The Raj Prototype

Immigrants? Check.
Arranged marriage? Check
Nerds? Taxi cab drivers?
Convenience store owners?
Check, check, and check.

These are still the first things that American audiences associate with Indian-American in the media and it’s been that way for more than two decades. My first encounter with an Indian character on television was Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu on The Simpsons when it first aired twenty years ago.

The image of Apu in those very early episodes pandered to what the average American wanted to see about Indians in America—that they ran convenience stores, spoke with broad accents, were clueless about American culture and had a lot of strange customs. Although I enjoyed The Simpsons, I was uncomfortable when he came onscreen. But within a few years, The Simpsons turned into enjoyably subversive television, attacking education, law enforcement, and even racism. And some viewers think that the creators of the show characterized Apu more slyly, satirizing America’s response to Indian immigrants more than poking fun at Apu himself. Apu’s storylines continued to revolve around clichés—selling expired medicines and fathering too many children. Yet, you could see that he was smart enough to play social games that let the other characters stay comfortable in their ignorance.

How far have representations of Indians in the media come? Fast forward twenty years and we see a heterogenous group of Indian-Americans on the small screen. But stereotypes still abound. In 2010, Joel Stein wrote a piece for Time magazine called “My Own Private India” in which he complained about how his hometown of Menlo Park, New Jersey had been overtaken by Indians. On the waves of Indian immigration over the last few decades, he commented, “For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.” He concluded with what’s supposed to be a funny line about the Indian kids he knew in high school looking like “Italian Guidos,” “Their assimilation is so wonderfully American that if the Statue of Liberty could shed a tear, she would. Because of the amount of cologne they wear.”

Surprising Stein and Time, a number of readers wrote letters on how offended they were. But, as Stein noted in his apology for nastiness dressed up as humor, these weren’t views that are unusual in America and a conversation about the origin of these feelings is long overdue. Notwithstanding our black president and a population of 2,843,391 Indian-Americans in the U.S. in 2010, stereotypes of Indian-Americans haven’t changed as much as one might expect.

The celebration/skewering of geek culture in CBS’ hit sit-com The Big Bang Theory includes Raj Koothrappali, a character that plays into every stereotype about Indian immigrants in America. Although the show elicits fewer cringes from me than Outsourced did, it continues to play into all the stereotypes of nerdy, socially-awkward, and effeminate Indian males we’ve seen for years. Some say it saved the sit-com genre, but it is the most vapid television show I’ve seen in recent years.

Over the show’s history, Raj is increasingly portrayed in stereotypical ways. He’s not a manly man in conventional white American terms—he likes fru-fru drinks and The Blue Man Group. Unlike his fellow geeks who are capable of being in relationships, he has a one-month relationship with a deaf girl who, it’s intimated, gives him a chance because she can’t understand him and he showers her with expensive gifts.  In one recent episode, he carries on a relationship with the voice of his smartphone. The image of an Indian geek who can’t get a girlfriend and so develops a relationship with an electronic device is so tired— yet judging by the show’s ratings, this is what audiences want to see.

To be fair, perhaps audiences are just enthralled because Kunal Nayyar, the actor who plays Raj is a good-looking guy. But he seems to get his laughs and approval ratings by presenting himself as a slightly less effeminate version of the Raj character in his real-life appearances with Craig Ferguson, George Lopez, and Bonnie Hunt. His schtick during two separate appearances was to express something emotional and then state, “I mean, I’m very manly in many ways.” Audiences ate it up.

It’s ironic that a show about “smart” nerds depends on playing into the most pervasive and idiotic cultural cliches. When Raj’s sister Priya, a beautiful Cambridge-educated attorney, comes to town, she sexually pursues one of Raj’s friends, Leonard. The stereotype of the sexually aggressive minority female is emphasized when one character notes that Priya has “the smoldering sexuality of a crouched Bengal tiger” and that she comes from the culture that wrote the book on sex.

The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons create entire plotlines out of cultural stereotypes, but on the opposite end of the media spectrum are the shows and movies that remove all cultural references. The humor from comedies in that vein arises when audiences are pleasantly surprised by a character that doesn’t have the usual cultural markers.

Kelly played by Mindy Kaling on The Office is an amusing foil to the formulaic American view of Indian women as quiet, cerebral and voiceless. She started out with a narrow personality, a liberal cardboard cutout who mainly served to showcase the ridiculousness of the boss Michael Scott’s worldview. Every year, Michael Scott awarded his employees with gag awards at a ceremony he dubbed the “Dundees.” Kelly didn’t hesitate to confront him when he gave her the “Spicy Curry” award. But in an episode dealing with Diwali, it became clear that Kelly is actually somewhat ignorant of her culture. Over time, she evolved into the Kelly of today: unabashedly shallow, oblivious, obsessed with celebrity gossip, unafraid to speak her mind—but totally lacking in any cultural context.

All of the Thursday night comedies on NBC include an Indian character in a supporting role. For the most part they, like Kelly, have very few cultural markers. It’s great to see so many Indian-Americans onscreen. But presenting numerous Indian American characters without ever really portraying them in depth or as people doesn’t really facilitate the meaningful presence of Indian Americans in media and entertainment. In one interview, Kal Penn who starred as Kumar Patel in the Harold and Kumar movies declined to present himself as a cultural ambassador—and who can blame him? It’s not fair to expect that actors model their careers around the messages they send audiences about their culture, in general. The real problem is that there are only two options: the wholesale embrace of stereotypes or a wholesale rejection and ignorance of Indian culture. Last year Salil Mehta and Reena Singh moved into key executive positions at NBC. It should be interesting to see whether Indian-Americans making inroads behind-the-scenes translates to more interesting portrayals onscreen.

The success of Kelly Kapur calls to mind the cinematic characters Harold and Kumar in the buddy movie Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, which became popular partly because it depicts two stoners who are Indian-American and Asian-American, but who don’t act in culturally-stereotypical ways. Addressing their minority status, Jon Hurwitz, one of the creators of Harold and Kumar told Box Office Magazine that the whole point of these characters in search of burgers, women, and marijuana was that “they’re no different from us.” Kelly has grown popular for a similar reason—she’s not meant to be any different than any shallow, young white woman.

However, in the second movie of the franchise, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, the writers play much more with racial difference. Kumar is stopped for a security check and accuses the black man who stops him of racism. An old lady on the plane with Kumar envisions him as Osama bin Laden. But unlike the emasculated Indian-American males we see so much on television, Kumar is able to reunite with his love interest in the second and third movies, breaking the audience’s expectations.

Shilpa Davé, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, has a book coming out this year (Indian Accents:  Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film) that discusses how Indian Americans in comedy formats present less of a threat than they do in dramas to the extent that their differences become “acceptable, funny, and even lovable.”

Davé comments that the role of Indians as comic figures “follows a historical trajectory of other minority groups where comedy is one of the first places in the entertainment business where inroads are made. Humor has always diffused tension but at the same time what one culture or group may find funny is not the same and that’s the failing of comedy as the sole means of understanding difference.” That may also be one of the reasons Outsourced failed.

Although comedy has been a place of major development, it’s drama that offers the possibility of complexity that comedy hasn’t taken on (yet). While The Big Bang Theory chooses to present a comically hypersexual Indian woman, the drama The Good Wife offers one of the most interesting and human Indian-American characters on television right now. The bisexual law firm investigator Kalinda Sharma played by Archie Panjabi is matter of fact, ballsy, and smart. She’s not a model minority, but nor is she a caricature; her flaws are what make her both believable and complex.

Most movies and television shows can’t take risks like this with their audience. Consider Aasif Mandvi’s hilarious skit on The Daily Show, “The Qu’osby Show.” The skit takes as its starting point Katie Couric’s comment that Muslims in America could “cure racism” with a television series. (Just like The Cosby Show cured racism against African Americans.) Mandvi asks a consultant for The Cosby Show how much he can actually show Muslim culture on such a television show and gets the answer: not at all. Thus, in the pilot he produces, his fictional Muslim family dances to country music together. No cultural references are made aside from the last name Qu’osby.

But when Mandvi shows his pilot to a test audience, none of the audience members crack a smile. All of them find it unbelievable and offer suggestions for making it more believable. Why not add an uncle who’s a terrorist or chat about Islam in the living room? Playing into stereotypes is a prerequisite to acceptance by the test audience. You might expect that an influx of Indian-Americans into media and entertainment would result in significantly different representations onscreen. But most of what American audiences see onscreen and in the news remains well within what test audiences would be comfortable with—and they’re still not comfortable with difference. If they were, notwithstanding its bad writing, Outsourced might have been retained for another season.

Characters like Kalinda Sharma are still rarities. Either cultural markers like thick accents and exotic holidays comprise an entire plotline or else the only cultural markers are brown skin and a last name that is difficult to pronounce. We probably won’t see that change until mainstream American attitudes change.

Anita Mohan Felicelli is a writer, attorney and poet who lives in the Bay Area.

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