Meet Indo-Canadian Actor, Screenwriter, Director, & Playwright – Sugith Varughese
Not competent enough to sit idle and stare as the…
With over 90 credits in film and TV already, actor, screenwriter, director, and playwright, Sugith Varughese, now recurs on both the number one Canadian comedy series and the number one Canadian drama series on television. He has recurred as Mr. Mehta on CBC’s hit comedy ‘Kim’s Convenience’ for four seasons and also recurs as senior surgeon Dr. Aajay Singh on the new medical procedural series, ‘Transplant.’
Since mid-April, ‘Transplant’ has been in the top ten most-watched programs on broadcast TV in Canada, the highest level for a Canadian series each week.
In this exclusive interview with DissDash, Sugith Varughese talks about his career, work, and the impact of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry.
DissDash: Talk to us about your journey – from where you started to your latest ‘Kim’s Convenience.’
Sugith Varughese: I was born in Kerala but was brought to Canada at 14 months of age and grew up mostly in the prairie city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It’s a lovely place, but at the time, I was the only brown kid in my school. I think identity and belonging were issues for me and that is what caused an interest in the arts when I was young. I eventually started university as a double major: pre-med and drama, but I never applied for medical school. I finished my university studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and then came to do my graduate degree in film at York University in Toronto, where I was the first recipient of an MFA in film in Canada. I broke into Canadian television as a writer and one of my first big breakthroughs was a TV movie I wrote for Canadian television called “Best of Both Worlds.” It was the first multicultural romantic comedy movie the CBC ever did. It was about an Indo-Canadian guy and at the time, 1982 there were no actors of Indian descent, so I asked to audition lest the film is canceled. And I won the part which is how I began acting. The movie was nominated for the equivalent of a Canadian Emmy back then and after that, I worked as both a writer and an actor, as well as a director in Canada since.
‘Kim’s Convenience’ is a TV comedy based on an award-winning play, (which I actually saw when it first began), about a Korean-Canadian family who runs a convenience store in downtown Toronto. Before the series began, I was asked to audition for the part of a friend of the store owner, which I didn’t get. Then, halfway through the filming of the first season, they asked me to do another part, also a friend of the store owner, Mr. Kim, named Mr. Mehta who owned the Indian restaurant near the store. It was only supposed to be for one episode, but they liked the chemistry between myself and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee who plays Mr. Kim so much, they brought me back and I’ve been recurring on the show ever since. It is the highest-rated comedy on Canadian TV. We just were renewed for both seasons 5 and 6. The show airs in Canada first and then goes onto Netflix outside Canada.
This year, I also recur on a new hospital drama called ‘Transplant,’ playing the senior attending surgeon, Dr. Aajay Singh. ‘Transplant’ is the highest-rated Canadian drama series on TV and has recently been picked up to air on NBC in prime time.
I think for any actor to recur on 2 different series on 2 different networks at the same time is very unusual and particularly groundbreaking for a non-white performer. I’m very proud of that.
DissDash: What are your thoughts on the show overall. Do you agree that international shows such as this were rare till recently?
Varughese: ‘Kim’s Convenience’ is a remarkable show because it is very Toronto-centric. Korean run convenience stores are very common here, but I always thought only people from here would like the show. Yet it has found an international audience all over the globe. I have been in series before that got big international sales. CBC’s ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’ was one that got seen in 80 countries. And even “Best of Both Worlds,” the TV movie I wrote and starred in the ’80s got sold to over 40 countries. So I don’t think this kind of reach is rare until recently, but definitely with the rise of streaming more people are aware of the international success of ‘Kim’s Convenience.’ But as I mentioned, my other show, ‘Transplant’ which centers around a refugee who was a doctor in Syria and gets a chance to be one again, has just been sold to NBC so perhaps the international reach of Canadian shows, which are more diverse in theme and cast than from other countries, could be growing.
DissDash: South Asians have made such amazing strides in all areas of entertainment, however, there are still stereotypical roles. How long before you think we will just be as mainstream as anyone else?
Varughese: I think we are mainstream now. With the profile of Mindy Kaling and Hasan Minhaj, who are major international figures, and the inclusion of South Asian actors in so many programs now, I think the desi community is punching above it’s fighting weight in the entertainment arena. Mindy Kaling’s new series starring a young Tamil-Canadian girl from Toronto on Netflix is huge. I also think that we are playing characters who are far from stereotypes, at least in what I’ve been seeing. Things have changed a lot since when I started. I was a pioneer, but now I’m one of many desi artists in show business.
DissDash: Who did you look up to growing up?
Varughese: Well, I didn’t really have any desi artist role models, if that’s what you mean. There weren’t any. In fact, I remember I was 11 before I even saw a brown person on screen, (my parents took me to see an Indian film at the university film society) and I recall it took my breath away. I had only seen James Bond or whoever and I realized when I finally saw a brown person that I had been having to “work” to inject myself into the movies, in a way that my white friends didn’t have to. I think it’s then I realized I didn’t want to be invisible in my own culture and began my journey into entertainment. But I was inspired by contemporaries when I found them, like all the Indo-British actors of the ’80s like Art Malik and Ben Kingsley. And the writer Hanif Kureshi. They were able to work at a level I could only dream of being in Canada. Though my “Best of Both Worlds” film actually came out before the movie “Gandhi” did, so in a way, I was the pioneer and I had to become my own role model. Perhaps I’m now a role model for the next generation, at least here. Remember, I was also a writer and I’m best known for being one of the original writers of the Muppet series, ‘Fraggle Rock,’ so I worked with Jim Henson at an early age. When you are in that situation, you don’t have to look far for inspiration. I was in the presence of greatness early in my own career and I know I learned so much that I still use in my work to this day.
DissDash: Who is your inspiration now?
Varughese: I’m inspired by the next generation. Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj, as I mentioned are doing things I still dream about doing. And there are so many now, perhaps not famous but who I know personally who are going to be famous soon. The lead actor on ‘Transplant,’ Hamza Haq is a young Pakistani-Canadian guy who is going to be a huge international star. But what inspires me about him is his incredible work ethic. And of course the famed Bollywood artists like Irrfan Khan and Saeed Jaffrey, who I knew personally as he’d wanted to be in a film of mine, both sadly gone now. The body of work they have all produced is phenomenal. All these artists are heroes of mine.
DissDash: What do you have planned next?
Varughese: I was in rehearsal for a play by Chekhov at one of Canada’s most prestigious theatres, Soulpepper when the virus shut us down. And by now, I’d normally be filming season 5 of ‘Kim’s Convenience’ and hopefully season 2 of ‘Transplant,’ (though we have not heard yet about that, I’m reasonably confident given the success of the show we will get renewed.) But due to COVID-19, all production in Canada has been suspended and I don’t know when it will resume or in what form. I also had a film that I had written that was close to being financed before the virus stopped everything. So, I do grieve for those losses, but meanwhile, I’m writing in quarantine, and hopefully, something will come from that that can go forward in the new normal, whatever, and whenever that will be.
Not competent enough to sit idle and stare as the world goes by, Pallavi is optimistic to a fault and believes in building her world on her own rather than depending on others to make things right.