Actor-turned-author Maulik Pancholy on why pop culture representation matters


Actor-turned-author Maulik Pancholy on why pop culture representation matters

He’s now written the book he needed to read as a teenager

By Manali Shah  December 2nd, 2019

Growing up in various states across America, Maulik Pancholy, like many other first-generation immigrant kids, was conscious of being culturally “different” from his schoolmates. And on trips back to India, it would become instantly obvious that he was American. It didn’t help that there was virtually no representation in pop culture that Maulik Pancholy could relate to.

Now, the actor who’s known for his role in 30 Rock and Weeds, is changing that for teens today. He’s turned author with a book aimed at middle grade school children. The Best at It follows the journey of a gay 12-year-old Indian-American, Rahul Kapoor, as he navigates identity issues, bullying and joining a new middle school. The novel launched to positive reviews, and Maulik is in talks to turn it into a film or TV series.

We caught up with Maulik as he touches upon the importance of representation, why he felt the need to write a book, and his India visits:

ELLE: How did The Best At It come about?

Maulik Pancholy: As an actor, I’m keenly aware of the lack of representation for both Indian-American and LGBTQ kids, in television and in film. And the same stands true for books. That was a big part of the drive to write The Best at It. I think it’s vital for young people to see themselves reflected back in the stories they read.

What’s been fascinating, but not surprising, is that the specificity of Rahul’s story seems to be the very thing that gives it a universal appeal. I’m hearing from so many readers, young and old, of various backgrounds, that they connect with his journey. We’ve all felt different, we’ve all felt like outsiders at some point in our lives.

Photograph: Getty Images for HarperCollins

ELLE: How much of your own experiences are reflected in The Best At It?

MP: Much of the plot is fictional, but the emotional content of Rahul’s journey is based on my own experience. I was a 12-year-old kid who was going through many of the same things Rahul deals with in the book: anxiety around my identity, the OCD-like behaviours, the hard-won path to learning to celebrate myself. I also share his sense of humour and optimistic outlook.

ELLE: How do you feel representation fundamentally changes a person’s perspective of themselves and the world?

MP: When you never see yourself in the stories around you, or when you are relegated to a stereotype or the butt of a joke, you can start to question your value. Or worse, feel like you have to be somebody else just to exist. Letting kids know that their stories are important is a way to tell them they matter. Instilling that kind of confidence into young people opens up the world to them—a world in which they can be their best selves.

 

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ELLE: What do you wish you could say to your 12-year-old self?

MP: There are some conversations in the book that are conversations I didn’t have as a 12-year-old, because I didn’t have the language to talk about the things I was feeling. I’d want to give my 12-rear-old self that language and let him know he’s not alone.

ELLE:  Can you share some India-related memories with us?

MP: I love being in India. We used to go quite a bit when I was younger, and I treasured getting to spend time with my grandparents and extended family in Ahmedabad. In recent years, I’ve done more traveling across India. Some of the highlights are the Kerala houseboats, visiting a coffee plantation in Munnar, the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Aurangabad, and the desert of Jodhpur. But my favourite memory is getting engaged at the Taj Mahal in 2014.

 

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Featured photograph: Getty Images for HarperCollins (Tina Fey and Maulik Pancholy), Luke Fontana (Maulik Pancholy)