"They did not know what to make of me in Tampa," Aasif Mandvi says. Small wonder.
Mandvi's parents moved his family from the north of England to Tampa when Mandvi (who was born in Bombay) was a teen: "Definitely a culture shock -- it was like something out of Flipper," Mandvi, 44, says. "All this sunshine and beaches and girls on roller blades -- and here I was, being both British and Indian. When I got to Florida, I was a British kid but I was also an Indian kid, a brown kid with an English accent. Talk about being an outsider. And that's become the theme of a lot of the stuff I write about."
That's true of Today's Special, the independent film that opens today (11/19/10) in limited release before going wider. The film, which Mandvi cowrote and stars in, took 10 years to get from its original form -- a one-man off-Broadway play called Sakina's Restaurant -- to a family comedy set in Queens.
In the film, Mandvi plays Samir, a sous chef in Manhattan who dreams of running his own kitchen. But when his father has a heart attack, his plans to apprentice himself to the great chefs of France must be postponed because he has to take over and run the Indian restaurant his family owns in Queens. One problem: Samir, something of a snob, knows nothing about cooking Indian cuisine.
"This screenplay went through many incarnations over about seven or eight years," Mandvi says in a telephone interview. "It was mostly because we didn't have the money to make the movie. Making an independent film is no easy task."
Mandvi, a regular correspondent on The Daily Show since 2006, wrote the script with former Daily Show writer Jonathan Bines, with whom he had been in a sketch-comedy group.
"Jonathan is a foodie -- a complete food nut -- and we had always intended to make an independent food movie," Mandvi says. "We wanted to use Indian cuisine, the alchemy of the masala, as a metaphor in terms of the movie. So the story is based on my own family and our immigrant experience. He brought the food world into it and, hopefully, we both brought the comedy."
Mandvi has been acting since childhood, beginning in school plays and children's theater. He studied theater at the University of South Florida, then moved to New York to study further and launch himself. He became known as a comic performer, but says, "I always focused on being an actor. I did stand-up briefly but I also did a lot of dramatic work. But since I've been on The Daily Show, people think I'm a comedian. That's not how I see myself."