Disney Junior’s latest animated series for preschoolers, “Mira, Royal Detective,” kicks off with a burst of energy. Viewers meet the titular protagonist through a catchy theme song as two meerkats sing “Let’s hear it for Mira, Royal Detective!” over an instrumental mixing pop hooks with lilting South Asian instrumentation. Credit this unique mix to the series’ musical consultant and orchestrator, Baltimore-area native Deepak Ramapriyan.
“I feel like I’m dreaming a little bit, sometimes,” he said. “Seeing everything, the last couple of weeks, coming out has been mindblowing.”
“Mira, Royal Detective” is an adventure series whose namesake character falls in with the royal family of Jalpur, a fictional South Asian kingdom, and solves mysteries on behalf of monarchs and her fellow commoners alike. The actors speaking over Ramapriyan’s score include Freida Pinto (“Slumdug Millionaire”), Aasif Mandvi (“Evil”) and Utkarsh Ambudkar (“The Mindy Project”).
Like Ambudkar, Ramapriyan was born in Baltimore. His parents, who emigrated from India, worked as scientists at NASA and Johns Hopkins University and were talented musicians themselves. They raised him in Columbia, Howard County with a packed schedule of studying, tennis and violin lessons in both Carnatic (or southern Indian) and European classical music. This upbringing prepared him for a career mixing Disney and Bollywood, as did touring the country with an a cappella group, The Generics, while studying at the University of Maryland College Park.
“By the time I graduated [in 2002], my mindset was on a completely different thing,” Ramapriyan said. “I did finish my pre-med, in neurobiology and physiology, and took a lot of classes in criminology, criminal justice, everything like that. But once I graduated, I pretty much came straight to Los Angeles and started pursuing music.”
Ramapriyan’s entertainment career allowed him to bridge his various identities in creative ways. To be sure, he acted in commercials (including one stint as an Indian prince in a Cadillac ad) and found himself occasionally pigeonholed, but playing in the band The B.O.L.T. (Breath of Life Tribe) and at yogi festivals let him find an audience ready for cross-cultural exploration. This career also allowed him to share the stage with stars like India Arie and Rihanna.
It didn’t always feel so harmonious in his childhood. Like many South Asian Americans, he experienced crises of identity in a social climate often split between predominantly white and black groups. Bullying and racist jokes about his name made the experience even more difficult. Songwriting, as he does for both Disney and his current pop band Robot Nature, always offered an outlet for those experiences.
“Music is absolutely a major part of the healing, and it worked out that I make an income doing it, so it's definitely a win-win for sure,” he said.
Today, South Asian American children have far more media with characters that look like them. “Mira, Royal Detective” is part of that movement, as a series set in South Asia with Disney’s first entirely South Asian diasporic voice cast.
Dr. Shilpa Davé, the assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and faculty member in media studies at the University of Virginia, said that the series and Ramapriyan’s participation mark steps forward for South Asian communities in pop culture. She cited the example of an upcoming Disney+ live-action series, focusing on the South Asian- and Muslim-American Marvel character Kamala Khan (a.k.a. Ms. Marvel), as further evidence of Disney’s increasing “commitment to entering world markets and global markets with diverse characters.”
“What we’re seeing is an animated series that’s set in a South Asian context, and it is developed and acted with this star-studded cast of South Asians, which is great...you can get a lot of young viewers who can maybe see themselves and see people who look like them, and who speak in American accents, too,” she said.
“I would like to see is, this is set in India and in a fictional place, but can we also start to see different ways of thinking about South Asians and even thinking about India as a place that is not just “The Jungle Book” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” or about orphans, but can we see different kinds of stories?" she added. "Part of this [series] is trying to add to [the types of stories seen],
Ramapriyan recognizes the importance of his work.
“There’s more awareness of Indian culture happening,” he said. “And so suddenly, Disney – of course, the biggest name in the world – comes in, and it’s not just Indian people doing regular things like on these other [TV shows with South Asian characters]. This is actually full-on sharing Indian culture in all of its aspects: musically, the colors, the dance, the food…now, to be able to see the vast and rich magic and color of India, and have it expressed in such a beautiful way, I think is a massive quantum leap.”