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Character first, desi later
There is a new Indian on American television shows today and he does not speak with a funny accent.
In an episode of the nerdy American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, immigrant scientist Raj Koothrappali states two very valid reasons why he does not want to speak to the FBI: "I am brown and I talk funny. "
These were, co-incidentally, the same reasons why American networks once loved to insert Indian characters into their sitcoms.
That was the time every NRI was called Sanjeev Patel and popular television drama series ER used to be the only ER without an Indian doctor. Mexican actors were sometimes asked to put on accents and play Indian roles. Kabir Bedi, the chiselled Indian answer to Hercules, was perhaps the only exception to this rule and he, mind you, played a Moroccan prince in the soap The Bold and the Beautiful.
Then, the inevitable happened. Parminder Nagra was hired on the long-running ER and Mindy Kaling entered The Office. Suddenly, besides their IT firms and their hospitals, Indians seemingly started to invade American television networks too, with an unprecedented vengeance. Today, almost every international TV series from NBC's 30 Rock to Parks and Recreation boasts at least one regular or recurring Indian character and none of them looks like Kabir Bedi. They don't need to. The small-screen NRI - so far represented only by the likes of convenience-store owner Apu with the unpronounceable surname from The Simpsons - has ceased being a stereotype.
The new desi, who sounds less like Om Puri and more like Kal Penn, has names like Tom Haverford and jobs to match. He doesn't always run a duty-free store, wear an orange robe or drive a cab now. He could be a fawning secretary (Jonathan of 30 Rock played by Maulik Pancholy) whose boss mistook him for Manoj Night Shyamalan under the influence of in-flight alcohol. Or an uber-confident pawn shop owner like Dave from HBO's show Flight of The Conchords (played by standup comic Arj Barker) who teaches his immigrant friends from New Zealand to "flip the bird" (the American euphemism for "giving the finger" ) as easily as he requests them to try gulab jamuns which "are off the hook".
Besides being a talkative customer service executive (Mindy Kaling, The Office), an under-achieving government official (Aziz Ansari, Parks and Recreation) or a successful doctor (Reshma Shetty, Royal Pains), the desi can also now be an exploited assistant Timmy (Adhir Kalyan, Rules of Engagement) or a tongue-tied nerd a la Koothrapally (played by Kunal Nayyar), who despite having an Indian accent and an unpronounceable surname, is American in most other ways. He does not want to go back to India as "it is like an endless comic con where every one dresses in the same costume - Indian guy ", despises Indian food and enjoys pornography.
One reason for the increasingly visible Indian is that "the studios are also realising the importance of international markets like India, " says Saurabh Yagnik, general manager and senior vice president, English channels, Star India Pvt Ltd. "That is why they had introduced customised promos for the India audience that was shot by the star cast of Community, " says Yagnik, referring to the popular sitcom featuring Indian Danny Pudi, which was brought back into the prime time slot on Star World due to "popular demand".
Anurag Bedi, business head at Zee Cafê and Zee Studio, too, admits that the popularity of characters such as Raj in The Big Bang Theory and Tom in Parks and Recreation is the primary reason why "we get the newer seasons in India". Hollywood movies, believes Bedi, paved the way for this inclusion by accepting actors such as Naseeruddin Shah, Mallika Sherawat, Aishwarya Rai and more recently Freida Pinto. The success of Slumdog Millionaire coupled with the buzz about Bollywood may have opened up doors for more Indian characters in television, says Nikhil Mirchandani, business head, Reliance Broadcast Network Ltd.
Given the changing demographics of American society, the second generation Indian now holds prestigious jobs. This reality also changed the profile of the average Indian on American television. "These characters are successful because show creators and writers have added several facets to each of them in addition to the fact that they are ethnically Indian, " explains Mirchandani. He cites the examples of Ansari and Kaling, both writer-performers, whose comic material has never really been about being Indian.
Actor Sendhil Ramamurthy agrees that the shift was brought by Indian origin writers. Ramamurthy, who recently debuted in Bollywood with Shor in the City, is a successful TV star abroad with shows such as Heroes (in which he plays Dr Suresh) and Covert Affairs (in which he plays a CIA operative) to his credit.
"Very capable Indian actors have been around for a long time but never had the material to showcase their talent, " says Ramamurthy, adding that his own friend and actor Aasif Mandvi wrote his own material when he wasn't happy with what was coming his way. "Such attempts hopefully have set the tone for non-stereotypical writing among non-Indian writers, " says the star. Ramamurthy attributes the fact that his Jai Wilcox in Covert Affairs is "a CIA operative first and a character of Indian origin second" to the writers of series, Matt Corman and Chris Ord. "The character is not there to just 'be Indian', but the fact that he is Indian shouldn't be simply be glossed over either, " he says.
It's what Maulik Pancholy - whose character Jonathan was finally established as an Indian on 30 Rock after around 65 episodes of vague references to his background - likes to call the emergence of the "three-dimensional character". During a lecture at the Lavin Agency, a global speakers' bureau in the US, he is quoted as saying that he can't escape the fact that he is brown but "it's not the aspect that is explored in the series". The actor, who auditioned for many Indian roles, used to resent it when casting directors would request him to "do the accent" and "open your eyes wide while you do it". Things, he says, have come a long way since then.
Pancholy who plays Baljeet, a seven-yearold Indian kid in the animation series Phineas and Ferb, said the creator of the show sent the clip to Indians to see how they would react to his character. And the creator's friend, also Baljeet, got back to him saying, "I know you told me you didn't want to make it stereotypical but I saw it and it seems a bit borderline. " The creator then told Pancholy that he does not "want to take the easy joke out" - a statement that would spell relief to any desi actor. "Sure, some Indians do run seven-elevens and some Indians are doctors but that's not the only story. Some Indian people are actors and some are multi-million dollar corporation types. We want the whole story, " he said.
And this whole story seems to be shaping up fast. Sendhil Ramamurthy, for one, says he hasn't been approached for any stereotypical roles for a few years now. "I don't know if that's because I haven't been available or that they aren't writing as many of those roles, " he says. It's the latter, we hope.
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