Not too many Indians have boarded the USS Entreprise that roams the ends of the universe in the Star Trek series, but the few that have are Persis Khambatta, Kavi Raz and Lal Singh.
But that was a very long time ago.
The American science fiction franchise originally began as a television series in 1966 before being developed as a highly lucrative franchise of films, books and video games. There are so many over-laps since then that only time travel can unravel its own mammoth universe. The reboot began with Star Trek (2009). After Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the next edition, Star Trek Beyond, will be released in 2016. A fourth movie has been scheduled for 2019. In a video clip promoting the upcoming Star Trek Beyond (2016) and the chance to appear in it, the absence of an actor of Indian origin makes the project look incomplete, but die-hard Indian fans could turn the tables and swell the ranks of local actors on the Star Trek roster.
The Indian-origin actor from Nairobi, Deep Roy, has appeared as Keenser in Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). Hyderabad-born actor Ravi Valleti got an uncredited part as a cadet standing at a trial in Star Trek (2009). Mumbai-born Nazneen Contractor appeared briefly in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) as Rima Harewood. Punjabi-born Harpreet Sandhu will be seen in Star Trek Beyond (2016) as a crew member. None of them seems to have a fleshed-out part, and their being Indian is incidental.
Among the few Indian actors who briefly appeared in the series and in a movie was the Parsi model and actor from Mumbai, Persis Khambatta. She played the bald Deltan navigator Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Khambatta was initially thought to be of Italian or Spanish extraction. No one regarded her looks as Indian, even more so when producer Gene Roddenberry told her she would have to shave her head. She was determined to grab the part. This video documents the historic moment when she lost her curls. A nervous-looking Khambatta puts on a brave show of her acting skills – but the tears are ultimately unstoppable.
The movie was very successful, and Khambatta went on to become one of the few Indian actors to appear in both American films and television. She started her career in Hindi films as a cabaret dancer named Lily in director KA Abbas’s Bambai Raat Ki Bahon Mein (1967) after she won the Miss India crown. The role didn’t do much for her, and she headed West. In 1975, Khambatta had bit roles in Conduct Unbecoming and The Wilby Conspiracy. After Star Trek, she became the first Indian to present an Academy Award in 1980, where she made a stunning appearance.
One character that sounded Indian was Khan Noonien Singh, referred to as Khan in Star Trek: The Original Series in the episode titled Space Seed. But the role went to Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. Khan’s origins were never discussed on the spaceship and only later, when author Greg Cox wrote three Star Trek novels, did it emerge that Khan came from a family of Sikhs in north India. Khan is the title the character adopts after his admiration for Genghis Khan; his adoptive parents come from Chandigarh and are described as eugenic scientists. Khan’s un-turbaned wig tied into a man-bun didn’t come in the way of his villainy, and he featured prominently in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It still did not occur to the makers to hire an Indian actor to play an Indian character. Even in the reboot, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Khan, which did not sit well with critics and fans alike.
Kavi Raz, a British actor with roots in Punjab, briefly popped up in the series. Raz had previously appeared in several American television shows, starting with a recurring role in St Elsewhere (1982) as Doctor Vijay Kochar, and parts in The A-Team, M*A*S*H, and Ugly Betty. Raz had a guest appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) as an engineer named Singh. He appears in this video clip from the Lonely Among Us episode. His character is killed, ending Raz’s Star Trek sojourn.
Reginald Lal Singh, an Indian-origin actor from British Guiana, played Captain Nensi Chandra in the television episode Court Martial (1967), serving as a board member of a jury conducting the court martial of Captain James T Kirk. Singh can be seen at the extreme left of the panel in this video clip. He does not say a word, nor does he give the customary head nod. Still a long way off!