“You Indians smell like curries!” read my friend’s chat window. All he was attempting was strike a conversation with an American girl on a popular networking/dating website. Fuming, he explained to her how Indians were much more than curry lovers or software engineers who took their jobs. As you can guess, that conversation did not culminate into a date.
So, what gives birth to these prejudiced notions?
Pop culture, most definitely.
Depiction of Indians on screen is complete with keywords such as spicy curry, thick accent, engineers and oddly even snake charmers. Let slums and poverty not be left behind, take a bow Danny Boyle. Indian films such as Bride and Prejudice and Namastey London have tried to correct that impression but it seems to have left little impact on the broad global impression of our countrymen.
Recently, many Indians have made it to popular television series across the western tele-network. The depiction ranges from extreme reference to their cultural roots to subtle nuances and in some cases pure nonchalance to their racial status. Let us take a look at 7 popular Indian characters on television today.
1) Essayed by the popular Bollywood actor, Priyanka Chopra, Alex Parrish from Quantico is half- Indian and half American. Her heritage rarely becomes a source of prejudice for her except for a brief reference to the India-Pakistan tiff which is portrayed very subtly. It is refreshing to see Priyanka Chopra become one with the character of a FBI trainee minus the baggage of stardom.
2) Rajesh Kuthrapalli (The Big Bang Theory), on the other hand is the epitome of Indian stereotypes. His portrayal has led to many Americans believing that Indians, irrespective of their educational status, have a cow in the backyard, eat spicy food and cannot speak in the company of women. Kunal Nayyar needs to apologize to every young Indian who failed to score a date in USA.
3) Dev Shah (Master of None) played by Aziz Ansari is a 30 something New Yorker, a hybrid of Indian heritage and western culture leading a perfectly normal life in the city. He condemns stereotypes against Indians as he struggles to get a role in a film. The show is commended for dealing with topics such as racism, sexism and being a coming of age show for all 30 years old people in a metro who are still figuring life.
4) Mindy Kaling is a popular American television actor, popularly known for her role as Kelly Kapoor in The Office. Playing a gossip loving customer service executive, she is shown to play the “Main tumahre bacche ki maa banne wali hu” card on her on-off boyfriend Ryan. Her race is mildly invoked in conversations (especially season 1) and when her parents make appearance on the sitcom.
5) Mohinder Suresh is a fictional character on Heroes, portrayed by Sendhil Ramamurthy. He is from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India and is a genetics professor at the University of Madras who holds a PhD in parapsychology. He is taking on the research of his dead father and working on the superhuman formula. His philosophical musings are the highlight of the show.
6) Neal Sampat, played by Dev Patel on Newsroom is an extremely real character. He plays a news assistant from a third world country with a keen interest in journalism. The character is extremely resourceful, hardworking and known to sympathize with on-ground reporters in middle-east as he relates to people in dire situations with journalistic aspirations.
7) Archana Panjabi plays Kalindi Sharma who is an in-house private investigator at Stern, Lockhart, Gardner (The Good Wife). She is one of the key characters who is known to be extremely good at her work but not strictly ethical. No references are made to her race at any point in the show.
It is great to see the western audience warm up to people of diverse origins on screen and hopefully, we will see stronger Indian characters emerge with stories that bring out a tinge of the ‘real’ India.