Master of None, the new Netflix original comedy by Aziz Ansari, just dropped over the weekend and it is pretty amazing—on more levels than one. Ansari portrays Dev, a first generation Indian immigrant and a struggling actor in New York City, but the show isn't just about that—it's a prism through which Ansari tackles the topics that most interest him. In an early episode titled "Indians on TV," he draws from his real-life experiences to address a long-lasting issue: the obvious stereotyping of Indian actors. The biggest question coming out of the episode is why aren’t there more Indians on TV? Why can’t there be more than one Indian character on a single show? A truly witty take that brings forth the issues of immigrants in America, this episode of Master of None isn’t just an ode to South Asians. It aims to teach the American audience about a prominent culture outside of their sweet, sweet bubble.
Indian characters have existed on TV for a while now, but their presence can be compared to set décor. They fill the racially diverse void by being the sidekick who conforms to stereotypes: a super nerd, a cab driver, or a store owner who speaks surprisingly good English. Lazy writing and underrepresentation have been influencing the American perception the wrong way. For the most part, the way media and pop culture represent Indians, and other minorities, is simply as extraneous outsiders. That is why the increase in diversification on television with shows like Fresh off the Boat, Jane the Virgin, black-ish, and Empire is a good, necessary thing.
When it comes to Indian representation, Ansari joins the league of actors like Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Parminder Nagra, and Frieda Pinto, who have been major players in changing the prejudiced perception. The Mindy Project, a show that Kaling writes, produces and stars in, doesn’t depict her only as a smart Indian-American OB-GYN. Mindy Lahiri is quite neurotic and hysterical, engaged to an Italian-American (played by the dreamy Chris Messina). Her younger brother is a rapper, her parents share a beautiful relationship despite their arranged marriage, and she has a baby out of wedlock. Kaling doesn’t define her character by her ethnicity and, therefore, doesn’t discuss her Indian roots on the show much. Ansari, on the other hand, delves into them organically. Both these shows are poles apart; but in their own ways, both are progressive because Ansari and Kaling are stepping up to create meaningful roles and depictions for themselves in the industry.
At EW Fest last month, Ansari laid out the truth, “If you’re a minority actor, no one would have wrote this show for you. No one would have been like, Hey, how about we get Aziz to do this ten-episode show and have play this thoughtful character. At best, they would just write something that’s a character based on the qualities people have seen already, like Tom [Haverford].” After paying their dues on successful comedies—The Office for Kaling and Parks & Recreation for Ansari—both actors took charge and, despite the sorry state of diversity in Hollywood, forced their perspectives onto the small screen.
As an Indian, I grew up on sitcoms like Full House and Friends. They made me laugh and feel like I was part of their troupe—duh—but also presented to me the quintessential American lifestyle. It is alarming though how seriously some of those classic shows lacked diversity, especially when it came to representations of South Asians. I could never really see anyone like me on the shows I loved so much. What I saw was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons. One of the first Indians to appear on a long-running American TV show, he became synonymous with the stereotype of a convenience store owner who had that thick, funny accent. FYI, Apu isn’t even voiced by an Indian—Hank Azaria of Greek-American descent plays him. Luckily, in the last two decades, Apu has developed into a more multi-dimensional character and an integral part of the social group, but it's been a slow progression.
It’s sad but true: Kaling and Aziz, and their characters, are still the exception. For the most part, we’re still stuck with characters like Raj Koothrapali (played by Kunal Nayyar) from The Big Bang Theory. He is also a series regular on a long-running, successful sitcom but has the slowest character development, like ever. If he left the show, would the plot really miss him? Clearly, Nayyar can act—if only his character could benefit from it. He’s on the show mostly to provide comic relief, unfortunately by mostly being subjected to racist remarks. In the season 5 premiere, Amy (Mayim Bialik) was consoling Penny (Kaley Cuoco) after her drunken night with Raj. This was their exact conversation:
Amy: Do you know the story of Catherine the Great?
Amy: She ruled Russia in the late 1700s and one night when she was feeling particularly randy, she used an intricate system of pulleys to have intimate relations with a horse.
Penny: I’m sorry, what does this have to do with me?
Amy: She engaged in interspecies hanky-panky and people call her great. I’m sure your reputation can survive you shagging a little Indian boy.
So, sex with a little Indian boy equals sleeping with a beast? For a show with a wide viewership like The Big Bang Theory, I would think they bear an even bigger responsibility to their audience to NOT be this racist.
Shilpa Dave, author of Indian Accents: Brown Voices and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, says, “Is Raj the real representation of the H1-B visa tech worker/scientist guy? Is he funny only because of the way he talks or because of what happens to him?” She points out that even though other Indian characters, like his sister Priya, have come on the show, his character’s story didn’t change at all.
Raj’s role is easy to dismiss as humor. After all, it’s just a television show. But being pigeonholed for the sake of a few jokes is also where the problem begins. Can you imagine how limiting it would be to be labeled by where you come from? After I moved to the United States, I had to respond to things like, how do you speak English so well? Is India really like Slumdog Millionaire? What, you don’t love spicy curry? Aren’t you in the field of IT or engineering or something? To be honest though, I had been prepared for this curious cynicism because a) these seemed like slight and minute details, b) I was aware of the complete oblivion on the part of people asking me these questions and c) what you see is what you learn.
Luckily, what you’re seeing in terms of Indian representation is shifting, even if at a snail pace, with Indian film actors foraying into American TV. Bollywood actors like Nimrat Kaur (Homeland), Rahul Khanna (The Americans), and Anil Kapoor (24) are bagging these somewhat meaty roles (though admittedly they still partially match some South Asian stereotypes). Most recently, former Miss World and successful Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra became a leading lady in America with her new show Quantico. She plays a half-Indian, half-American FBI agent Alex Parrish. I don’t think her job is just to prove her acting chops, but it is also to move away from her Bollywood image while still playing an Indian. This applies to those writing for her as well.
Dave, who is also the Assistant Professor of Media Studies and American Studies at the University of Virginia, makes this point, that what goes on behind the camera is just as important: “We need to push for representation in the writer’s rooms, executive producers, directors. They understand the point of view better.” She gives the example of Kalinda Sharma (played by Archie Punjabi) on The Good Wife. Her character did break Indian stereotypes by being a bisexual, badass investigator in a law firm, but after some notoriously unfruitful years on the periphery, she left the show. Dave believes her role went nowhere because, “She didn’t have anyone to write for her. Writing an Indian character for American audiences is challenging,”
This is the biggest reason for showrunners to not rely on stereotypes to portray a culture no one fully understands. The better example for this recently is Netflix’s Sense8. The sci-fi series has three Indian actors. Tina Desai (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and Anupam Kher (Silver Linings Playbook) play an authentic middle-class father-daughter duo living in Mumbai who are caught up in typical drama surrounding religion, marriage, and careers while Naveen Andrews (Lost) plays leader of the sensates (the group of the telepaths), Jonas Maliki. His character has Indian roots but that doesn’t tie into his arc. The representation isn’t limited, it doesn’t just show one type of Indian because guess what? There isn’t just one type of Indian! Though where as underrepresentation is baffling, in that it's so easily fixable, even worse is Hollywood's tradition of misrepresentation. The way Indians are depicted on TV changes how Indians are perceived in real life. That's why Ashton Kutcher putting on brown face to play a seriously weird, offensively stereotypical Bollywood producer to promote PopChips is just as horrifyingly wrong as wearing a black face costume for Halloween.
Shows that feature diversity should be entertaining and funny and dramatic, but they also need to give due credit to the characters, actors and their community. On the front of bringing diversity to our television screens, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Archie Punjabi, Hannah Simone, Priyanka Chopra should stand equal to Viola Davis, Gina Rodriguez, Constance Wu, Anthony Anderson, Taraji P. Henson. Because in case you haven’t noticed, these actors are all killing it, all as true versions of themselves.
The reality is there will always be a conversation about whom and what you see on your screen. It influences perception more than anyone realizes. Diversity in television should be balanced, and balanced well. And the argument, "It just isn't done that way" simply isn't valid anymore. Just look at Master of None.