It’s press day for Disney Junior’s upcoming animated series Mira, Royal Detective, the first animation based on the cultures and customs of India for children. Set in the fictional land of Jalpur, the series follows Mira (Leea Ladnier), a commoner who is appointed to the role of royal detective by the Queen (Freida Pinto). Mira solves mysteries with help from her friends, thus proving she is indeed one of the best detectives in the land.
The entire cast of Mira, Royal Detective are played by South Asian actors, including Kal Penn, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Hannah Simone, Jameela Jamil, Saraya Blue, and many others.
The Nerds of Color got to chat with Ambudkar — best known for his roles in Pitch Perfect, Brittany Runs a Marathon, being a member of Freestyle Love Supreme, and, most recently, his rap recap stint at the Oscars — who plays one of Mira’s sidekicks, a mongoose named Chikku. Chikku’s other half is another mongoose named Mikku (voiced by Penn).
Ambudkar enters the room and immediately receives compliments for his mustard yellow ensemble. Knowing he’s being interviewed for print, Ambudkar jokes into the recorders, “Audio interview. You guys, I look amazing.”
This marks Ambudkar’s first time working with Disney and he’s pretty excited about the impact of it all — the first South Asian American-animated series.
“Personally, to be an animated Disney sidekick is pretty cool,” says Ambudkar. “It’s really fun and I think I hadn’t realized how special it was until today, honestly. Talking with you guys. To have stuffed animals and toys, maybe be at Disneyland as a character I originated is really cool. It’s very, very special.”
Ambudkar was first approached by Disney through Mira, Royal Detective showrunner, Sascha Paladino. After reviewing the role and who was involved with the show, Ambudkar was excited to be a part of this. Of course, he had several questions about the cultural aspect and the tone of the show.
“It’s a big deal,” says Ambudkar. “It’s the first time [for an all-Indian show]. It’s not like you can swing and miss and get another chance with this. They assured me and us, the rest of the cast, they were working from a passionate place and a genuine interest and love and care and allowed us to be collaborative in that process.”
Having a show like this would provide so much education and knowledge for young kids, not just South Asians. Ambudkar hopes that this show will ‘normalize a brown person to kids.’
He explains, “It’s not even like ‘I love India. I love the culture.’ It’s more just like ‘I’ve seen a person who looks like that on my TV. I’m not as confused about who they are.’ Or, ‘I’m not tepid about approaching them.’ Or even on a basic level of just teaching people the pronunciation of our names and how that works. ‘Oh, I know a Mira. I met a Mira on TV,’ or any of the other characters’ names. Prince Neal and stuff. A Deputy Usha. Things like that and how to say our names. I think for us growing up in this country, even as something as simple as our names became a huge obstacle to cross just to communicate with people. This could ease some of that for the next generation and I think that’s really special.”
Ambudkar was also drawn to the series because he wouldn’t be the only South Asian on a show. Although he has been lucky in his career to not have to play stereotypical Indian characters, he seemed to always be the only actor of South Asian descent on set.
“So, being in this space, is the space I’ve always wanted to be in,” says Ambudkar. “We’re always the token. There is always like one or two Indians on a set, if an Indian has parents then they get to be on the set. But, it’s just Hannah [Simone] on her show. Just Jameela [Jamill] on her show. Just me on mine. Aparna [Nancherla] is the only Indian standup on her [show]. Hari [Kondabolu] is the only. Aasif [Mandvi] is the only. We all want to work together. It’s not for a lack of want. This is the first time someone was like we’re going to give you the space to all be in the same cast together, I think that’s why everybody jumped on it immediately and on such a huge platform as well.”
Although the show is based around South Asians and stars South Asian voice actors, Ambudkar wants the audience to know that the themes are universal. The show isn’t just about Indian culture, but also about teaching teamwork, listening, “admitting when you’re wrong, asking for help, how to be vulnerable, what it is to be a leader, how to be a fearless young woman, how to support a fearless young woman.”
He states, “Culturally, its existence is revolutionary. I just want, again, to speak for the fact it’s not meant to inspire anyone or anything like that, but that this is normal. Hopefully, someday, it’s just normal. It’s a big, big deal today. Yeah, it’s the first South Asian show to be made on television and kudos to Disney and Disney Junior for making it, but hopefully, it’s just another show. Hopefully, we’ll meet again and I’m doing the 40th one of these and I’m like 80 and you guys are like ‘how are you still doing this?’ and I’m like ‘I don’t know, man.’ And, I’m still [in a] mustard jumpsuit.”
Mira, Royal Detective premieres on March 20 on Disney Junior.