Utkarsh Ambudkar remembers his exact reaction to seeing Dante Basco play Rufio in Hook. “Badass,” said the young actor-rapper, known for his roles in The Mindy Project and Pitch Perfect. Soon, he’ll be known for his role in the live-action remake of Mulan, which he’s currently training for and filming in New Zealand.
“I never related to Peter Pan,” Ambudkar continues with a jokingly indignant tone. But the fictional character of Rufio – the leader of the Lost Boys – struck a personal note for Ambudkar, who is Indian American. It was the first time he saw an Asian man cast as the tough guy – a superhero archetype – on television.
Ambudkar never predicted he’d one day sit down to write about that moment with Rufio, his childhood hero. He asked his Blindspotting costar Janina Gavankar to make the introduction. (“She knows everybody,” he explains). Dante Basco (“Rufio”) was game. He worked on the song, called “Rufio,” with Ambudkar and even brought his gold sword from Hook for inspiration. They both held it while rapping their bars into the microphone.
Basco’s contribution was a pivotal one on Ambudkar’s debut album, Vanity, which he feels is aligned with a wave of Asian and Asian American-empowerment with the recent groundbreaking success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Searching. The goal of the album is to inspire brown people, he says. “The themes are: ‘What is it like to be brown in America? And how do we empower each other?'”
So on Vanity, due out in January, Ambudkar made sure he was not “the only Indian in the room” by including a variety of South Asian artists such as Das Racist’s Heems, Brooklyn Shanti, Kaly and Samora Pinderhughes. Plus, his old battle-rapping buddy, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Ambudkar and Miranda remained close over the years. They have matching tattoos of the Freestyle Love Supreme microphone that stood for their crew from the early days of their music careers in New York. Ambudkar says he even originated Aaron Burr in The Hamilton Mixtape, long before it hit Broadway. “I FaceTime with him and his kids [and] he just so happens to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning, fucking national treasure,” Ambudkar says.
“Vanity” — the song that precedes “Rufio” — features members of his and Miranda’s old rap crew, with Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal offering up their own verses. The track came during a brainstorm for the Blindspotting soundtrack (the film was co-written by and stars Diggs and Casal). “Daveed and Rafael were both like ‘This isn’t for the soundtrack. This is your song. The song is your idea … use it,'” he recalls. “They’re two of my favorite rappers, if not my two favorite rappers on the planet, so that means a lot to me.”
As he anticipates the release of Vanity, Ambudkar has dropped an animated video for “Rufio,” one that drives home those superhero qualities that strengthened his own identity.
“I don’t know that there’s music being made for people who look like me,” says Ambudkar. “That’s what I’m trying to do – I know that might put me in a box, or it might separate me from the pop music, but that’s kind of the point.”