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If you devote a good portion of your free time to watching TV like me, you may have noticed something — there are a lot more brown men and women looking back at you.
And by brown in this case I mean Indian Americans, or Americans of Asian-Indian origin. Our portrayal in the US media has gone from being a Halley’s comet, a fleeting few seconds in the background, to a shooting star — recurring appearances across commercials, news, sitcoms, game shows (not just “Teen Jeopardy”), network TV, Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime, and the movies.
This is a big deal, why? Because what we see on the small and big screens today is beginning to reflect what we see around us. An estimated 2.5 million Indian immigrants live in the United States as of 2015, the second-largest immigrant group after Mexicans. It’s time we were seen and heard.
The Early Days
Seeing someone Indian on TV just a decade ago made quite an impact. I remember in 2006 when we were all rooting for “American Idol” contestant Sanjay Malakar (talent withstanding), and how upset my then three-year-old son was when he was eliminated. We had a motley crew of Indian public figures — self-help guru Deepak Chopra, cult guru Bhagwan Rajneesh, thrillermaster M Night Shyamalan, business elites like Indra Nooyi and Satya Nadella, model gourmand Padma Lakshmi, and so on.
But on-screen representation of Indians was mostly limited to nerdy, accented and socially inept sidekicks, taxi drivers and quickie mart owners. “The Simpsons” popular character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon unabashedly exaggerated all the Indian stereotypes, including unpronounceable last names.
The No-Strings Attached Indian
Then came the stoned, burger-loving “Harold and Kumar” movies in early 2000. It was the first time we had a ‘normal’ Indian American movie lead.
Bollywood stars started to get invited to Hollywood parties. We saw Anupam Kher in “Bend it Like Beckham,” “ER,” and later “Silver Linings Playbook.” Irrfan Khan in the “Life of Pi,” “Inferno” and “Jurassic World,” Aishwarya Rai in “Bride & Prejudice” and “Pink Panther,” and Om Puri in “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” And movies like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Namesake” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” caught the world’s attention.
That opened the door for our Indian American neighbors to become a steady fixture of our entertainment repertoire. We had Mindy Kaling working in the Office, Parminder Nagra saving lives in the ER, Naveen Andrews getting really lost, private investigator Archie Panjabi taking care of business, Kal Penn solving mysterious ailments, Aasif Mandvi putting his spin on the news, astrophysicist Kunal Nayyar making friends at CalTech, and Priyanka Chopra kicking a** as an FBI agent.
Times were changing behind the camera as well. Reliance Entertainment bought a substantial stake in DreamWorks Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and received Oscar nods for “The Help,” “Lincoln,” and “Arrival.” Writer/producers Aseem Batra and Stephanie Sengupta created iconic TV shows (“The Good Wife,” “Scrubs,” “Law & Order,” etc.), and A R Rahman serenaded the world.
So . . . What’s My Point?
It took a few generations, but Indians are finally being seen and heard in America. Now we have a sitcom lead, a state governor, an ambassador to the UN, and a senator and presidential hopeful.
And the cilantro garnish on the sabzi? An Indian-Canadian bisexual is about the break the white, male, late-night talkshow stronghold. This fall, Youtube megastar Lilly Singh will host and produce her own show on NBC following “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Yaas, Rani (that’s queen in Hindi). 🙂
So, what is my point? Indian Americans have reached a pivotal social milestone. More often than not, we are being represented and celebrated as just Americans — no stereotypical strings attached. So are we there yet? Not quite. It will be a while before “Crazy Rich Indians” and “The Indian Avengers” break the box office, an Indian Lady Gaga feels comfortable in her meat skin, and an Indian-American President makes America livable again (I so hope I’m proven wrong on this one next November).
For now, I am just happy to be living in the golden age of brown.
Vibeka is a well-intentioned and constantly guilt-ridden mother, daughter and wife of Indian origin. She is also a writer, editor, blogger and singer, and, a highly opinionated and spiritually evolving human.
This article was originally posted in Medium and has been republished with the author’s permission.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.