You’re South Asian, therefore, you must be geeky and de-sexualized. You must be a greasy-haired, spectacled, thick-accented geek (ahem, Outsourced). You must constantly reek of “curry.” You must be a stereotype. Despite our longtime presence in the United States, we South Asians have often been subjected to exclusion, inaccurate portrayals, or offensive treatment by mainstream American film and television. To fight these oversimplified depictions, we recently began to take ownership of our own media representations, and the progress has been admirable: ten years ago, Mira Nair was still a relative obscurity among most cinema-going Americans, and the sheer prospect of a prime-time television show set in an Indian call-center—however stereotypical--was laughable. But even with the greater visibility South Asians have gained, the ways in which we have and continue to carve our media images is wrought with contradictions suggesting that we are equally, if not more, at fault as mainstream outlets for perpetuating exaggerated or misguiding images of ourselves on screen.
The increase of South Asian “NRI films” in the last decade was one of the most major developments in our efforts to control our media representations. From American Desi to Karma Calling, almost every plotline explored a family’s arrival in America and the ensuing difficulties of acclimatizing to their new surroundings, or the struggles of second-generation teens caught between two cultures. But while such films, at the beginning of the decade, were necessary and effective in allowing South Asians an unprecedented stage to express and set ourselves apart, this continued emphasis on immigrant stories might now actually damage our media image. In our determination to highlight the uniqueness of our community, we’ve become unforgivably guilty of inflating elements of South Asian culture in these films, deliberately making ourselves distant and “exotic” for the rest of American society.
I distinctly recall a particularly cringe-worthy moment in Karma Calling in which we are introduced to an Indian family’s suburban New Jersey home. Painted in the colors of the Indian flag, with its trademark chakra in the dead center of the living room, the whole scene is a garish, forced, and quite frankly, embarrassing spectacle of exoticism that ends up reproducing the very stereotypes it probably intended to subvert.
Alternatively, some of us take the extreme of rejecting our heritage completely. From anglicized names (of course he wasn’t born “Kal Penn”) to flat-out refusal to associate with South Asia (Padma Laxmi, for instance, has been known to refuse interviews with South Asian publications), many of us often Americanize ourselves as much as possible, finding assimilation to be an easy escape from the struggle to balance our cultural identities. While this conveniently relieves us from fighting stereotypes on a daily basis, complete integration doesn’t work to change the images of our community; instead, it merely hides them, allowing existing inaccurate images to persevere. With South Asians’ tendency to represent ourselves by either parading our ethnicity or outright rejecting it, it is little wonder that mainstream society doesn’t know any better than to reproduce similar stereotypical images.
But maybe escaping stereotypes isn’t even the most relevant concern today. If they can’t be entirely dispelled, it is then our responsibility to at least supplement those shallow stereotypes with more complex depictions. We now need to enhance our media presence through more three-dimensional representations that resonate with an audience beyond our immediate community of first and second-generation immigrants.
A handful of trailblazers already exemplify this new approach, with prominent behind-the-scenes positions in the media or roles that don’t position them purely as the token South Asian in a cast. Kal Penn consistently pushes the Indian-American envelope with roles in films like Harold and Kumar go to White Castle that any actor—not just a South Asian—could have played. An actor, writer and producer of NBC’s The Office and currently penning her own feature-length screenplay, Mindy Kaling is steadily climbing the industry ladder without relying on or denying her ethnicity. Already known for his hilarious antics on Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari’s upcoming film 30 Minutes or Less allows him to flaunt his impeccable comic timing and his chops as an action hero in a bona fide lead role. Archie Panjabi’s portrayal of a no-nonsense, independent, and bisexual investigator on the television show The Good Wife is a rare example of a South Asian female character holding unapologetic power, with a recent Emmy nomination to boot.
The refreshing depth of these individuals, either in the parts they play or the media they make, is reassurance that it is indeed possible for South Asians to showcase our talents while treating our ethnicity as a natural part of ourselves rather than something to constantly accentuate. This is not to suggest that we must ignore that ethnicity; we simply need not exaggerate it to the extent that we become caricatures of ourselves.
The real priority for South Asians in the media today lies not in using media to combat stereotypes; rather, it is to use the space we have already carved for ourselves to provide a diversity of depictions that replace the simplistic ones that have been dominant to date. While what we see today is a notable improvement from even a decade ago, that diversity remains to be suitably translated to the television or cinema screen. Developing further depth in our media portrayals will take time; however, only with greater exposure will come greater acceptance, allowing well-rounded representations of South Asian Americans in the media to ultimately go from being surprising exception to the widely-embraced norm.
Photo credit: TV.com.