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From 'Overwatch' to 'DesiQuest': Actor Anjali Bhimani brings South Asian culture to gaming media

Anjali Bhimani and Omar Najam on the set of "DesiQuest." (Courtesy)
Anjali Bhimani and Omar Najam on the set of "DesiQuest." (Courtesy)

Anjali Bhimani has performed on Broadway, in TV shows “The Sopranos” and “Ms. Marvel,” and in video games “Fallout” and “Overwatch.”

But an encounter with fellow voice actors Matt Mercer and Marisha Ray had her swinging back to an old hobby: “Dungeons & Dragons.”

“[We] talked about how much I missed playing D&D from my childhood because I played since I was 8, but I hadn’t played in a long time,” says Bhimani. “I fell right back in love with it. If I could play it 24 hours a day, I would. I just love it so, so, so much.”

Bhimani then appeared on actual play shows that Mercer and Ray originated, like “Critical Role” and “Candela Obscura,” as well as “Dimension 20: The Ravening War.” In 2024, she joined dungeon master Jasmine Bhullar for an entirely new concept: a “Dungeons & Dragons” show based on the mythology and culture of the Indian subcontinent, with an all-South Asian main cast.

DesiQuest” just wrapped its first season in March. Bhimani talks about the show’s ambitions and how she tries to invite wide audiences to embrace diversity in gaming media.

Watch on YouTube.

5 questions for Anjali Bhimani from host Deepa Fernandes

How did you and your fellow actors get together for “Desiquest”?

“Well, this particular one started with Jasmine [Bhullar]. Jasmine and I were playing a D&D one-shot for a company called Critical Role. And after we finished, she turned to me and said, ‘I just want to play at a table with all South Asians. I want to see what that’s going to be like.’ And I’m like, ‘Great, that sounds awesome.’

“A week later, the pandemic hit. So it was sort of put on the shelf for a long time. And then two of our other compatriots from the entertainment industry, Sandeep Parikh and Anand Shah, have a production company. And they had come to her and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do something together?’ And she said, ‘What about this? And so they came to me to ask me if I wanted to do it. And I told them, ‘I’ve already said yes years ago. So yes, of course.’ We brought on Omar Najam and Rekha Shankar, who are both staples on ‘Dimension 20’ and Dropout TV. And that was it. That was how ‘DesiQuest’ was born.”

A promotional photo for “Desiquest.” (Courtesy)

What kind of response to “DesiQuest” have you gotten from fans?

“Honestly, it has been even more than we could have possibly imagined. Even more wonderful people from all backgrounds are really, really enjoying it. Both people who feel like it connects them more with their South Asian heritage, people who are lovers of India and lovers of South Asia and want to see more of that in the world.

“But also and this is the most exciting for me, people who feel included, who didn’t necessarily know about India or Indian culture, and they feel invited to the table. And all of our guests are people from different cultures. So they too sort of serve as a surrogate for the listener or for the viewer. And it has been truly remarkable. I’m very, very proud, because that’s the effect we wanted to have the most, was to invite people to the party. That is our culture, invite people to the table.”

You play the overbearing Auntie Ruby in “Ms. Marvel.” You have to laugh if you’re Indian or South Asian because we all have these aunties in our family. Do you enjoy getting to play this kind of character?

“The whole experience has evolved with me. As I’ve gotten older and sort of gotten to the age — even though I don’t feel like an auntie — where other people could call me. And I feel like aunties get a bad rap. I mean, they will speak their mind. They definitely have opinions. But I also feel like, and especially with Auntie Ruby, who’s in ‘Ms. Marvel,’ they’re kind of also the cool auntie.

“There’s this wonderful scene or this whole very long kind of segment in one of the episodes of ‘Ms. Marvel,’ where we’re at a Pakistani wedding, and Auntie Ruby is helping to explain the traditions to one of the young kids who’s a friend of Kamala’s at the school. If you’ve ever been to an Indian wedding, you know that Indian aunties just [are]like, ‘Please let us dress you, let us feed you, let us get you on the dance floor. We’ve got you.’

“That feeling, I think, is really at the core of what inclusion really is, because it isn’t only up to one side, it isn’t only up to the side of the people who don’t know about the culture. It’s up to us to invite people in and to allow them to ask questions and to allow them to make mistakes. And at our table, on ‘DesiQuest’, that is precisely what happens. Even we don’t know about each other’s upbringings entirely because we have two Gujarati, we have one Punjabi, we have one South Indian, and then we have one person who’s kind of from all over South Asia. So even within our lead cast, there are differences, there are words we don’t understand. There are things that we are learning. And so we want to create that safe place.”

You’re also famous for playing the “Overwatch” character Symmetra. Why do you think people relate to her so much?

“I think ‘Overwatch’ was one of the first games where people actually got to know these heroes from so many different backgrounds and so many, so many deep stories that weren’t just about their cultural background or their different expressions of who they were. They were about many, many different things.

“I think Symmetra is very much a part of that because she is more than just her culture. She is more than just her abilities. She is more than just someone who is on the spectrum, which is canon in the game. There’s so many things that make her uniquely her. And I do find that the people who really connect with Symmetra really do connect with that. That sense of, ‘Yes, I’ve had all of these challenges as I’ve been growing up, but I use them as a reason to make the world a better place, not as a reason to stop fighting.’ That right there is power.”

There’s a particularly nasty movement against diversity in games right now. How do you band together to weather the kind of abuse that can get thrown at you?

“I don’t think this is a myopic viewpoint that I have, but I find that the loudest voices are often the angriest. And the ones that need the most amplification are the kind ones, the supportive ones, the people who are not that thing that you are talking about.

“One of the ways to combat toxicity is to give it no fire, is to give it no fuel. Because if we want the powers of good, so to speak, to be able to thrive in the world, we need to raise them up. We need to amplify them. If we are given the blessing and the privilege of having a broader voice in the world, it is incumbent upon us to give a voice to those people who don’t necessarily have it.

“I personally haven’t experienced that thrown towards me. But I’ll tell you one thing. I know it’s not stopping anyone because beautiful, inclusive, deep, passionate stories are being told in gaming that include people from all backgrounds, all gender orientations, all expressions of who they are. And I think that’s just the most important thing to amplify the voice, amplify the voices you want to hear more of in the world.”


James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Micaela Rodriguez. Perkins Mastromarino also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.