“But they are all sidekicks,” shrugs Atul Rao. Though he does admit that over the years Apu as a character has acquired a lot more dignity. “But it’s still usually just an extra minority you have not seen before.” Well, all that might be about to change if Cartoon Network and the audience is willing. Enter Swaroop—the first Indian cartoon hero. And his kick-ass grandma, his hipster brother, his parents. “No one has featured Indians as a main character,” says Rao. “This is why Swaroop is unique – here it’s just a cool family you want to hang out with—they just happen to be Indian.”
In the seven-minute pilot episode aired on the Cartoon Network in July and August, Swaroop’s neighbor Mr. Steve wins a cow. Afraid that the beef-eating Mr. Steve is going to eat the cow, Swaroop hides her in their home. But it is not easy to conceal a cow in a suburban home in New Jersey. In one fell swoop Rao has not only taken on the sacred cow of Hinduism, but he has also ventured into a sacrosanct bastion of American culture—eating beef. Oprah Winfrey got sued in Texas for talking about the bad effects of eating beef on her television show. Rao chuckles, “We have applied to enter the Austin film festival—and Texas is a sacred place for eating beef.” He still has not got any flak from the hamburger-flank steak lobby but he thinks that might be because in the course of the episode the cow becomes quite personable. After all, Rao says, even those who eat hamburgers rarely like to think that they are eating a cow. Processed and ground beyond recognition, it’s just a patty with lettuce and tomato.
At the same time, Rao is quick to point out that a seven minute cartoon is probably not the place to espouse social change whether its about vegetarianism or cultural conflicts. He’d rather leave that to films like Bhaji on the Beach and concentrate on exploring cultural elements comedically. Because that is what he knows and understands best.
He describes himself as “a cartoon nut” while growing up. “Every Saturday at 5pm, for years Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner was on. No matter where we were I had to be in front of a TV. So if we were in a mall my dad had to take me to a TV,” he recalls. Though he liked Daffy Duck and Scooby Doo, Rao who grew up mostly in Canada, was addicted to Bugs Bunny. He feels, “He’s a defenseless furry creature who uses his wits against people who have guns. He is always cool and collected and seems indestructible because of his attitude.” For a kid, growing up in Canada, at a time when being South Asian was not particularly hip or cool, it’s easy to see the allure of the quick-witted Bugs Bunny. Not surprisingly when he went to create Swaroop, Rao invested him with the qualities of his favorite cartoon character—Bugs himself.
In a long career with children’s programming Rao had been involved with many shows. And he had done his best to introduce Indian elements to the show. On a show called PsychoFerret that Nickelodeon did the pilot for, Rao had a character called Raj McBride who was part Scottish and part Indian, with rolling r’s and curried haggis. But he didn’t survive in the final cartoon though the network executives liked him. Rao feels “People are scared of ethnic characters in cartoons—they are afraid to offend people.” That was why he jumped at Swaroop. The director Mike Milo was working with Warner Brothers when he originally had an idea of a cartoon about a multiethnic group of kids in a school. The network executives ended up focusing on one character and that was a little Indian boy. But Milo did not know that much about Indian culture. So they decided to bring in Rao as a writer to take the drawing of a character and come up with a series concept and pitch it to them.
The seven-minute cartoon had a two year gestation period. They wrote 30 different stories before deciding to take on the sacred cow because it was a concept that most Americans had some ideas about even if they did not know why the cow was sacred. The characters were composed out of a lot of pictures of family members and friends. The grandmother has elements of Rao’s aunt and Milo’s own grandmother. What was harder though was to reproduce certain things like tying a sari. Rao recalls they could not get it right till the last minute. Then Aashna Patel who plays the grandmother came down and tied a sari onto Mike Milo so he could reproduce it accurately in the cartoon.
More difficult was finding the different actors for the parts. Though as voices behind the characters, they did not necessarily have to be Indian. Rao says, “I wanted it anyway—I need to be surrounded by as many Indians as I could in the creative area.” He jokes it would have been easy to get Indians to do the software but what he really needed were people to interpret the characters. They auditioned some 45 people for 4 or 5 roles including some non-Indians. In the end he is really happy with the wealth of talent behind the characters. And there were some side benefits too.
Even as Rao and his team was careful to create something that would hopefully cross over into mainstream culture, he was acutely aware of the pressures of portraying minority communities on what could easily become a caricature. In fact, are minorities really comfortable laughing at themselves? Rao says thoughtfully, “I don’t like to think of us as laughing at ourselves in terms of our minority culture—I think of us laughing at ourselves because we all have quirky family dynamics.” Like Aaji, the grandmom, really wearing the pants in the family. He hopes that’s something a lot of people will be able to relate to. Like Swaroop—he hopes Bugs Bunny fans will find a little bit of the intrepid rabbit in him. At the same time, he wanted to “allow a couple of things that only the Indian community would really get and understand.” Like Swaroop’s father with his potbelly and skinny legs.
At the same time, there were a lot of issues about what kinds of accents to give Swaroop and his family. Rao toyed with the idea of only giving Indian accents to the parents and the grandmother. But in the end he did not want Swaroop “only because of his skin color. For me, growing up, because I knew so many Indian professionals, when I hear Indian accents, I don’t hear silly and goofy. I hear sophisticated. It’s a matter of interpretation— hopefully we get a series and seasons and seasons of Swaroop. Hopefully that perception will get translated into the cartoon.” There were other little road-blocks as well. The director was reluctant to introduce religious symbols like Ganesh and statues of Nataraj in Swaroop’s home. Rao had to explain that Ganesh and Krishna and Nataraj were not religious symbols in the way crucifixes hanging on the wall would be. To him they are also household objects, part of a way of life, something you put on your living room. But Milo did draw the line at Aaji’s belly. He reluctantly agreed to show her belly button but refused adamantly when Aashna Patel (who plays the grandmother) suggested he give her rolls of fat. “So Aaji has a stomach of pure muscle,” chuckles Rao. Aerobics and yoga at the senior center, no doubt. In the end, though, Rao had a simple litmus test to figure out if he was offending anyone—”if it was not offending me it was OK.” But of course, hedoes not eat beef burgers anymore.
The ultimate test of any cartoon is how easily it crosses over from the television into living rooms across America. Rao hopes the cartoon will pique people’s interest and make them wonder what Indian homes are like. After all, practically everyone knows an Indian today—it might be your doctor, a co-worker or the owner of a corner store or that all-you-can-eat-lunch buffet. He hopes Swaroop will help people realize that that Indian family down the street might have slightly different accents and different household decorations. “But basically people are the same.” It is a message that Atul Rao has no intention of pushing down people’s throats with or without renegade cows. His main intention is to pack as much fun as he can in 7 minutes.
It seems to be working. His three-year-old son now has a pukka Indian accent and knows the dialogue backwards and forwards. He saw a piñata hanging in a grocery store and ran up to it yelling in his best Indian accent, “Don’t hit the sacred piñata.” But then Rao Jr. might not be the most unbiased of witnesses. I called in my 8-year-old cousin Saptak Ray for the acid test. Swaroop passed with flying colors. “I liked the grandma talking weird,” said the young critic. And he thoroughly approved of the Indian accents. Overall verdict—”A very good show. Funny.” Swaroop Shukla may be here to stay.
Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the New California Media TV show.