Over the past year or so, the problem I’ve had with the representation of Indians in Hollywood and television has really begun to drive me insane. Why is it that the only role an Indian actor or actress can portray is that of an immigrant (with a strong accent), a taxi driver (if the show or movie is set in New York City), a wannabe Bollywood star, or a doctor?
Newsflash, humanity: Indians have been in the United States and United Kingdom for at least two generations. We’re not all a fresh crop of immigrants looking to escape the slums of India (as everyone would have it after Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire which, for the record, I love) and be successful in the west. Seriously, why can’t the Indian characters in shows and movies have “normal,” or more mainstream roles? I understand, however, that characters of different races and ethnicities do often get typecasted or stereotyped into the same kinds of roles, but the portrayal of Indians is just getting ridiculous.
The number of Indian characters in shows and movies that actually break the mold of the stereotype is so scant, I can probably count them on one hand. By stereotype, I mean more than just having the accent. These characters always seem to have a problem with wanting to go against their parents wishes for an arranged marriage, almost always have a name that gets just mutilated by the other characters in the show (even if it’s a moronically simple name), and always have to bring some kind of silly song and dance number into the show. (For the record, I adore song and dance numbers. In INDIAN films.) The only characters I can think of that break this mold include:
- Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn, House M.D.)
- Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani, a.k.a. Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari, Parks and Recreation)
- Jai Wilcox (Sendhil Ramamurthy, Covert Affairs)
- Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife)
- Yusuf (Dileep Rao, Inception)
- Aasif Mandvi for his part in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
There are some characters that are somewhat in between:
- Divya Katdare, played by Reshma Shetty, Royal Pains
- Pinder Singh, played by Kumail Nanjiani (he’s Pakistani, but his character is Indian), Franklin & Bash
- Kelly Kapoor, played by Mindy Kaling (she’s Sri Lankan, but again, the character is Indian), The Office
What’s left are just horribly stereotyped characters that are there simply to serve the purpose of “token Indian guy.” What’s even more pathetic is that if a character is not meant to embody the Indian stereotype at all, their identity as an Indian is stripped completely. But Sahana, what are you talking about? Lawrence Kutner? Tom Haverford? If I didn’t see their faces, I wouldn’t know that they’re Indian, but you claim that they’re characters that have successfully broken the mold! What gives?
Hey. You’re right. But you know what? So am I. Kutner and Tom have had their stories teased out throughout their episodes in House and Parks & Rec, respectively. They show that yes, the character is Indian, but this is why they have such a name. I think it worked rather well for these two characters. Both Kal Penn and Aziz Ansari have had lines in their shows directly addressing the fact that they’re brown guys with names like Kutner and Tom. I honestly love these two characters. Kutner, with his childlike attitude and medical experiments and Tom, with his endlessly amusing behavior and demeanor, are characters that really anyone can relate to—and that’s my point exactly.
People fall in love with a show or rather, the characters in the show when they feel that they can relate to them, or they find something genuine in the characters’ persona. Far too often, Indian characters are painfully one-dimensional. They’re fobs. They worry about arranged marriages. They smell like “curry.” They like to sing and dance. They talk funny. How is anyone supposed to relate to that? How are Indians even supposed to relate to that? One of my favorite television characters is Barney Stinson, portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother. Barney is a womanizing, manipulative, crazy, nosy, daddyissuesridden, hysterically amusing yet hot mess of a character. Upon first glance, one would think “Why the hell does she like this character…he sounds like a giant douchebag.” Well yeah he is. But his character development and nuances, coupled with NPH’s perfect performance makes him endearing and somehow, lovable. Indian characters don’t seem to get that benefit of the doubt.
Let’s take Divya Katdare (Royal Pains) as an example. Divya is an intelligent, beautiful, witty young lady serving as Dr. Hank Lawson’s physician’s assistant. She can do well for herself, she’s good at her job, and she has a lot of respect. And then she gets to deal with the fact that her parents are railroading her into an arranged marriage with a guy that, though she’s known her whole life, just doesn’t do it for her. Drama drama drama, suspense suspense, Divya kind of develops feelings for another dude (a handsome white dude), wedding gets called off, big surprise. It’s so predictable. It’s so obvious. It’s so…boring. Why would anyone relate to that? Even as an Indian-American young woman who, let’s face it, will be dealing with the issues with having an arranged marriage (not anytime soon, phew), I just couldn’t bring myself to care. It was just a way to get non-Indian (white viewers, since Reshma is the only cast member with an increased level of melanin) to feel sorry for the characters. There was nothing unique about it.
Divya: Sup I’m getting an arranged marriage
Other characters: WHAAAAAAAAAAT!?!?!?!? HOW COULD YOU EVER LET SOMEONE ELSE MAKE THAT DECISION FOR YOU BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH
Yeah I’ve heard it all before. Thanks for harping on that over and over again. It’s like impossible for an Indian character to just have a normal relationship without having the burden of arranged marriage hanging over their head.
Our culture is different from that of America’s, yes. Obviously. But we’ve been here long enough for our traditions to mix. Indian-Americans ARE allowed to have normal lives outside of arranged marriages, curry and bright colors. It actually happens in real life. Shocker, eh Hollywood?
Whether positive or negative, it is still stereotyping.