When Cameron was in Egypt’s land, let my Cameron goooooo…
Much like the Doctor, or any number of comic book characters (Sam Wilson is Captain America, really?), this blog has been killed, resurrected, regenerated, and had some continuity retconned for seemingly no apparent reason.
Many moons have passed since I last graced this blog with my presence, moons spent having an absolute whale of a time in Berlin, composing music, writing sci fi and generally just loving existing on this little blue and green ball we call home. But now, and not just because I’ve hit a bit of the wall with the sci fi and don’t know what do with Kyra and Wraith’s plot, I have decided to return to spew some more criminally underrated and under-read genius social observations into all of your pretty little faces.
Okay that last image was kind of gross.
So settle down, strap yourselves in, pour yourself a cup of tea or a wee dram of cheap whiskey and prepare to be taken on another ride through the rambling and wacky world of Srikar’s general hatred of everything. You ready? All set? Then here we go.
Indians. We’re everywhere. There’s a billion and a half of us for Krishna’s sake, so it’s hardly surprising that a few of us have gone on to do great things. There’s been great Indian scientists and mathematicians, great sportsmen (all hail Tendulkar), and I’m sure some other great things too. We’re a vast and diverse range of people, much like every other nation, and run the gamut from rich and right to poor and left, North to South, East to West, and throw in about 29 states and 122 frickin’ languages for good measure. With a nation so varied, one could be forgiven for expecting Indians on television to be equally varied, could one not one not…one? After all, English people get everything from This Is England to Downton Abbey, the Scots go from Trainspotting to Taggart, Wales gets…I don’t know, that weird unpronounceable shit on S4C, and American TV has nigh on everything. Given that Indians make up a fairly reasonable chunk of the populations of these nations (2.5% in the UK, more than Black Caribbeans and Bangladeshis put together), it would also not be too unreasonable to expect what we see on telly to reflect that, right? I don’t mean some diversity quota to fulfil, but rather to depict characters on screen that actually reflect reality. Let me explain.
What triggered this particular reaction in me was the Netflix series Sense8, which I watched a couple of months ago. Made by the Wachowskis, famous for the enormous success of the first Matrix and then the rapidly diminishing returns of everything they made afterwards (though I do have a soft spot for Cloud Atlas, mostly for the sight of Hugh Grant as a future cannibal tribe leader), the series follows eight people across the globe as they awaken one day to find themselves linked to each other telepathically and being hunted by a shadowy organisation. It’s a pretty intriguing setup, and between the German jewel thief, the lesbian/transgender couple in San Fransisco, the Mexican actor, the Korean businesswoman, and the happy-go-lucky African taxi driver, they manage to set up a fairly intriguing and outside the norm group of characters. That is until we get to the Indian girl.
When we first meet her (I’ve totally forgotten the name of the character, apologies), she’s obviously about to get married to the boss of her obviously a pharma company. Then she rather obviously objects to this wedding, though the slight twist here is that it’s a result of her catching a sight of the German fella she’s connected too with his ding dong out, but not before Anupam Kher obviously shows up and there’s a rooftop with lots of lights and sparkles and a shockingly cringeworthy Bollywood dance number. It’s genuinely exhausting keeping up with the cliches. Between her gabby female coworkers who go on about what a dreamboat the guy is, to her visits to a temple where she sits and openly talks to the idol which literally no one does ever, Sense8 manages to tick off most of the boxes on the “Indian female character” checklist.
And Sense8 isn’t alone in this, and nor are female characters the only victims. Take the bafflingly popular The Big Bang Theory as another example, where they couldn’t even be fucked to find a better Indian name than Raj for their token brown guy, thus leading to a generation of nerdy Indians (read: me) constantly being compared to this one, rather lazily written, excuse for representation. Raj has women troubles, ooooh because lord forbid there ever be a smooth Indian guy. Raj is a little bitch in front of his parents, ooooh, because no Indian in history has ever stood up to their parents. Raj can’t see his own sister as a woman and tries to protect her, ooooh, because all Indian men are drilled in the same school of misogyny as the prannet of a Congress minister who suggested that women should stay indoors at night to prevent rape. And of course his mother is a socialite and his father is a doctor and they live in a loveless arranged marriage. It goes on and on, cliches and stereotypes trotted out in succession to try and keep the dire attempts at humour going. In case you can’t tell, I’m really not a fan of TBBT, it’s a woeful excuse for comedy.
Honestly, the only Indian character I can think of who is actually slightly interesting in any way is the cartoon man you see strutting his stuff at the top of this post, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Apu breaks the mould of a stereotyped Indian, he drinks, he fights, he doesn’t want to get married, he works hard for his family because he likes working, not as a virtue of his race, and in the episode where he has to take a citizenship test, there’s a scene where he is genuinely torn about hiding his true heritage. Yes Apu displays a lot of the usual quirks, partly because he was created as a character way back before I was born in 1990, but he also knowingly mocks and acknowledges them. Apu is well written, a stereotype built to mock stereotypes, it’s genius, and that’s just fucking sad. When a cartoon is a more accurate reflection of an Indian living abroad than most, if not all, live action TV, we’ve got a serious issue. Also fun to note that a lot of conservative Indians actually think Apu is a racist caricature, shows how much they know. Haha, ha, unless I’ve misread things horribly…
Okay if not Apu then Kumar from Harold and Kumar, that’s my second choice. Third place goes to Tom Haverford of Parks and Rec fame, though he does always claim to be from South Carolina. But Apu is king.
Regardless, what the non-Apu/Kumar/Tom characters create is an image of Indians in the minds of viewers that couldn’t be further from the truth, and I didn’t use the word “norm” there because there quite simply is no norm when it comes to a nation so diverse and with such a large diaspora. I defy people to find a single Indian character on western television who speaks Telugu, or one who comes from Orissa, or one who is anything other than some generic semi-Hindi knowing kind of brown person from Mumbai or Delhi (the only two cities that anyone seems to be from). By perpetuating and re-enforcing these haggard old ethnic jokes and tropes, the writers do themselves a disservice, but also help in a way to further alienate cultures from each other in a time when an increasingly fractured world is already causing so much suffering. It’s small fry, yes, but it’s a symptom of a larger problem of disconnection between parts of the globe that actually have more in common than one might think.
(Just a quick side note: This isn’t intended to be some tumblr-esque rant about “muh feelings” with a load of garbled, made up, teen angst codswallop, nor is it a super SJW rant about equality and “appropriation” and all that other business, this is just my personal take on an issue which is personal to me. Indian people and television. Fuck everything else).
As a child, then a teen, and now a man-child, obsessed with the world of TV and film, growing up as an Indian made it incredibly difficult to find characters to actually relate to. I didn’t fall into the super traditional camp, nor was I part of any Tom Haverford type attempts to completely distance myself from my roots, I existed in a happy medium of accommodating certain things and disagreeing with others. It’s something every person goes through, particularly someone like me who has grown up in a country they’re not technically from. Identity is a complex thing, I identify as both British and Indian, as liberal in some aspects and conservative in others, as both a posh boy and more of a commoner, nobody has a set list of bullet points that define who they are or who they’re supposed to be.
That’s why it’s so annoying to see, at a time when we have some truly incredibly written characters on television, not a single complex or rounded part for an Indian, or Pakistani, or Bengali, or any other brown nation, that both acknowledges their heritage yet doesn’t let it overwhelm them. And I don’t mean some arbitrary quota that needs to be filled for a show to meet some kind of diversity rating, have an all white show if you want, I don’t give a shit. But when a conscious choice is made to have an Indian character, at least have a connection, no matter how tenuous, with the way we exist in reality. Make your character a nerd, but that doesn’t mean that all he has to do is study and work. Make them a traditional woman, but that doesn’t mean that they agree with everything their fathers or husbands tell them. Indians, like all other people on the face of the Earth, are unique, complex, and can fit into every band of every spectrum that can possibly exist. It’s about damn time that what we see reflects that.
xoxo, The *Vworp vworp* Indian