In the late seventies, Mumbai-born Persis Khambatta cried after she had to lose her lovely, beauty-queen locks so she could play the role of Lieutenant Ilia, the bald Deltan alien in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Last year, Priyanka Chopra had to lose her Indian accent for her role as Alex Parrish, FBI recruit, in ABC’s Quantico. As Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins could tell us, losing the accent is no easy task. Priyanka, acknowledged in aUSA Today interview: “The one thing that I did have to work on for Alex was definitely my American accent, which was a task, man. That was one big thing.”
Priyanka Chopra’s hybrid accent has drawn attention in the Indian media. “Her accent is that of a shuddh desi Splitsvilla aspirant—you know, the one that sounds like a cross between Sonia Gandhi and Salman Khan,” wrote Piyasree Dasgupta of First Post. “What’s with that accent Priyanka Chopra?” queried a Hindustan Times headline after the Quantico trailer came out in May of 2015.
It seems that despite all that work with a dialect coach, when she says “My name is Alex Parrish. Protecting my country has always been my dream” you could be forgiven for asking: which country exactly?
But that’s just like teasing the new kid in school. And as a daughter of physicians in the Indian Army, used to frequent moves as part of Army ‘postings’ in far-flung bases such as Ambala and Ladakh, she’s been that new kid a lot. She also spent her teenage years in Boston, here in the United States. Priyanka recalls this time as a difficult one in a 2012 International Business Times article, “I Was Bullied in High School for Being Browny: Priyanka Chopra.” Possibly, she was teased for her Indian accent. And her Indian name.
Erasing the Old Country
While her Muslim on-screen colleague Raina is literally draped with identifiers of her faith, Alex does not wear a bindi and instead sports an all-American persona. Raina Amin, played with a brittle anger by Yasmine Al Massri, speaks English with a strong accent and rolls out her prayer mat in a convincingly devout fashion. Alex Parrish, by contrast, appears to have assimilated completely into America. So enthusiastically has she erased the old country that rather than being a second generation half-Indian, she could easily have arrived, Star Trek style, from outer space.
It is only when she is accused of a terrorist plot to bomb Grand Central Station that ethnic origins of Alex Parrish come under closer scrutiny, as the media interview her “Indian mother,” and speculate about her time in Mumbai. Parrish begins to wonder if her mother was part of ISI, the Pakistani intelligence wing, but the file that might help her find out disappears from her bag.
While nothing at Quantico is as it appears, it is still somewhat disheartening that the main context so far within which cultural identifiers exist is that of terror, with religiosity serving as a convenient proxy for terrorism.
“Whether or not Indian characters are a way of safely avoiding the specter of other, more ‘dangerous’ brown people, the fact that South Asian actors can easily pass for Middle Easterners may very well be contributing to their professional development.” Says Nina Rastogi in a Slate article “Beyond Apu:Why are there suddenly so many Indians on television?” Given that American audiences seem to have an insatiable appetite for watching terror-themed TV shows, this could mean that the search for browner skins could spread the casting net wider.
Enter “safe” Alex Parrish from Oakland, California, unthreatening brown FBI cadet, scrubbed clean of all cultural identifiers.
The series also provides Raina’s sister, Nimah, with a more assimilated persona. She does not wear a head-covering garment, is seen drinking alcohol, and making snarky statements about not wanting to spend her holidays stuck in the kitchen cooking for the men. Unlike Raina, who appears inscrutable and somewhat more sinister, Nimah is the safe, assimilated Muslim girl who is in the inner circle of friends for Alex Parrish, another safe, assimilated immigrant.
Discussing Priyanka Chopra, Quantico, Bangladeshi co-writer Sharbari Ahmed confirms that Quantico is “not focused on her ethnicity.” She adds: “I’m also Muslim, so I can harness that to write the Raina and Nimah Amin characters.”
Issues of Representation
That geopolitical anxieties inform popular culture has been in solid evidence since the genres of “stop that terrorist” like 24, or Homeland. To do so with a multicultural cast that is a nod to the audience takes additional skill. Quantico’s cast is diverse in a way that the Oscar nominations this year weren’t.
A small challenge to the premise of the #OscarsSoWhite movement is a Pixar short film called Sanjay’s Super Team, directed by Sanjay Patel, which was nominated for the Best Animated Short, but did not win. In the short, a shape-shifting demon is pitted against Hanuman, Durga and Vishnu. “Now I can talk about how awkward and ashamed I felt about my identity and my skin color and my parents’ culture,” says Patel in an interview with Charles Solomon for theNew York Times. Patel adds, “A father wanting his son to appreciate things that are old and a child enamored with things that are new is a universal experience.”
Another, even smaller challenge to the #OscarsSoWhite: following in the footsteps of beauty queen Persis Khambatta, the first Indian to present at the Oscars in 1980, comes beauty queen Priyanka Chopra who presented at the 2016 Academy Awards.
Sanjay Patel’s reference to universal themes with cultural specificity appear to be the emerging trend in other recent films. Mahesh Pailoor, director of Brahmin Bulls makes a similar point. Says Pailoor, “The goal was to tell an American story that had a multi-cultural cast. Although the lead characters are Indian American, their Indian heritage adds a specificity to their respective characters, but it doesn’t define their central conflict.” This formula seems to reflect the programming philosophy of at least one network, ABC, which has been praised for comedies focusing on people of color, such as Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat and the Shonda Rhimes shows.
As the first South Asian woman to headline an American network series, Priyanka Chopra seems unconcerned about the weight of collective South Asian expectations that fall upon her. While praising ABC for its push for diversity, she stated in an article penned by Reid Nakamura for The Wrap: “I wanted to do a show which gave me the respect of being an actor, instead of casting me for the color of my skin or what I look like.” She would prefer that people look at her in a colorblind way.
In this context, NY Times TV critic James Poniewozik argues for “the decline of the idea of “colorblindness”—art exists to help us see, after all—in favor of color awareness.” He goes on to state that “sometimes that means diversity across TV rather than within every show.”
To his credit, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None does not try to carefully erase his Indian-American identity “Sometimes race comes to the fore—as in the episode “Indians on TV,” which, according to Poniewozik, critiques the idea that “there can only be one” character of a given minority background on a show.”
In another instance, Ansari mentions how little money his father had when he arrived in the United States and compares the sum to the cost of cold-pressed juice. There is awe in his voice. He is proud of his immigrant dad.
Likewise, Mindy Kaling’s frequent forays into the world of ABCD (American born confused desi) alienation acknowledges this hybrid culture while providing fodder for her comedy. Mindy Kaling’s character Kelly Kapoor invites her Office coworkers to a Diwali party, where people wear kurtas, take off their shoes and listen to Dwight Schrute explain the religious significance of Diwali.
No Diwali in Quantico, where the four cadets who haven’t gone home for the holidays bond over alcohol. Assimilated Nimah joins Shelby, the Southern belle, Natalie Vasquez, the Hispanic cadet, and our very own half-desi Alex Parrish, for a foursome of dorm-room drinking. Merry Christmas! Cue the beer ad.
Clearly, issues of immigrant identity are not a central concern for Josh Safran, the writer and executive director of Quantico. The New York Times reports that “In 2014-2015, according to the Directors Guild of America, 69 percent of TV episodes were directed by white men. And few drama creators at cable’s prestige networks—HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC, et al—are minorities.” These statistics remain troubling insofar as the push for diversity, both on-screen and off-screen, was an attempt to include a greater variety of stories of people of color. “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will,” Mira Nair said emphatically in an interview with me, (published in this magazine) back in April 2013.
As for Quantico, it appears that looking hot is one of the main expectations from Priyanka Chopra. So, while Karthik Ramkrishnan, professor of public policy and political science at the University of California at Irvine and founder of AAPI Data, a resource for statistical information on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, wants the world to know that Indians are not exotic, not in the monkey-brain eating way of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Priyanka Chopra is cast as exotic in a super-sexy sort of way, much like in her music video, Exotic. This is a pity. For an actor of Priyanka Chopra’s caliber, whose roles as an autistic girl in Barfi or the femme fatale in Saat Khoon Maaf or as an aspiring fashion model in the film Fashion show a versatility and spark, the role of a hot female Jason Bourne seems rather underwhelming.
Many factors contribute to international casting. Commenting on the influx of actors from outside the United States, Richard Hicks, the New York-based president of the Casting Society of America and a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, told the New York Times that “a lot of actors from overseas are scoring in America” because of training … Hollywood is also focused on the world audience in a way that it wasn’t just a few years ago.” Finally, he says: “I’d also add technology as a reason. Casting people have been able to cast a much wider net, if you will, as video has advanced.”
Unusual casting choices abound in popular culture. Aishwarya Rai, who, like Priyanka, is a recipient of India’s highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, was cast as Sonia Solandres, a mysterious diamond expert in the film Pink Panther 2. Amitabh Bachchan had a cameo as Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jewish gangster in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
Then there’s Venkat Kapoor. Ring a bell? A STEM star in The Martian. Played by Nigerian-British actor Chiwetal Ejiofore. Not what we pictured a product of a “Two States” type North-South India romance.
In Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, the diversity of actors caused consternation. Used to seeing Ramanand Sagar’s comfortingly familiar Ramayana characters, the sight of the global cast that included the Senegalese Mamadou Dioume playing Bhima, the African-German Miriam Goldschmidt playing Kunti and other Greek, Italian, Polish and English actors was received with some trepidation.
Art transcends boundaries. And in a global media landscape, global talent roams the world, seeking the best opportunities. “I want to go wherever my work takes me,” says Priyanka Chopra to Lorena Blas in a USA Today article. “I want to be able to tell stories globally, entertain globally. Hopefully, this is a step in that direction.”
Perhaps a closer look at changing demographics would be fruitful. There were less than half a million Indian-Americans in 1980, the year that Persis Khambatta became the first Indian citizen to present an Academy award. By 2010, that number had grown to 3.2 million, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan and the US Census Bureau.
Reception of Quantico
I asked several forty-something female friends who watched the Oscars what they thought of Quantico and Priyanka Chopra. Reactions to Priyanka Chopra were mostly positive, but to the show itself, less so. Shaila Menezes of Santa Clara described Quantico’s structural characteristics of multiple, non-chronological timelines as ‘dizzying.’ “The show Quantico was all too confusing for me. Not a big fan of this genre. I found it hard to keep up with the lightning fast twists and pace and the mind games, but that’s exactly what the younger generation craves for, I am guessing.” And Priyanka? “Priyanka Chopra is gutsy and gorgeous.”
Shaila’s friend Radhika Sarang of Cupertino echoed this sentiment: “In a show where there are more twists, turns, dips and dives than I care to remember, Priyanka Chopra brought much needed clarity with her glamor, acting—yes acting and Bollywood pizzaz.” But Radhika thought that the other actors on Quantico were so bad that they needed to “move to Bombay to learn how to emote without facial paralysis.” Radhikha said she would watch Quantico again in the upcoming season, “not to figure out who the bomber is but to check out stylish, credible FBI agent Parrish.”
Another friend, Leena Sujan, was excited at the possibilities opened up by Priyanka Chopra’s “tough and sexy” character. “Priyanka Chopra has broken the stereotypes of Indians in Hollywood. Priyanka’s character is of a powerful, tough, well educated, smart, sexy woman who is not scared to have sex with a stranger in a car just because she feels like it. Typically, Indians have been cast as nerds or doctors. Indian women have been depicted as victims of abuse or quiet wallflowers in the background.”
Thanks, Mr. Safran
So Mr. Safran, thanks for the diverse cast of Quantico. Thanks for an African-American FBI director played by Aunjanue Ellis, an only slightly more maternal version of Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder. Thanks for Muslim twins who keep the good-cop, bad-cop dynamic within the family, a Mormon, a Jewish guy, a gay guy, a Hispanic couple and a female Vice-Presidential candidate. Thanks for giving us the fierce and resourceful second-generation half-Indian Alex Parrish. Thanks for casting Priyanka Chopra, Army brat, product of modern India, who grew up with a working mother and an incredible work ethic. Quantico challenges low levels of representation and stereotypes for women of color.
But here’s the thing. I can deal with a self-hating Alex Parrish who makes fun of her mom and refuses to wear a bindi.
Just don’t erase her Indianness like it doesn’t exist.
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to India Currents magazine. Thanks to frequent moves as a child, she now feels at home pretty much anywhere.