TV Shows, Pop Culture

Is desi culture too boring for television?

Even with desis on TV…where are all the desis on TV?

When “The Mindy Project” was first announced, it seemed like our many prayers (in regards to network television sitcoms, at least) had been answered. Mindy Kaling wrote some of the best episodes on “The Office,” not to mention her hilarious theatrics portraying a perfectly clueless Kelly Kapoor. In her book we found a funny, genuine leader – and she looked like us desi girls. This show was destined to be our ride or die, if that’s still cool to say.

When it finally premiered, we were enamored. Finally, a funny desi female lead! She wasn’t the badass Pakistani and Mauritian figures we still dream of to this day, but her being Indian was close enough, and was still a big deal. So what if her ethnicity didn’t come up for the first…ten episodes?

We slowly realized her life didn’t definitely look much like ours either, but we’d had some crushes that ended in disaster, too. Even if this was central to plots of other female-led sitcoms, we still looked way more like Kaling than Zooey Deschanel, and it was enough to turn us into little TMP activists, promoting the show and our one cultural icon tirelessly.

[bctt tweet=”Finally, a desi female lead! So what if her ethnicity didn’t come up for the first ten episodes?”]

But after three seasons, we’re running out of steam. We’re tired of promoting and loving a show that doesn’t represent us at all and we’re tired of pretending that it has all along. Life for most desi girls does not include romantic link-up after link-up with little to no sign of our ethnic background being brought up. Our life looks more like answering dumb, racist questions as often as Mindy Lahiri has dated cute white guys we would be left quietly pining after. And our parents aren’t cartoonish, either, especially if the father of their unborn grandson sauntered in only to argue against the concept of marriage.

We’re not the first to make this criticism of Kaling, and she has spoken out several times (see here, here, and here) to say she isn’t the pioneer we were looking for and is simply too busy to be. But that puts us desi girls back at square one. We certainly don’t have Kaling’s many jobs running a show (if we did, we’re big-headed and optimistic enough to think we might solve the problems we’re having). But we’re also not asking her to carry our entire culture on her shoulders – just to provide an authentic narrative. Are our desi lives that horrifying or uninteresting to portray? We don’t think so.

[bctt tweet=”Are our desi lives that horrifying or uninteresting to portray?”]

When news broke about Priyanka Chopra doing a show for ABC, we thought we had another chance at seeing some part of our life on-screen. But we were let down yet again, through unnecessary accents and an “ethnically ambiguous” lead. This definitely wasn’t authentic – when have we ever had the privilege of ethnic ambiguity? It’s offensive to think it’s that easy! You can check “other” on a form if it asks your ethnicity – that’s up to you to disclose – but people in real life won’t be satisfied until they’ve effectively categorized you. And rather than own up to that fact, we now have yet another desi character who has been written to ignore what our lives are actually like for the sake of representing something else first.

Categorization, no matter what, is still the reality of the situation, proven almost inevitably when white writers get together. Raj on “The Big Bang Theory” is an example of the effectively categorized – the constant butt of horribly racist jokes for the sake of white laughs for the past 9 years. And while Kunal Nayyar definitely makes bank, it continues to perpetuate this very limiting cycle of roles allotted for brown actors and white views of what desi people are like.

And then there’s other archetypal brown role, the politically incorrect extremist. Bina Shah eloquently wrote in the New York Times, “Even after everything that’s happened between us, we in Pakistan still want you to know us, not as you imagine us, but as we really are: flawed, struggling, complex, human. All of us, in the outside world as well as in Pakistan, need art — film and television, story and song — that closes that gap between representation and reality, instead of prying the two further apart.”

[bctt tweet=”We have too many failed examples of desi portrayals in television.”]

Our bottom line is this: we have too many failed examples of desi portrayals in television. And as a result, we’ve turned to other engaging and diverse shows, like “Jane the Virgin” and “Orange is The New Black” – two shows that have succeeded in integrating authentic cultural portrayals of minorities into meaningful and entertaining storylines. They’ve become our brown girl happy places, because differences are welcomed and celebrated. They do justice to the minority narrative by not glossing over the unglamourous or complex. They show the real ups and downs that, so far, desi television figures have been afraid of or uninterested in.

We must remember that we don’t have to pretend that we are what we are being portrayed as. Remember that there is opportunity for authentic desi stories, and there are audiences that will know how to appreciate them when they finally come.