One of TV’s most popular shows included a Sikh character in an emotional moment at a hardware store. In the season’s sixth episode, directed by Regina King, This Is Us had Randall Pearson, played by Emmy award winning Sterling K. Brown, connecting unexpectedly with a store employee named Garuda Singh. Actor/musician Ronobir Lahiri played the role of Singh.
Singh, who is a father of five, starts out helping Randall with a ceiling fan issue, and he ends up helping with advice on babies and being a new parent. When Singh asks “why me?” after Randall shares his personal struggle, Randall mentions his turban and “Eastern wisdom” — and Singh quickly lets him know that he’s from East Trenton. Though it might be nice to see a friendship bloom from the hardware store encounter and have Singh appear again in a future episode, it seems like a one-time appearance for the character.
But unlike the chance nature of the scene in the show’s story, including a Sikh character in the episode didn’t happen by accident.
A Variety article relates that This Is Us showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger “quickly formulated the plotline,” inspired after a meeting spearheaded by NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke and actress/executive producer America Ferrera. The purpose of the meeting was “to encourage the network’s writers to weave characters from underrepresented communities into their storytelling.” Ferrera speaks to why this kind of inclusion is important in storytelling:
It’s how we come to know each other in a country that is so large and where people are often very isolated from one another, and sometimes their only experience with a homeless person, or a gay person, or a black person, or an undocumented person is their exposure to them on the news or on a TV show. – America Ferrera (Variety)
The meeting’s speakers included Sikh activist and filmmaker Valarie Kaur. Read Kaur’s full message on Facebook to find out more about the advocacy groups and work that went into getting a Sikh character into the This Is Us TV moment. Here is part of her message:
For many years, my husband/film partner Sharat Raju and I have worked to lift up the stories of Sikh, Muslim, and South Asian Americans through independent films and television. This year, we found a hero and friend in actress/activist America Ferrera.
America and her team at Harness organized an event for the creators of all the shows on NBC. Our mission: To persuade them to see their art as a political act: In every television episode, they can choose to affirm the stereotypes that are killing us…. or counter them.
I asked for NBC to put Sikh American characters on television. Any representation is ground-breaking for a community that has been virtually non-existent on television. If we are to change the nation’s moral imagination, it begins with putting us on screens.
And guess what?
They started saying — Yes.
The first show that stepped up: This Is Us.
Tonight’s episode is a first small step: a Sikh character in a tender scene. We have a long way to go. But I see it as part of a paradigm-shift in how our stories change how television and film gets made.
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