Indian American Disney Actor Comes to UT to Talk Career, Life
By Kevin Vu
Reporting Texas TV
AUSTIN, Texas — University of Texas at Austin neuroscience sophomore Geetika Yelugoti grew up watching Bollywood films, but she never saw South Asian representation in Hollywood.
“There was just no one that looked like me in American media,” Yelugoti said.
The Disney Channel began airing the show “Jessie” in 2011, which featured a 16-year-old adopted Indian character named Ravi. Actor Karan Brar portrayed the character, who is depicted as a nerdy foreigner with a heavy accent despite the character living in the United States for years.
Yelugoti found herself relating with Ravi, one of the first South Asian lead characters on a Disney show. She was thrilled when Brar came to UT on April 6 for this year’s Inspirasian, an event hosted by the student-run organization Distinguished Speakers.
Inspirasian brings an Asian American celebrity to campus each year to talk about how their identity has affected their career and life, and to provide life advice.
Previous guests included Korean American singer Eric Nam, Eugene Lee-Yang from the YouTube group Try Guys, and Dante Basco, a Filipino American voice actor best known for his role as Zuko in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
Zenith Jahid, the Distinguished Speakers chairperson, said the organization wanted to focus more on celebrities of South Asian descent, as past guests were Eastern or Southeastern Asian American.
“One of the gaps that we saw was Asian American identity that specifically resonated with the South Asian identity, we wanted to bring someone that resonated with that crowd.” Jahid said.
“We wanted to focus more on activism because in the past we’ve been focusing more on mental health aspects,” she said.
“We wanted the conversation to be focused on activism and research.”
Brar spoke about his career in Hollywood. In the early stage of his acting career, Brar initially found success playing a stereotypical nerdy Indian characters with an accent. These included roles as Ravi in “Jessie” and Chirag Gupta in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
Although complacent at first, Brar recognized later the characters he played were harmful to his community. Brar is from Washington and has an American accent, and said he had to work with a coach to perfect his Indian accent. Brar said he now strives to create films and shows that advocate for and represent his community as being more than a stereotype.
“The way he explained that, when you’re a kid … people are telling you to do it,” UT student Alishba Javaid said.
“He was very honest about it. Not only is he past that, but he is trying to create stories, shows or films that will push the needle forward. So not only is he trying to improve representation by creating those stories, he’s keeping himself accountable from the past while also being like it wasn’t fully up to his control.”
Brar surprised many students, including Javaid, when he discussed the emotional turmoil he felt after the passing of his best friend and “Jessie” co-star, Cameron Boyce, who died from epilepsy complications in 2019.
“I personally didn’t know he could be a lot more open about his mental health,” Javaid said. “That’s refreshing and cool because you don’t think about people you watch also going through their own issues.”
Event organizer Jahid connected with how Brar is still finding himself even as a recognizable actor.
“He’s only a couple years older than us … He’s acted his whole young life and he’s still figuring it out,” she said.
“Someone who already has their career, has acting goals and gigs lined up, they’re still figuring it out. It made me feel like, ‘Oh wow, I don’t need everything all set in place all the time.’”