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Lights, Camera, Namastey!

Lights, Camera, Namastey!

July 12, 2010

Are Indian characters in the western media finally evolving beyond Apu in the Simpsons?

“Jai Ho,” the cheery Starbucks guy trilled at my husband and me as we moved to the front of our line for coffee. I smiled rather weakly back at him. It was a mere showing of teeth that I hope resembled a smile. And would you blame me? After having heard “Jai Ho” at least once a day since early last year, from everyone that is not an Indian here in the Philippines looking to say something witty to us Indians, I was fed up of the Oscar winning song. Not to mention the long discussions on the movie that would invariably ensue. I mean seriously, are there no other Indians in the media that you can compare us to? Oh yes, how can I forget Apu from the Kwik-e mart in Simpsons? But was the accented ‘Thank You, Come Again” better than ‘Jai ho’? Or am I missing out on the whole range of brown faces that have slowly started to make their mark on the western world of cinema and TV?

The first face that comes to mind is the well-loved Principal Figgins from Glee. Played by a Pakistani origin actor Iqbal Theba, the principal is oh-so-very ‘East Indian’ as an American casting agent would call it. The principal has not so far revealed his first name, or where he is actually from. Yet, an infomercial where he is seen infamously modelling for Mumbai Air, points us in the direction of the sub-continent’s. And while he may be a minor character in the musical drama, he is still one very brown face that stands out amongst the rest of the cast.

My friends, however, make a very strong case for ‘Raj’ from the Big Bang theory. Played by Kunal Nayyar, the character of the brilliant physicist who speaks to his parents in India via webcam, and gets tongue-tied when speaking to women, is an audience favourite. Sure, he is stereotypical, but who cares as long as the viewers are in splits?

And then there are the characters that are so inaccurate that they transform you from ‘Are-you-kidding-me’ to ‘I’m so outraged as an Indian’. No character exemplified this more to me than the one played by Jimi Mistry in that disastrous of all disaster movies, 2012. With a name like Satnam Tsurutani, the character was doomed from the start. Add to that ludicrous settings and a weird accent that seemed like the actor was channelling that Father of all Indian characters-Appu himself, and you’ve got a giant step backward from whatever inroads all the other Indian characters have been making in the world of entertainment.

This was the kind of character that made me yearn for the East Indian extra staples. The cab-driver in the Sex and the City series who has a turban but no beard, Ranjit the other cab driver from the How I Met Your Mother series and the hundreds of other Indian extras that play doctors or roadside stall owners on ‘n’ number of series… All these are infinitely preferable to me when compared to the horror that was Satnam Tsurutani. But thankfully, there are always those other Indian characters that restore the balance on the side of strong characters. Cases in point would be Naveen Andrews in Lost, Kal Penn in House and Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes. But yes, since 9/11 the good nerdy East Indian actors have also been cast or typecast rather, as terrorists. Why even Mr. India, Anil Kapoor himself, turned bad guy for the hit T.V series 24.

However tragic it might be to wonder whether these new spate of roles were a result of racial profiling and colour based casting, the sadder thing seems to be that no brown woman seems to have made the cut yet. There is the one odd Mindy Kaling in the Office, but then she is also the co-executive producer and writer of the series. There is Rekha Sharma in Battlestar Galactica, but honestly, the role is not very east Indian (and not even very human) except for her origins. And as I sit here racking my brains and even resorting to Google for help, I’m hard pressed to find those strong Indian female characters on the western entertainment scene today.

But even then the cup is still half full and not empty. After all we have managed to survive Apu and his ilk in the past twenty years to bag roles in series where we were traditionally invisible. Who knows what brown characters we’ll be seeing next on the big and small screens? And no matter what they are and who sees them or not, I do hope that the man from Starbucks catches them and understands that there’s more to us than just ‘Jai ho’.


  • Pavan Addanki
    Pavan Addanki
    05.10.10 12:36 AM
    You have hit the nail right on the head Shweta. I mean who are we kidding? We can't expect Indian actors to take centre-stage in Western Serials. We should make such kind of TV shows in India with Indian themes and an Indian setup and shake off the Saas Bahu syndrome.
  • Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    15.07.10 12:00 AM
    @ Suqrat and Aishwarya- Ah yes, Archie seems to be an audience favourite. Thanks for pointing that out. 'The good wife' is not on in the Philippines yet. Will watch out for Archie Punjabi.

    @Ravindra - Yes, I've caught 'Timmy' in a couple of episodes. He is indeed a welcome (and non-stereotypical) addition to the cast! :)

    @ Ranjit - I can see why you would say that, considering he's made a career out of making fun of the stereotypes associated with the Indian community. :)

    Thank you for reading and commenting everyone.
  • Ranjit
    14.07.10 01:43 PM
    Not an actor, but I feel stand up comedian Russel peters fits into your article!
  • Aishwarya Rao
    Aishwarya Rao
    13.07.10 07:17 AM
    I can think of two really prominent characters - Archie Panjabi as Kalinda in The Good Wife and Reshma Shetty from Royal Pains. Nothing stereotypical about Kalinda at all...Same with Reshma Shetty - except when she is forced into an 'arranged marriage' by here parents...US television has come a long way in incorporating the Indian and naturally at that!
  • Ravindra
    13.07.10 03:19 AM
    There is another interesting character named Timmy in CBS series "Rules of Engagement" played by Adhir Kalyan. His role was increased last season and he is a regular cast member now.
  • suqrat mansoor
    suqrat mansoor
    13.07.10 01:40 AM
    You forgot to mention Archie Punjabi in "Good Wife". Things have definitely improved since the likes of iqbal theba (Principal Figgins on Glee) became a familiar face on American television in the early nineties. Just the fact that these actors have broken into "Hollwood" is an achievement in itself. Some of these actors went against their families' wishes and traditions at a time when no one else had the courage to do so and paved the way for the likes of Kal Penn and Naveen Adrews... and as the time goes by we will see more desi faces in a variety of roles. Desi Power!!
  • Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    12.07.10 11:11 PM
    @ Prerna - I completely agree. In a lot of cases, I think it's because the actors themselves are not very well-versed in matters Indian and therefore end up portraying the roles stereotypically!

    @ Vidya - Thanks for pointing that out. :)

    @ Gori Girl - Kal Pen's one of my favourites too. And he's already mentioned in the article sandwiched between Naveen Andrews and Sendhil Ramamurthy! :)
  • Gori Girl
    Gori Girl
    12.07.10 10:30 PM
    Don't forget Kal Penn, who did a wonderful job on House, MD. His character was one of my favorites on the show.
  • Vidya
    12.07.10 06:35 PM
    There's also Reshma Shetty in 'Royal Pains' - not a show I watch often, but she's one of the main characters. The Indian aspect of the show (predictably) is when she struggles with coming to terms with her arranged marriage. The show takes place in the US.
  • Prerna
    12.07.10 05:47 PM
    I have always wondered why do these actors you mentioned agree to portray the south Asians as they do. Some might say that we need to lighten up a bit but what about roles that border on the plain ridiculous, not because they are funny, but badly portrayed?
  • Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    Shweta Ganesh Kumar
    12.07.10 05:39 PM
    Thanks for your comment Jayanth! :)
    But I don't think Bollywood's all that bad- A few of my favourite movies that are all about strong female characters are Fiza, Zubaida, Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan (the old one), Fashion and of course the 'mother' of all strong female oriented roles, 'Mother India'.
    Yes, Bollywood has a long way to go, but not as much as Indian female characters in western Television. Also 'Kelly Kapoor' is played by Mindy Kaling, who has been mentioned in the article.
  • Jayanth Tadinada
    Jayanth Tadinada
    12.07.10 05:26 PM
    You forgot to mention Kelly Kapoor of "The Office", the most irritating of them all ;).

    "the sadder thing seems to be that no brown woman seems to have made the cut yet" -- well, let Bollywood make a movie with a strong female character first :p

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