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'Schitt's Creek' character, criticism spark debate about accents and stereotypes

The Indian Canadian actor told The Toronto Star that the focus should be more on why his character didn't have a more fully developed story.
Eugene Levy and Rizwan Manji in \"Schitt's Creek.\"
Eugene Levy and Rizwan Manji in "Schitt's Creek."Netflix

“Schitt’s Creek” reigned supreme in 2020, winning nine Emmys in its sixth and final season. But months after it ended, the Canadian comedy series is getting scrutiny for the stereotypical accent of a South Asian character on the show.

Rizwan Manji, who played Indian Canadian Ray Butani, defended his choice to add a slight Indian accent to the character and called for the focus to be on why Ray’s arc wasn’t developed more.

“If you want to criticize something, do that. We need to have three-dimensional characters,” Manji said in an interview with The Toronto Star.

Manji, 46, told The Star that while he was OK with viewers questioning his choices, the focus should be on why his character did not have a more developed story, like a relationship or a family.

The actor appeared in 14 of the show’s 80 episode. Ray was mostly used for comic relief and his backstory wasn’t really explored. Butani was an eccentric who ran a combined real-estate, travel and photography business in the small town of Schitt’s Creek, where the wealthy Rose family moved after losing their fortune.

This year, Manji told the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times that he loves “Schitt’s Creek” but it could have done better with diversity by fleshing out characters and giving them lives, as seen in newer shows like “Never Have I Ever,” “Master of None,” and “Criminal: U.K.”

In a statement sent to news outlets, including NBC Asian America, Daniel Levy — who produced, wrote, and starred in “Schitt’s Creek,” — said Butani was conceived as a character of Indian descent and that Manji, being a Canadian-born actor of Indian descent, was right for the part. “The thoughtful choices that Rizwan made in his portrayal in the audition room perfectly encapsulated the warmth and the energy of Ray,” Levy said. He also pointed out that the casting did not call for an accent.

Levy created “Schitt’s Creek” with his father, Eugene Levy. It also starred Catherine O’Hara and Annie Murphy. It aired from 2015-2020 on CBC in Canada and on Pop TV in the U.S.

"We echo the sentiments expressed by Dan Levy and applaud the care that he and the 'Schitt's Creek' producers took in ensuring all of the show's beloved characters were created with thoughtfulness and respect," a CBC spokesperson said.

The show was applauded during its six-year run for its inclusive storylines, especially the central gay romance featuring Levy’s David Rose and Noah Reid’s Patrick Brewer.

Over the last few months, after the show sweeped the comedy category at the Emmys this year, viewers took to social media to point out how Manji’s accent adhered to stereotypes.

Rishi Maharaj, an engineer from British Columbia, asked on Twitter: “Why go to the effort of writing in a character with an Indian name played by an Indian actor whose main personality trait is that he is stupid and has an accent? Why did Rizwan Manji have to do that?”

The Star also cited New York comedian and playwright Arif Silverman’s post on Facebook in which he wrote that the character of Butani plays directly into the racist South Asian trope of being an emasculated, goofy buffoon whom no one takes seriously, in part because of his accent.

The use of fake South Asian accents has long been a topic of contention, especially with Apu on “The Simpsons,” an Indian convenience store owner voiced by Hank Azaria, who is white.

Apu was the subject of comedian Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary “The Problem with Apu,” which highlighted how this animated character further propelled racist stereotypes. Azaria announced this year that he won’t portray the character anymore.

In his criticism of Manji’s Butani accent, Maharaj told The Star that it reminded him of Apu.

Manji is known for his roles on “Perfect Harmony,” “The Magicians” and “Mr. Robot.” His breakout role was in “Outsourced,” a 2010 NBC comedy set in an Indian workplace but shot in America. It was canceled after one season.

The actor said that he wasn’t given any instructions by the producers of "Schitt's Creek" on what Butani would sound like. He went with a toned-down version of his “Outsourced” character, Rajiv Gidwani, because that was the demo tape he had sent in.

“I don’t regret that because I think it actually works for Ray,” Manji said. “He wasn’t like anybody else in that town. He was from somewhere else.”

Manji also told Hindustan Times in October that over the span of his career, he had to actually shatter several stereotypes because he was told he didn’t possess typical Bollywood looks and in Hollywood, no lead roles were written for brown-skinned men.

“I used comedy as a way to get my way up in the business,” he said.

After the initial table read of “Schitt’s Creek,” he approached Daniel Levy, who approved it.

In his statement, Levy also said that the show was created with love, respect and humanity and that it has been gratifying to have these intentions reflected through the overwhelming audience support for these characters.

“That said, I welcome any perspectives that encourage conversations about diversity, especially in entertainment,” Levy said.