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Indians On American TV

13/06/2015 3:12 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Open Magazine

This article is from Open Magazine.

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By Sharin Bhatti

Entertainment news in May was split over the search word 'Priyanka Chopra'. A part of people's newsfeed was abuzz with her latest Bollywood offering, Zoya Akhtar's Dil Dhadakne Do--an indie-styled, star- studded Bollywood biggie by a director whose previous works include a satire of the Indian film fraternity (Luck by Chance) and a glorified travelogue of Spain (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara). Routine stuff. But the not-so-routine announcement came by way of the 32-year-old Indian actor headlining ABC's new drama Quantico, the trailer of which shows an accented Chopra essaying the role of Indian-American character Alex Parrish in this FBI training school thriller. In the trailer, Chopra has a sex scene, indulges in Gossip Girl- style high-school role play and suddenly finds herself embroiled in the 'biggest attack on New York since 9/11', a la 24. So well was her stardom being celebrated in the American TV world that Chopra became the toast of the network's annual showcase called ABC Upfront Presentation 2015. In both the New York and LA editions, President of ABC Entertainment Paul Lee lauded her as the "quintessential ABC star". There she was, walking the red carpet in Alexander Wang, Monique Lhuillier and Christian Louboutins. She gushed at meeting Jimmy Kimmel, was welcomed into the network television fold by TV divas Ellen Pompeo (Grey's Anatomy) and Kerry Washington (Scandal). Her journal of the week promoting the trailer of the series made it to The Hollywood Reporter. By the time the show premieres in September, Chopra would either have made it as the leading TV lady of the season--patriotic, brash, driven, sexy--with an Angelina-Jolie-of- Salt-meets-Stana Katic-of-Castle charm. Or it will be passed over as the Exotic singer's TV sojourn and the year ABC celebrated South Asian diversity.

South Asian characters have already gone mainstream on most network shows. For most of the 1990s and early noughties, the most notable Indian character on prime-time was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an illegal immigrant and owner of Kwick-E-Mart on the suburban parody adult animated show, The Simpsons. This Ganesha- worshipping, goods-hoarding, father- of-octuplets shopkeeper had a distinct accent that made it clear to Springfield locals that 'he ain't from here'. At the Roast of James Franco on Comedy Central a few years ago, roaster and actor/comedian Aziz Ansari fielded comparisons of South Asian actors like himself to Apu with, "I think it's so cool some of you were able to travel back in time to 1995 for some of those Indian jokes you did. Man, those stereotypes are so outdated! There are more Indian dudes doing sitcoms today than there are working 7-Elevens. We are straight up snatching roles from under White actors' [noses]. My last three roles were Randy, Chet and Tom." Ansari's last most notable role was Tom Haverford in the sitcom Parks and Recreation.

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Russian-Indian actor Annet Mahendru plays the seductive Nina Sergeevna in the Americans (Photo: Michael Bezjian/Getty Images)

Ansari is in a league of actors who are working prime-time slots like Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), Kunal Nayyar (The Big Bang Theory), Hannah Simone (New Girl), Annet Mahendru (The Americans), Dev Patel (Newsroom), Noureen DeWulf (Anger Management) and Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife). All actors play point-of-view characters on these shows and none of them has been a taxi driver, a convenience store owner or random dude in the frame who will be the first to die in a thriller, and they definitely don't have an Indian accent. An article in Slate a couple of years ago dubbed them as the 'it ethnicity'.

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British-Asian actor Archie Panjabi plays private investigator Kalinda Sharma in the Good Wife

Indian Americans are essaying more Americanised roles and "their Indian- ness is becoming less distinct", observes filmmaker Paromita Vohra. "American TV characterisation mirrors society as they see it. Where earlier they would see Indians as working class folks in a barbershop, now the Indian cultural identity is not so prevalent when it comes to casting, largely because American TV is seeing its golden age right now. There are more complex shows and hence more complex characterisation," adds Vohra, who pegs Archie Panjabi's Emmy-winning role Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife as her favourite. Brit-Asian actor Panjabi's Kalinda is a private sleuth. She is strong, opinionated, manipulative, driven and bisexual. She's a character with many shades of grey, a pre-requisite for complex modern television, and no there is really nothing too Indian about her. A lot like The Americans seductress Nina Sergeevna played by Russian-Indian actor Annet Mahendru. In an interview with the Vulture, Mahendru narrates how her character was supposed to stay on only for a few episodes, but viewer feedback made the show's writers keep her on for at least three seasons.

"I think by and large mainstream Americans don't know anything about India or care. But TV shows don't get shot in mainstream America. They get shot in Los Angeles and New York."

Comedian and writer Anuvab Pal, though, thinks we may be making too much of the whole Indian representation wave on American TV. "I think by and large mainstream Americans don't know anything about India or care. But TV shows don't get shot in mainstream America. They get shot in Los Angeles and New York." He praises the casting selections made by producers and character choices made by the actors themselves. "Enough South Asian actors have made enough noise over the years about racial stereotypes, so that seems to be changing the writing. And the casting agents who live in NY and LA know about Indian actors and the power of a Bollywood audience, which they want," says Anuvab.

The Bollywood-audience does add great numbers to the scale, something that Homeland star Nimrat Kaur calls the 'Slumdog Millionaire effect'. "Since the movie made it to the Oscars, a whole new pool of Indian talent caught the attention of [American] producers and directors. Bollywood is a massive industry, churning out many films a year and with tie-ups and cross- pollination of filmmakers collaborating and co-producing across borders, the world is becoming a small place." Kaur's role as a Pakistani ISI agent in the fourth season of Homeland won her much praise, and now she's being offered much more television. There are Hispanic and Indian roles in the offing.

An Indian American can be cast as anything these days. As Pal recounts, "Nowadays we don't even think twice when we see an Indian character. Earlier, during The Simpsons days, it was a big deal. 30 Rock has a janitor called Subhash, but they don't make a big deal of his Indianness. On The Office, Mindy Kaling played Kelly Kapoor and her Indianness was [part of the narrative], with her entire office having to react to attending a Diwali party. So I think they have moved on a lot from just ignorance and accents to incorporating us in a story."

Mindy Kaling (whose real name is Vera Chokalingam) made the shift from writer and supporting cast to producer and lead when she floated her own sitcom on Fox in 2012, The Mindy Project. In it, she plays the all-American girl--hilarious, charming, somewhat neurotic and indulging in mild debauchery, all the essentials of a loveable TV personality that personifies a successful single woman of this era. Somewhere between Girls and New Girl, Kaling also adopts the singular Indian stereotype of being a doctor to add a certain comfort and recall value to her Indianness. But in accent and ideology, she is a global character.

Actor Kal Penn has played a range of characters ranging from a college stoner chasing burgers ( Harold & Kumar series) to a confused second generation Indian-American (The Namesake), a diagnostic doctor (House), teenage terrorist (24) and even a bemused therapist (How I Met Your Mother). Most recently, he played Detective Fontanelle White on the CBS drama Battle Creek. His character choices represent a transformation of the stereotype, and that has more to do with his own identity than anything else. "I personally have never worked as a taxi driver or at a 7-Eleven. So I would not make for a very convincing Apu- like character," says Penn. "If I choose to play on my being of Indian heritage, then of course I will choose the roles of an Indian guy stuck in New York. But since I only take on roles that excite me as an actor, I have my experiences to draw on. I don't have an Indian accent, I have lived and worked here and hence I will only consider roles that steer clear of the stereotype, unless of course burgers are involved," jokes Penn.

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Sendhil Ramamurthy is best known for playing Mohinder Suresh, a geneticist, in Heroes (Photo: Michael Muller/NBC/Getty Images)

One of the earliest global Indian actor roles was essayed by Sendhil Ramamurthy for Heroes, in which he plays scientist Mohinder Suresh. A few years ago, he made an unsuccessful attempt to make his Bollywood debut in Shor in The City. For him, role selection is all about storylines. "Earlier, I was offered roles that would make me seem like the typical Indian to a lot of urban Americans. But progressively, they have altogether disappeared. It's a lot to do with urbanisation and the fact that most average peer groups in America are diverse. You will find South Asians everywhere and that has a lot to do with perceptions," says Ramamurthy. This echoes Vohra's sentiments, "Second and third generation Indian-Americans are more expressive in their desires, and their ideologies and ambitions are more in sync with their peers' than their parents' who migrated to the nation. Their accents are different, their goals are different, and of course those are then the choices you see a lot of the actors making."

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British-Indian actor Kunal Nayyar plays Raj Koothrappali, an astrophysicist, in The Big Bang Theory

These perceptions are the subject of Shilpa Davé's book Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. In it, Davé, who is assistant dean at University of Virginia's Department of Media Studies, explains how South Asian immigrant assimilation has changed the Indian stereotype in American film and television. On shows like The Big Bang Theory, the Indian accent and eccentricities of Rajesh Koothrappali are exaggerated for the sake of comic relief. "For a lot of people, what's funny is hearing that accent. It's a part of this post-racial world--if you're not going to talk about race, how do you show it in different ways? The idea of an accent is something associated with being Indian," Davé told TVWorthWatching. com in an interview. She rejects the notion of second and third generation Indian Americans' choices impacting popular roles on TV. She writes, 'Conforming to stereotype makes the men more appealing and less threatening to non-Indian audiences. Consider Koothrappali on The Big Bang Theory. The character is a physicist and son of a wealthy doctor, and is unable to speak to women unless he's drunk. His ethnicity is often used as a catalyst for humour. In one episode, his friend Sheldon describes him as "the loveable foreigner who struggles to understand our ways and fails."'

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Photo: Guy D'alema/Getty Images

If TV ratings are anything to go by, Davé might have a point. According to Nielsen, The Big Bang Theory is the seventh most watched show on the Top 10 Prime Broadcast Network TV-USA list. With a rating of 6.1, it's the only show on the scale with an Indian POV character that conforms to the Indian stereotype. South Asian actors might be making great strides in their characterisation on shows loved by critics, but maybe mainstream TV in the US needs a cushion effect to break the stereotype. If Quantico ends up doing the job, we could be looking at a truly global audience. As Pal puts it, "It's only a matter of time before we see a Priyanka Chopra opposite Jeremy Renner in a Bourne film."

All images have been provided by Open Magazine.

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