Color Me Brown
The changing Indian American experience on screen.
In November 2016, just days after the U.S. presidential election results were announced, an unlikely comic sitcom centered on Indian American immigrant experiences called Brown Nation began streaming on Netflix. Considering the election rhetoric revolved around the fault lines of assimilation and integration, this satirical show relating the tale of brown lives in America made the timing ironical in a cryptic way. Even though the show steers clear of any preachy, political proclamations, seeing a bunch of Indian Americans trying to find a footing in New York while holding on to their cultural eccentricities serves as a reminder of immigrant lives immersed in the American potpourri and the important role they play in society.
The characters and incidents with a sub continental subtext playing out in American mainstream media are markedly different than the stereotypical manner in which Indian immigrants were portrayed even a decade ago.
Growing Up Smith, a comedy released last month, tells a heartwarming tale of a young Indian boy emigrating to America with his parents in the late 1970s. The movie sanguinely uses the tag line — It’s better to stand out than to fit in — perhaps setting the tone of a more assured incomer identity.
Directed by Italian-Australian producer Frank Lotito and written by Indian American Anjul Nigam, the representation seems to have benefitted from the immigrant experiences of the makers themselves. In the movie, the 10-year-old protagonist Smith, played by Roni Akurati, loves America even amidst the constant bullying and challenges he faces owing to his “alien” culture and accent. The emotions sum up the perspicacity with which many immigrants entwine their new lives here.
What is perhaps most enigmatic to watch in these latter day representations with a wise dose of humor thrown in, are the finely etched details of the characters of color. Although comedy has often been used as a crutch to tell immigrant tales in the past too, it is the easy ascendancy that the cultural immigrant quirks have acquired that opens the space for a newer stories and dialogue. So, in Growing Up Smith, even though Halloween remains one of the central festivities, it is overlapped with Diwali. The young protagonist dressed lovingly by his mom as Ganesha, tries to find his stead even though his neighbors struggle to understand his costume. Almost resonating a similar vein, the series Brown Nation, shows actors with thick Indian accent as mentions of Salman Khan, Karan Johar, regional details and arranged marriages form important themes against the backdrop of New York.
The distinctive Indian American characterization we now see in neoteric media was captured last year at the Emmys when comedian Aziz Ansari and writer Allan Yang of Parks and Recreation fame won the award for best writing for the comedy series Master of None, a first for an Asian American at the awards show. Variously feted as one of the best comic shows, Master of None, which was streamed on Netflix in late 2015, follows the life of Dev Shah, a struggling actor trying to find his space in New York, a semi-autobiographical role played by Ansari. The series effectively brings out the dynamics of generational changes in immigrant families, while satirically tackling issues of racism and sexism.
Ansari not only gets to play the main guy, but certain nuances, exclusively experienced by immigrants, are compassionately presented. In one episode, the essential difference between the immigrant generation is wonderfully encompassed when the two main characters Dev and Brian talk to their dads about their respective struggles as Indian and Taiwanese immigrants. Without any clichés or guilt trip, the two boys try in their own ways to acknowledge the efforts. Dev buys a guitar for his dad that he couldn’t afford during his youth. The dad, played by Ansari’s real life father, appreciates the effort, but chooses to return the guitar as his fingers hurt from strumming it. A typical Indian dad reaction, captured with comic finesse.
So, is it the attention to little details, minus the melodrama, that marks a sort of coming of age moment for immigrant portrayals on screen? Lion, a tender story of a young boy lost during a train journey in rural India, has garnered Oscar nominations in six categories. British Indian actor Dev Patel has been nominated in the category of best actor in a supporting role. Critics agree that while Slumdog Millionaire opened the space in 2008, it also introduced the clichés that we are only now getting past.
Actor and producer Anjul Nigam, who plays the central character of the young protagonists’ father in the movie, Growing Up Smith, says: “It is the depth of the role that is definitely changing. If you see the Indian characters are getting three-dimensional. Just the profession today no longer references an Indian guy in the movie. Earlier he was, say just a convenience store owner or a taxi driver without an important story to tell. During 1950s it wasn’t rare to find an Indian in a spaghetti western film standing in the desert just as a prop to tell which direction the bad guy went in. Today the format has changed and we have opportunity to tell our stories.”
FEEDING THE STREOTYPES?
Two decades earlier, in the 1990s, one of the most prominent Indian faces on American TV, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an illegal Indian immigrant and convenience store owner on Simpsons, fit neatly with every stereotype associated with South Asians. But things began changing during this century with the mainstream visibility of actors such as Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, Annet Mahendru in The Americans, Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory, Dev Patel in Newsroom and Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife. Not only did they move away from stereotypical roles, but they all bagged defining roles.
The Indian presence can no longer be ignored. With Priyanka Chopra breaking all existing floodgates with her lead part in Quantico, the game is set to change drastically going forward.
But apart from big banners or superstars breaking into Hollywood, what is equally riveting to watch is the depth with which Indians are ready to tell their immigrant stories in simple approachable tones while having a good laugh at the clichés that plagued them for so long.
Shilpa Dave, assistant dean at University of Virginia’s Department of Media Studies, explores how the compartmentalization of South Asians in American media has changed with assimilation in her book Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Dave writes in her 2013 book: “On television and films South Asian Americans remain the sidekicks and India (rather than Indians) is seen as a consumer and tourist destination — a place of material goods. India is seen as an influential economic and world power, and the continuing presence of India as a global power keeps the narratives about South Asians in American mainstream.”
What also needs to be questioned is if these comedies, with their exaggerated rib tickling humor and caricaturist portrayal, are still feeding the stereotypes.
Outsourced, a 2011, American television show set in a Mumbai call center that aired on NBC, was accused of falling on lame jokes and racist portrayals. In the series, the lead character Todd Dempsey, played by Ben Rappaport, frequently lapses into gaffes about Indian culture, and Indian food and accent are often mocked. The result: a ho-hum comedy, trying to bank on the obvious.
But with time, the mood is changing. Brown Nation, through the struggles of a small time entrepreneur Hasmukh, played by Rajeev Varma, who tries to balance his small IT consulting firm while failingly trying to strike a balance in his personal life, seems to have struck a chord because of its simplicity. While everyone, from the disinterested employees in Hasmukh’s firm to his melodramatic wife, a jobless artist, played by Shenaz Treasury, trying to strike peace between her father and husband, fall in the ambit of familiarly seen Indian boilerplate roles, nevertheless the plot manages to steer clear of disrespectful intonation.
Abi Varghese who co-wrote and directed Brown Nation says: “When we were writing BN, our goal was to make the show as authentic as possible. We have a diverse bunch of characters that are from different regions in India, and we made sure that all these characters speak their authentic language, be it Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil, etc. We tried to never play into stereotypes, but if the audience thought we did, it’s a mistake on our part.”
Industry insiders maintain that while Indians have become more visible, it will be long before their stereotypes are buried. Actor Rajeev Varma, who has starred in award winning shows, such as The Blue Rose in New Zealand, before bagging the lead role in Brown Nation, says: “There is more opportunity for Indian actors now than say ten years ago. But that’s not saying much. We can rattle off the names of well-known Indian actors in America on one hand.”
Talking about his own experiences of trying to find an equal footing in West, he says: “I am sick of auditioning for taxi drivers, IT techs, terrorists, fathers of terrorists, imams and characters that require an Indian accent. It’s never ending. When you are an actor you need to work to pay the bill,s so you may accept stereotypical roles. I got to the point in New Zealand where I could turn roles down. But I’m not at that point in America.”
He adds: “I hope to transcend ethnic stereotyping one day. I think all actors of color struggle with this. In fact, I think all actors struggle with being pigeon holed.”
Some Indian American actors and directors argue that not being overly touchy about stereotypes is also reflective of a new- found confidence. Anjul Nigam says: “Stereotypes exist because they are based on certain truths. I grew up in America during the late 60s and 70s and I knew countless Indians around me who were either 7-Eleven owners or taxi drivers.”
He adds: “What is important to note is that we have not continued to be from where we started. Having penetrated so impressively into everything from science to technology to medicine we are in a phase today where we can sit back and laugh at the stereotypes.”
How do Indian artists view their role in the current political milieu? Varghese says: “We were never trying to make a political statement with the show, but rather show the immigrant encounters in a light-hearted matter. If we are able to get the audience to empathize with the characters we have done our job.”
He adds: “The common thread is the immigrant experience. What sets the works apart is the voice. Our show portrays the immigrant experience of a struggling entrepreneur. Although we never address any issues regarding immigrants, it’s always a theme in the background.”
Themes and common concerns about life and work allow viewers to empathize with the characters and connect with them or their struggles. Anjul Nigam says: “Growing Up Smith, though the tale of a young Indian boy has a universal appeal. I have had Korean Americans, Jamaican Americans and people from so many other nationalities writing in to me to admit that they saw a part of their experiences so clearly in the film.”
During a political period when differences and separation are at a pitch, the artists hope their stories instill some semblance of hope. Nigam feels that if people are able to go back to reminiscing about simpler times, away from the complications of today, then his story is well worth it.
Talking about the topicality of airing of his show Brown Nation at a time of growing polarity, Varma says: “Brown Nation was shot over two years ago. When it was written and shot the current political climate did not exist the way it does now. I don’t think there was an explicit political agenda that Matt (Grubb), Abi (Varghese) and George (Knatt) had when they wrote it. I think they just wanted to portray Indian characters in a more accessible way for both Indian and non-Indian audiences. I’m not sure about the message that the show is seeking to give audiences. The audience will take from the show what they will. America has always struggled with issues regarding immigrants and race. Brown Nation adds to this conversation. It shows the human side to immigrants and anything that humanizes the perceived other in our communities is a welcome addition.”
TThese comedies light up the real side to immigrant stories. The dual identities, the holding on to values and the challenges that transpire in between. Nigam says: “We hold on to certain ironies. While I came to the U.S. back in 1967 as a 2-year-old with my parents, who thought they will stay here for sometime before heading back to India, but continued to stay forever. My dad despite so many years still holds on to his Indian passport. On the other hand, my mom chose to become an American citizen and helped bring her extended family to America.”
14-year-old Roni Akurati, an Indian origin Chicago native who was born in the U.S. and plays the young Smith in Growing Up Smith, says he was never conscious of his roots, his name or culture: “Despite my family holding on to our cultural strongpoints, I was always made to feel like one amongst the white boys. I never felt aware, leave alone being conscious of the differences if any!