TV Shows, Pop Culture

For South Asians on screen, this is just the start

Until recently, you’d be hard-pressed to find a South Asian face on an American TV screen.

Real-life desis are not the caricatures we grew up seeing on screen. And the entertainment industry is finally getting the memo.

This fall has been an incredibly exciting one for all second-generation South Asian immigrants. Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and The Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar all published non-fiction books in the past couple of months. The face of Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra is splashed across billboards and taxis in New York City to advertise for the ABC show “Quantico.”

Ansari has a new semi-autobiographical show called “Master of None” premiering on Netflix this month, and NBC is developing a comedy called “I Love Lakshmi” about a white man marrying into an Indian family. To top it all off, Pixar just announced that their new short film “Sanjay’s Super Team” will debut Nov. 25.

The Pixar animated short opens with a young Indian boy named Sanjay watching “The Avengers” on TV. His father calls him to prayer, turning off the TV when Sanjay refuses to follow him. It’s an attempt to capture the cultural disconnect between South Asian immigrants and their children.

As its creator, Pixar artist Sanjay Patel, told the L.A. Times, “If I could, I would go back to the 1980s and give my younger self this short.”

And it’s not so difficult to understand why. Until recently, you’d be hard-pressed to find a South Asian face on an American TV screen. Before the Mindy Project premiered in September 2012, there wasn’t a single American TV show with a lead character of South Asian descent.

Now, after the addition of Ansari and Chopra, we have three South Asian protagonists on TV – soon to be four, with NBC’s announcement.

These recent announcements almost make it easy to envision a future where young desi children can flip through Netflix and browse through bookshelves without facing identity crises or floundering for role models.

But before we get too excited, let’s take a moment to hear what Ansari has to say.

“Guess what? Every other show is still white people,” the actor and comedian told Entertainment Weekly. “White people have every other show. It’s still kind of unbalanced.”

And Ansari is right. As GLAAD’s new Where We Are on TV report shows, only 6 percent of all characters on television are Asian or Pacific Islander. The number of South Asian characters specifically is significantly lower.

This number is roughly equivalent to the number of American residents of Asian descent: 2010 census figures estimate Asian Americans at 5.6 percent of the population and Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders at 0.4 percent.

The problem, the report emphasizes, is that not all roles are created equal.

“The biggest problem continues to be the exclusion of Asian Americans in places where we’re found disproportionately in real life,” Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans says in the report. “Despite the fact that one out of every six doctors in this country is of Asian descent, there has only been one Asian regular on Grey’s Anatomy in its first 10 seasons and none since Sandra Oh left.”

Moreover, as Fusion points out, most television shows take place in major metropolitan areas, where the Asian American population is significantly larger. As of 2010 in  New York City, the number was almost double the national average.

And even the shows that do include Asian American and South Asian characters don’t exactly highlight them as protagonists, let alone fully flesh out their characters. Most simply exist as flat stereotypes. Think Apu from “The Simpsons,” or Kumar Patel from “Harold & Kumar.”

That’s exactly why Ansari hopes to tackle this issue in his show. His protagonist is a South Asian actor living in New York, who faces the same racism and relative lack of opportunity that Ansari himself deals with as a South Asian actor.

As Ansari told EW, an episode of his show will actually feature “a montage of every Indian character that I remember seeing growing up. And it’s just gas station, gas station, gas station, gas station, weird guy from Indiana Jones who eats brains, Zack Morris making some sort of curry joke.”

Later in that episode, Ansari’s character is asked to perform an Indian accent during an acting audition and refuses.

This dilemma is something that Ansari has spoken about facing as a South Asian American actor. “I once was asked to audition for Transformers with Michael Bay. And it was a role for a call center guy who does an accent,” Ansari told EW. “And I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing it.’”

When the only Indian TV characters that desi youth encounter are gas-station workers with heavy, comical accents or desexualized tech nerds like Dinesh Chugtai of “Silicon Valley” and Raj Koothrappali of “The Big Bang Theory,” this plants a subtle yet pervasive message in the minds of desi children and society alike: that Indians are somehow strange or “other.”

Watching TV often inspired a mini identity crisis for me when I was a kid. I was bombarded by white faces and stories that didn’t quite match up with those of my family. Those that did look like me enforced less-than-flattering stereotypes about Indian culture.

Movies, books, TV, magazines—it is through these platforms that we build an understanding of our world. As children, we laugh at Arthur and Arnold and Miley and Elle Woods. We learn through their mistakes. We create, in our minds, an understanding of what the world looks like, what is normal and not normal and cool and nerdy and laudable and deplorable—all through the actions and experiences of the characters and cultural conversations we encounter in the realm of popular culture.

The Indians we meet in person are not the heavily-accented and socially awkward caricatures we’ve grown up watching on screen. And it has taken TV far too long to catch up to reality.

So please, let the Ansaris, Kalings, and Chopras of the world continue to make headway in the entertainment industry.

And let the Apus of network television be a thing of the past.