BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Even though she's a trained actress who's starred in the Broadway show "Bombay Dreams," former Pittsburgher Anisha Nagarajan can relate to her near-mute character in the NBC comedy "Outsourced," which premieres at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on WPXI.
Anyone who's seen promos for "Outsourced" knows the character: Ms. Nagarajan plays Madhuri, a painfully shy employee at a call center in India for Mid-America Novelties' catalog sales.
"I have moments when I definitely am at a loss for how to express myself sometimes," Ms. Nagarajan said after an NBC press conference here in late July. "I feel like everybody can relate to having that feeling being in a new environment and they don't know how to deal with the situation. I've had times where I just want to disappear into this little corner of the room. ... I think it's going to be interesting to see how she finds her voice."
Ms. Nagarajan found her voice while growing up in Pittsburgh, first in Squirrel Hill and later in Fox Chapel. Her father, Nandu, is a professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. Her mother, Geetha, worked at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic as a developmental specialist for several years. Brother Arjun is a senior at Northwestern University.
Ms. Nagarajan is a 2002 graduate of Fox Chapel Area High School, where she played Reno Sweeney in the musical "Anything Goes" her senior year. She attended New York University and while a sophomore landed the lead role in the Broadway musical "Bombay Dreams," where she met her husband, actor/musician Aalok Mehta. She's been trying to finish up her NYU degree ever since while also working in stage shows, including "The Wiz" at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and "Rent" at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y.
Her biggest on-camera credit prior to "Outsourced" was a guest spot on "Ugly Betty."
"Our director, Ken Kwapis, put everyone at ease," she said of her experience filming the "Outsourced" pilot in Los Angeles earlier this year. "Instead of saying, 'Action,' he would just say, 'Go ahead,' and it put everyone at ease and it didn't make me nervous at all. That was really nice to have."
Executive producer Robert Borden said producers had a difficult time casting the role of Madhuri until Ms. Nagarajan came along.
"There's a way you can play this part and it can be kind of cartoony and maybe even one note," he said. "And Anisha came in and not only was funny, but you see the humanity that makes you root for Madhuri. It was one of the auditions where she just comes in and you say, 'Oh, thank God. That's it.' "
"Outsourced" has come under fire from some TV critics for playing up Indian stereotypes. Others have complained that in a time of high unemployment, there's nothing funny about the show's premise of American jobs being outsourced overseas. But those involved in the show push back against such criticisms.
"By and large in most workplace comedies, the characters actually don't like the job they're in," Mr. Borden said. "And this is actually just the opposite, and it's certainly what the call-center phenomenon is all about in India is that these characters are strivers. They want to learn about American culture. They want to succeed. It was a coup to get this job, and this is the kind of thing that opens up a way of life that their parents wouldn't have enjoyed."
Ms. Nagarajan said both of her parents grew up in India and she spent a year there at a boarding school when she was 15.
"All my family and friends are just really excited to see such a large Indian contingent on television," she said. "Ultimately it's a show about these characters, and I feel like any office you go to is going to have similar characters: the wallflower, the romantic and the guy who won't shut up. I hope that's something people can relate to and can enjoy."
The story begins when Todd (Ben Rappaport), a call center manager for Mid-America Novelties Company, completes his management training only to discover the call center he expected to work at had been closed and the jobs outsourced to India, so he moves overseas to work with the new Indian recruits. Ms. Nagarajan's Madhuri is painfully shy and barely speaks above a whisper.
In future episodes Madhuri will begin to evolve.
"I've grown to find that she is actually quite witty," Ms. Nagarajan said. "She's starting to come out of her shell a little bit more. And she does have responses to things that people say, and quite smart ones."
In one episode, Todd will overhear Madhuri singing in the women's restroom -- an opportunity for Ms. Nagarajan to use the singing skills she showcased on Broadway. Madhuri is only comfortable singing in the privacy of the bathroom, but Todd signs her up for an "American Idol"-style singing competition, much to her dismay.
"It's one of those stories that's more of Todd's dream being forced on her than hers. But we'll see a new side of her," Mr. Borden said. "A character like that, it's a great place to start. And then hopefully have years of growth and surprise from her."
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published September 22, 2010 4:00 AM