Exclusive: From The Daily Show to a Modern-Day Fable Set in Queens

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In advance of a panel discussion at the gleaming new 92nd St. Y offshoot in Tribeca, we sat down with actor Aasif Mandvi and director David Kaplan to discuss their upcoming movie 7 to the Palace. You probably know Mandvi from his consistently funny work as a Daily Show correspondent, but the roots of the new movie, which he co-wrote, stretch back to his days as an off-Broadway performer — specifically his Obie Award-winning one-man production Sakina’s Restaurant.

In Kaplan’s words, 7 to the Palace, currently in post-production, is “a food family comedy set and filmed in Jackson Heights.” In it, Maandvi’s protagonist must give up his dream of cooking French cuisine to run his father’s traditional Indian restaurant. If that premise sounds a bit like an old-fashioned fairytale to you…well, that’s the point. Kaplan’s experience directing last year’s festival favorite Year of the Fish, a similarly fable-ish animated feature set in Chinatown’s underbelly, was “one of the reasons I got hired to do this.” What’s with his fixation on ethnic enclaves? Simply put — “I like New York a lot. Jackson Heights in particular is such a crossroads of different cultures…it’s a vibrant, alive ethnic enclave that reminds me of the New York of my youth, the New York of 20 years ago.”

Speaking of ethnicity — Maandvi addressed recent criticisms of the comedy world (SNL, mostly) for being too white and too male. “(The comedy world) has always been like that,” he asserted. “Even on the Daily Show, I end up sort of being the brown guy. That’s a reality of being in show business in America — I don’t think it’s limited to comedy. We still have a really hard time dealing with race in this country.” Then, with a smile — “But hopefully Obama will change all that. We will all now get along.” Or will we? When we got onto the topic of how much Maandvi pays attention to the news, he said that he focuses only on stories he could cover in his role as a correspondent. “Only ones with Indian people in them, right?” we asked. “There you go,” he joked. “You’re doing it yourself. Now you’re a culprit.” Clearly, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Perhaps the most burning question of the evening: where does Maandvi go for an Indian food fix in the city? “I don’t eat Indian food. I find it too spicy,” he said with a straight face. But seriously — “I like to go to the cheap Indian restaurants down on 6th Street. The places where no one speaks English and Christmas lights are hanging in your face.”

As for the movie, it sounds like a comic, lightly heartwarming diversion — mulligatawny soup for the troubled New York soul. Can this thing come out now instead of next year?

Photo by: Vikram Tank