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Growing Up Smith’ Recreates a 1970s Indian-American Childhood

The cast of "Growing Up Smith."

Photo by Michael Chandler/Growing Up Smith

While most people may not recognize actor Anjul Nigam's name, he is a familiar face to many television watchers.

"People do recognize me a lot," the 51-year-old actor told NBC News. "They just think that I'm their doctor or something."

Some of the confusion is a little understandable. Since arriving in Hollywood in 1989, Nigam has played doctors on shows including "Grey's Anatomy," "Numb3rs," and "True Detective" (where he portrayed the Ventura County Medical Examiner.)

"It's a compounding effect of being in the industry for a long time," Nigam said. "I am very gratified that I've made a career as an actor, but I am not a celebrity in any way. I've been a journeyman."

That journey to Hollywood was a long one from Nigam's childhood in a small town in Connecticut. Born in India, he and his family moved to the United States when he was two years old for what everyone believed would be a temporary stay. Things did not turn out that way when Nigam's college professor father was offered a full-time job at Quinnipiac University at the end of his sabbatical from an Indian university.

Nigam says his father currently still lives in the house he grew up in, which the family bought in 1973.

Scenes and experiences from Nigam's childhood were the primary influence for "Growing Up Smith," the script for a new coming-of-age comedy that Nigam co-wrote and will be released in select theaters on Friday. The film follows the life of 10-year-old Smith (so named because his father wanted "an all-American" name) as he navigates his life and first crush while growing up in a very traditional Indian and Hindu immigrant household.

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"It really focuses on three universal themes: first love, childhood heroes, and growing up in small town as a fish out of water," Nigam said of the film. "In a small town, you have this element of everyone knowing who you are. It's not like growing up in a city and being in the melting pot with different kinds of people everywhere."

The traditional prayer scene in "Growing Up Smith."
Parents Nalini and Bhaaskar Bhatnagar (played by Poorna Jagannathan and Anjul Nigam) do traditional Hindu prayers with their son Smith (Roni Akurati) in this scene from the new film "Growing Up Smith." Photo by Sabrina Lantos

Nigam says he borrowed many scenes from his childhood while working on the script for "Growing Up Smith," including in the portrayal of Smith's father, Bhaaskar Bhatnagar.

"My father would tell my mother, 'We're here to get the American dream and get out.' He wanted to make a lot of money here and then go back and live like ranis and rajas in India," Nigam explained, using the Hindi word for queens and kings. That line was one of the many family expressions Nigam ended up including in the script.

There were also scenes from his childhood that he recreated exactly. In the film, Smith patiently tries to explain Halloween to his parents, who are extremely reluctant to pass out candy. Instead, Bhaskaar comes up with an alternative solution.

Like his character Smith, script writer Anjul Nigam says he was fascinated with "Saturday Night Fever" as a child. Photo by Sabrina Lantos

"There's a scene where the father is handing out coins to trick-or-treaters," Nigam said. "He still does that. So if you go trick or treating to his house in Connecticut, you'll get a coin."

Nigam says that, like Smith, he was fascinated with movies and music as a preteen, even when he didn't fully understand the adult references. "I do remember my family going to see movies that were hosted by the Indian Association of New Haven, so we'd see Bollywood movies like 'Sholay'" — referring to the now-classic 1975 Hindi action film — "and I was also being exposed to American films like 'Saturday Night Fever.' It was very bizarre to me to see all of the portrayals of sexuality and the profanity. You wouldn't see that in a Bollywood movie back then."

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Over the past year, Nigam says he's been traveling the country as the film is shown at different film festivals. "One of the most gratifying experiences came at the Woodstock Film Festival. The cast and crew were there and a lot of my family and friends from Connecticut came, including my dad," he recalled. "He certainly recognizes the character is based on him and it's nice to have his blessing and approval."

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