#ELLEexclusive: Maulik Pancholy writes about providing representation to kids who felt ‘different’ growing up
Inspired by his own story
The number one question I get asked about my new novel, The Best at It, is how much of your lead character—Rahul Kapoor—is you? As an actor—and now an author—I believe that we are all constantly in the process of telling our own stories. Every time we interact with another human being, we are making choices about how we present and reveal ourselves. And we are telling the story we need to tell at that moment in time. My story traces back a generation to parents from Gujarat, India who migrated to the United States.
And my literal story began on a Friday morning in Dayton, Ohio when I took my first breath. There are interesting details adorning the characters in my origin story. Here’s one: my mother first landed in the US in the middle of a Midwestern winter. She had no jacket, and her feet were clad in chappals. No one told her how different the weather would be in this foreign land.
Colourful details like those are important because they drive the emotional content of the story. As my mother departed the plane into this snowy world, she was already forging a new identity: a woman who dared to be an engineer even though society told her the study of science was for men, a woman whose aspirations would force her to define what it means to be an Indian American.
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My own aspirations have also thrust upon me the long search for identity. I was a kid who loved stories. Give me a book, and I was done in a day. Movie tickets, yes please! Time to turn off the TV and go to bed? Okay, but once everyone else was asleep, I’d sneak into the den and turn the television back on again, volume so low I wouldn’t wake a soul. I’d hold my breath as the flickering of the lights from the TV bounced off my oversized glasses. I loved it so much that for as long as I can remember, I longed to be an actor.
But when the TV would cut to fuzz, I was left with the unshakable sense that I had somehow been erased. See, no one on American TV shows looked like me. On the trips we’d take back to India—our family squeezed into those impossibly crowded centre seats of the aircraft, desperately trying to ignore the overwhelming, creeping-in sensation of claustrophobia—we’d finally land into the vast world of Bollywood cinema.
But I didn’t look like a Bollywood hero either. I was a new kind of Indian American. First generation? Second generation? Depends on who you ask.
Someone who didn’t quite know where he belonged, which was something I became markedly aware of during my middle school years. Around this time, I also started to notice the other boys at school. And some of them were cute. Very cute. Desperate to understand these newfound attractions—and surrounded by a world that was telling me to shut down these feelings at all costs or risk being cast aside, ridiculed, hated—I turned back to my trusty friend: stories.
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But no matter how many pages of tattered books I flipped over, or how many ticket stubs were torn at the movies, or hours of TV I watched, my favourite pastimes stared back at me blankly. If there were no brown characters in the stories I devoured, there were even fewer gay characters.
In fact, the message was resoundingly clear: YOU, in all your multiple, complex identities do not exist. And while things have gotten better, sadly, this lack of representation is still true today. Which is why I set out to write my book. It is the story of myself that feels urgent to tell at this moment in time. A moment where racial tensions are bubbling over across the globe, where anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments are on the rise, where—in spite of how many victories have been won by marginalised communities— the LGBTQ suicide rate still ranks as the highest among youth. Through the anti-bullying organization I co-founded, acttochange.org, we know that every day, kids are singled out for being “different”. They need to be given the tools to celebrate themselves and each other.
So, to answer the original question: Rahul Kapoor is a fictional character. But in Rahul are so many of the parts of myself that I want to reveal now. In him are so many of the colourful details of my own life—the humour and vulnerability, the immigrant experience across multiple generations, and a celebration of both Indian and American culture. I hope sharing my truth might reassure every kid who’s still frantically flipping pages, yearning to catch a glimpse of themselves in the books they read. And not just Indian or LGBTQ kids, but every kid who’s ever felt different, every kid who’s ever felt they needed to be “better” than they are just to exist. Maybe, as they follow Rahul’s quest to prove his self-worth, they’ll discover that they are already perfect just as they are.
Maulik Pancholy is an award-winning actor and author of The Best At It (Balzer +Bray/HarperCollins)
Cover illustrated by: Parvati Pillai / Designed by Cara Llewellyn
Photographs: Luke Fontana (headshot), Getty Images for HarperCollins (book signing)