not only somebody close to New York, not only as somebody who is a Muslim American, a Desi-American? How did it impact you, and what do you remember of it?
MR. MANDVI: I mean, I remember it was--it was a Tuesday. It was a beautiful day. The weather was really nice, and I woke up to a phone call telling me that--my sister, I think, called me to say that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. And I just remember, you know, watching it on the news, and I was uptown. I was, like, on the Upper West Side, and this thing was happening, you know, down in the Financial District. And it couldn't--you wouldn't have known. Like, on the Upper West Side, it was just this gorgeous beautiful day, and the birds were singing, and it was just like a surreal feeling of being in the same city but feeling like there was no sense of it.
And, actually, weirdly enough, I remember just, like, after the buildings had fallen, you know, there was this kind of just shock and stun and not knowing what to do, you know, and I remember I had an allergist appointment. I had to go see my allergist for my monthly allergy shot, and I thought, well, I guess I'll just do that, you know, that I have an appointment, so I'll just go. And I just remember, like, I couldn't get a cab, and so I decided to just walk through Central Park and walk to the other side, to the East Side on Fifth Avenue.
And an old friend of mine was riding his bicycle, and he came up to me, and he had his headphones on. When he took off his headphones, he was just like--well, no. Prior to that, as I got to Fifth Avenue, I looked down, and this was my first indication of it in like--in real time, which was that I just looked down Fifth Avenue, and there were just hundreds of people walking up Fifth Avenue covered in dust, and it almost looked like the "Walking Dead." Like, it was like just they were walking in the middle of the street. The street was closed off, and they were just carrying their--you know, they had all just come from office buildings. Everything below Midtown was shut down, and so--and they were just covered in white and gray dust. That was my first indication. I was like, oh, my God, like, you know, it was a very surreal thing to just see that.
And then a friend of mine showed up on a bicycle, and he took of his headphones, and he was like, "Hey, man, how are you doing? What's going on?" I was like, "What? What do you mean what's going on?" And I realized, like, he had been teaching back-to-back yoga classes from, like, eight o'clock that morning and had just gotten out and had no idea that any of this had happened.
MR. THAROOR: Yep. My mother learned about it. We were sitting--I was in New York City. I was watching from the rooftop of my high school, but my mother learned about it from a phone call from relatives in India--
MR. MANDVI: Is that right?
MR. THAROOR: --which is part of the surreal thing about being New Yorkers during 9/11.
MR. MANDVI: Yeah.
MR. THAROOR: But, obviously, what followed, of course, beyond the real misery and suffering of thousands of people in New York was a new geopolitical era that we were kind of thrust into--
MR. MANDVI: Yeah.
MR. THAROOR: --and especially the United States, especially for people who are Muslim American, that came with a lot of ramifications. Can you talk a bit about sort of the advent of the kind of Islamophobia that maybe you didn't experience directly but that you saw impact a broader community?
MR. MANDVI: Well, I mean, it just became suddenly--you know, I used to do this joke where it was like before 9/11, Americans thought Muslim was a type of cloth, and after that, after 9/11, it became an incredibly dirty word. And it became a dangerous word, and suddenly, like, every person who was raised Muslim or came from a Muslim family suddenly was in this bizarre position where it felt like--I personally felt like that I had to defend this religion that I had just grown up with and that it was just part of my, you know--like, my life and my--you know, it was never--it was never a political thing to me. It was just my religion and the religion of my parents and my grandparents and all that, and so, suddenly, it was like I became politicized. And I became like a representative of something, and I wasn't even particularly devout and never have been, really.
So it was one of those things where suddenly like I was forced to kind of spell out my patriotism and also defend Islam, and I wasn't prepared to do that. I didn't know how to do that. I did it clumsily, you know, and learned a lot in that process, you know. I just remember it being a time when there were a lot of questions, and then, like, why did this happen to us? And I think we all kind of--especially brown people, especially Muslims, I think we just--we all suddenly had to, like, get into this melee whether we liked it or not because, suddenly, Islam was being represented and Muslims around the world were being represented in a way that just felt completely ill-informed and reactionary and fear-based. And the government and the media were now using this as a tool with which to propagate fear, to create--to further agendas.
You know, 9/11 for as tragic--it was this tragic thing, and it was like there was so much suffering, and there was so much all that. But it very quickly became a political tool, and it very quickly became like, okay, how do we use this to further an agenda that we've had? You know, like the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam, you know, and just the whole--
MR. THAROOR: Right.
MR. MANDVI: --War on Terror that just had been--now it just gave--it suddenly became this thing where it--and it continues to be, I think, to this day, Islamophobia and all that. It's still a tool.
MR. THAROOR: There was a kind of moment, I would say, in mid to late aughts where you, especially on "The Daily Show," were one of the more prominent, if I can say, brown men on television kind of working through the stuff that you're just talking about right now in your segments and in your monologues and in your jokes. Can you talk a bit about how you processed Islamophobia and the political moment in your work?
MR. MANDVI: Well, I mean, I was very fortunate in that I came to "The Daily Show" in 2006, and we were in Iraq at the time, the United States was, and it was definitely a time when I suddenly had this platform and this opportunity to talk about things that I didn't even know that I wanted to talk about. I came to "The Daily Show" because I'm an actor and a comedian, and I came to it that way and then suddenly realized, oh, this is a place for me to talk about some of this stuff. And I luckily had writers and producers and people at "The Daily Show" who I was able to work with in terms of putting these pieces together and sometimes--and that they felt the same way. I think they sort of realized like, oh, we have Aasif who is a Muslim, an American, brown person, you know, who can sit on that fence between cultures and sort of talk about what it is--what this is from the perspective of being an insider and an outsider at the same time.
So it definitely was transformative for me because I got to talk about things and also educate myself a great deal about what was going on in the world. I think you had to at that time--
MR. THAROOR: Right.
MR. MANDVI: --just know what was going on in the world because--especially as a brown person because you were just bombarded with, well, why should we not believe that every Muslim is harboring hatred towards America? You know, like that was a very common sentiment, a common sort of fear, a common belief, you know, and you had to, like, be able to answer that.
So it was a way for me also to do that using comedy and using satire as a way to talk about it, which I felt was really powerful because a lot of--you know, when I first got on "The Daily Show," especially those years 2006, 2007, 2008, like before Obama came into power and--it was that time when there was no representation of the sort of, quote/unquote, "Muslim voice" on television other than just the terrorists or, you know, the evil bad guy or whatever. There was no representative of that perspective or anything, and so when I came along on "The Daily Show," I think a lot of brown people were like, "Yes, somebody who looks like me and is sort of talking about this from the perspective of, like, where I'm looking at it from," you know, because at that time, I think all of us, it was like we were being asked to make--to allay Americans' fears, but we were terrified. You know, I was like, "Why don't you make me less afraid, you know? Tell me that you're not going to like just go bomb every brown person living on this world now," you know, and that's what it felt like at that time, especially like which is now, you know, shock and awe across the world.
MR. THAROOR: Great. And this gets me to another question, I think. I'm curious what do you think 20 years since 9/11. Where do you think we are in that arc in terms of how Muslim Americans have to feel or do feel in the society here and are made to feel? I mean, I was quite stunned by this multiyear Pew Research poll that found that essentially more Americans believe now that Islam is a more inherently violent religion than other religions than they did six months after 9/11. So, I mean, that tells a different kind of story.
MR. MANDVI: Yeah. And I think, you know, it's been up and down. I think that--you know, I think Islam gets--again, like I said, it gets used as a political football, you know. Trump came along and suddenly--you know, we had a few years. You know, even when Obama came along, everyone was like, "Well, he might be a Muslim," you know, the people. I was like, "Really?" You know, that was sort of like considered like his--you know, in the negative slot against him that he might be Muslim, and then you had Trump come along and fan those flames of fear again. And it's just used when it's convenient to enact policy and to shift blame, right? It's like, oh, if we cannot criticize--if we cannot see the flaws in our own society and our own government and we can make it about Muslims and immigrants and, you know, those people from the outside who are coming in and so--and Trump was a master of that, right? He basically just shifted the narrative and said, "Well, if any problems you have, you can blame Muslims, Mexicans, you know, progressives, whatever." It all sort of got lumped into this kind of thing where Muslims suddenly became, you know, the reason that--you know, worry about that. Let's keep our focus, people, and worry about the things and don't look at the man behind the mirror--behind the curtain over here, you know, and so it is--it is that.
And so I think it goes up and down. It's like whenever it's needed, Islam is dusted off and kind of brought to the forefront and been like, "Ah, here's a thing. Those Muslims, we'll still be afraid of them." You know, you've got artists and people, creators, and there's a lot of conversation about Islam and people sort of--I mean, today, I think we have much more storytelling even in the media and stuff. You know, I think we have a better understanding of the religion and the Muslims and that--but still that seeded, underlying fear of Muslims is there.
And now, you know, again, you see it now with this, you know, completely botched Afghanistan withdrawal, and now you see the Taliban coming in. And you suddenly see the faces of, quote/unquote, "Muslims" on television again, you know, a these maniacal, bearded, turbined, Kalashnikov-wielding, insane people, you know, and that becomes the poster boy for all that is Muslim or Islam, you know.
And so you see it again now. Now it's like, you know, the Taliban, you know, they're coming and they're doing--and it's like--it's like, yeah, okay, but, you know, we kind of--we knew that they were going to take over in a few weeks. We're not--you know, it's not like we didn't know, you know, and the complications of that get really sort of just leveled out. The complications get washed away, and it just becomes unnuanced and very kind of binary, you know, evil, good.
MR. THAROOR: So, I mean--and I think we're going to be living with that binary for some time, and it may, as you said, especially as we talk about Afghan refugees coming to America, that's going to be another conversation where these binaries will emerge.
But talking a bit about representation, you mentioned the fact that certainly in the past decade, I guess, there's been this pretty impressive emergence of a crop of Muslim American stars, including you and Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, Ramy Youssef, and the list goes on. And what I find interesting is that it's often in comedy.
MR. MANDVI: Mm-hmm.
MR. THAROOR: Is there something about the comedic genre that has provided an important space or an accessible space for Muslim Americans or for the kind of stories that you want to tell?
MR. MANDVI: Well, I think so. I think that comedy is an access point. You know, comedy allows people to deal with uncomfortable conversations, uncomfortable truths, you know, things like--you know, and through satire and comedy, you can talk about these things, and so it makes sense to me that a lot of the sort of post-9/11 Muslim artists that have come to the forefront have come through comedy because I think it is really a way to--and when you're laughing with someone, you can't hate them. I mean, you recognize some universal sort of, you know, truth about them or about yourself and this kind of simpatico that happens in comedy, you know, that doesn't happen in other--in drama or in other genres, you know, music or whatever. Like, it's sort of this feeling of, like, oh, I relate to this person and their struggles, frustrations, or just their story, and so, suddenly, it is a way in which you can heal some of that, if that's even a real possibility. You know, you can sort of bridge those divides a little bit with comedy. So it makes sense to me that a lot of this has been led sort of the Muslim revolution. I say that not to scare White people, but, you know, being led by comedians, it makes sense, you know.
MR. THAROOR: So let's talk a bit about your latest work. "Evil," Season 2, Paramount+, everyone tune in. You've said that the role you play in "Evil" is something that maybe 10 years ago, you wouldn't have been able to do. Why is that?
MR. MANDVI: Just because I don't think they would have cast me in that role 10 years ago. I think, you know, we--look, we've come a long way. I will say, you know, we've come a long way and sort of representative, I think, diversity, and there is definitely a much more conscious sort of mindset towards that now, you know. And I think that in "Evil," we have an African American man, a White woman, and a brown Muslim American man who are the three leads of that show, and that is something that when I was coming up in this business would have been very unusual. They would have all been White people.
And to be fair, my character was written as a non--as a White Caucasian character when I read the script originally and I auditioned for it. So, you know, they made--Robert and Michelle King made a conscious decision to make him a person of color, and I think we've been really great on "Evil" in terms of like actually hiring a very diverse, diverse sort of actors and, you know, being much, very representative of that on screen, so yeah.
MR. THAROOR: So we actually have a clip from the show of your character, Ben Shakir, with his mother. Let's take a look.
MR. THAROOR: So there's a lot going on there. Could you unpack what we just saw in that scene and the kind of narrative force that comes through with it?
MR. MANDVI: Well, this is a scene--no big spoilers for people, but, you know, in this episode, we are investigating this thing called a "God Helmet," which allows people who wear it to have visions, and sometimes people see visions of heaven and hell and other things, and so each one of us wears the God Helmet. And for Ben, he goes back to visit his dead--his dead mother appears to him and takes him back, as you saw in that clip, to India where he might--he spent time as a child. And it was great because it was actually--it allowed, you know, for us to get a backstory into Ben's character a little bit, where he came from, and his relationship with his mother. He is an atheist in the show and has rejected Islam, and so it definitely, you know, created tension between him and his mother. And it was a nice--it was a nice scene to sort of get to shoot and play in and for the audience to get a little bit of a peek into Ben's history and background and how he ended up working for the Catholic Church in this show, you know, where he's this guy who works at the Catholic Church--for the Catholic Church and why he ended up there. So it was fun to do that, and it was the first time we visited that side of the character's story.
MR. THAROOR: I want to tie that kind of storytelling to something you wrote in, I guess, an op-ed not long ago. Let me just read from it. It says, "Stories that illuminate the experience of otherness or marginalization or exclusion are the stories that the majority culture often feels most comfortable telling because stories of ordinary people or the stories of simple human struggles are still seen as the domain of White people, because for so long normal people on TV," as you said, "and in movies have been White people. Everyone else was other." Could you talk a bit about that? In this thing, you also deploy the phrase that I think is quite interesting and compelling of "psychic colonialism," and I think, you know--could you talk a bit about how in your work and in the kind of roles you want to play or are playing are kind of breaking down that psychic colonialism that you felt in the past?
MR. MANDVI: Yeah. I mean, psychic colonialism for me is sort of an internalization of White supremacy and the internalizing of that, that White people--you know, for so long when I was starting out in Hollywood, like, it was always about, like, you know, White--like I said in that op-ed, like, White people were the norm, and then everyone else was other. And everything that people of color did or the stories that were interesting were always stories that were in relation to White people and relation to the White gaze, like, you know, our own relationship to our identity and our own immigrant experience, our own story of otherness or marginalization of racism or disenfranchisement, whatever that was, and it was always in relation to the White gaze and the White popular culture. And that was internalized. Even the stories that I told and that as a writer that I wanted to tell, I felt like I needed to tell those stories in relationship to what was digestible and acceptable for the popular culture, that being the majority White culture.
And often the stories that were the most interesting for that majority White culture were the stories of my own marginalization or my own, you know, otherness. So I never--in my own self never felt like I had the agency to explore stories of human stories of depression or, you know, marital strife or, you know, drug abuse or whatever--or just personal sort of, you know, stories of, like, my own mundane stories of human life. You know, like, those stories were sort of reserved for, quote/unquote, "White people," and because, you know, it's like "The Death of Salesman"-type story I could not tell. You know, it was like, well, why would these people not just be White then if you're going to tell a story about a man struggling with his own family and his own demons? Then just make them White because then they'll be more relatable, you know, and that was kind of the--sort of what I would hear.
So I think that is still where we need to go in terms of representation. You know, I feel like culturally and in terms of entertainment and in terms of TV and Hollywood and all that, where we still need to go is that area where ultimately, you know--and in that piece, I talk about the movie "Minari" and why I loved it so much and I thought that it was so brilliant because it did exactly that. It did not--it did not apologize for it being just about these people, and it had nothing to do with, like, whether people would understand--White people, quote/unquote, "the majority culture"--and I used that as sort of a term--that they would or would not understand. And so that's what I mean by sort of psyche colonialism in the sense of, like, I internalized all of that. I internalized all of that aggravation.
And maybe it comes from also, like, an internalized real colonialism that happened to our people generations, you know, over like the past few generations. I think there is in the sort of South Asian, you know, psyche, a kind of adoration of Western ideals and culture that was sort of implanted into us by the British, you know, and this idea that everything that is Western is superior and better than what we have and what India--you know, what is true to our own culture.
And so that, I think, is something that we struggle with still, and I think it's up to creators and people in my industry, you know, to challenge that, especially Brown creators. I think people are. People like Ramy Youssef are, for example, and a perfect example of someone who is challenging that in his show and not make--not making it for White people and allowing people to find it rather than bring it in a very palatable way to them and not worry if it makes people uncomfortable, you know.
MR. THAROOR: Well, yeah. I mean, absolutely. I think talking from your marginalized sense or from your sense of marginalization to now really centering certain stories and finding this new path, thank you again for sharing the story with us.
Unfortunately, we are out of time and have to wrap it up here, but really, thank you so much, Aasif, for talking to us on Washington Post Live.
MR. MANDVI: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
MR. THAROOR: And thank you all in the audience for joining us. We have a whole robust lineup of programming to follow. So please tune in to WashingtonPostLive.com to find a schedule of events and register for future talks. Again, thank you again, and my name is Ishaan Tharoor. Thanks for coming.
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