Episode 4 of Aziz Ansari’s newest project, Master of None, opens up with a young Dev (Ansari’s character) watching an amalgamation of several clips from movies, television, and commercials that portray Indians as exotic, monkey-brain-eating gurus; grimy 7-Eleven owners; and loopy Bollywood stars. To make it even worse, most of them are white guys caked with brown face makeup, sporting badly tied turbans.
As an Indian-American, I’ve grown up rationalizing characters like Principal Figgins in Glee, played by Iqbal Theba, who is a thickly accented high school principal, and Apu from The Simpsons, a hairy-chested convenience store owner. I accepted and justified their stereotypical portrayal of Indians for their comedic value. They’re objectively funny when placed in the context of American comedies. They can’t pronounce words correctly and are often the butt of a joke. It was hard not to laugh with my friends when this type of character appeared on TV.
Recently, I have felt differently. As an Indian-American gearing up to enter the media industry as a journalist, with hopes of ending up on TV, the reality of the representation of my identity became more and more apparent. Of course, within the journalism industry, there are a few Indian-Americans who have attained the goals that I hope to attain for myself. However, I always saw them as exceptions to the otherwise regurgitated representation of Indians in the media.
While my identity is important to me, I never want it to overshadow my professional life. I never want anyone to expect something out of me just because I am Indian. Now, as I see the entertainment and media industry evolving, I feel empowered.
Maybe it was Master of None that inspired me to think the way I do now, or maybe it was the honest representation of an Indian family in Ravi Patel’s Meet the Patels, or maybe it was the charm Mindy Kaling brings to The Mindy Project. Indian representation is changing quickly -- we are not being represented as babbling religious sages anymore. And much to my surprise, American audiences like the new Indian character.
The Master of None episode continues with Ansari’s character questioning his role as an Indian actor -- is it sustainable to be an ethnic actor who refuses stereotypical roles? In a coffee shop, he discusses this with his friend Ravi, who is talking about a new acting gig he got playing an Indian man named Pradeep. Little to no surprise: The character of Pradeep owns a convenience store, is philosophical, and has a funny Indian accent. Ansari, while respecting the existence of Pradeeps who own convenience stores and have accents, asks a pertinent question:
“Why can’t there be a Pradeep, just once, who's an architect, or he designs mittens, or does one of the jobs Bradley Cooper’s characters do in movies?”
Like actors, journalists exist in the public’s scrutinizing eye. If I attain the dream of being on TV, reporting and analyzing the news on a large scale, I don’t want to be thought of as the token Indian guy who doesn’t fit a stereotype. I want to be thought of as someone who is good at his job.
Ansari, along with other big Indian-American players in media, is doing exactly what I want to do: normalizing the identity of being Indian in America.
No longer do I have the idea that if I’m not a doctor or a convenience store owner I am letting someone down; no longer do I have to awkwardly laugh when the butt of a joke is an Indian accent; no longer do I have to worry about how I can be an Indian on TV.
Watching this new wave of brown representation in American culture is teaching me that I can be who I want to be -- funny, inspiring, educated, quirky, controversial -- and I’m going to do just that.
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