“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’.