Putting tadka on a tale

Why do we feel let down?

When news broke in a New Yorker article that Indian American wunderkind Hasan Minhaj was telling fibs in his comedy specials, a collective groan from the South Asian diaspora was clearly audible.

On Twitter (X) his detractors were scathing.

Journalist Priyanka Deo Jain tweeted, “Minhaj’s extensive use of fictionalized stories in comedy raises ethical questions about spreading false oppression narratives on a global scale. @priyankadeo

Why Hasan Minhaj chose to misrepresent his experience is baffling to fans. Clearly, he has the smarts to tell the truth without embellishment because unadorned, the truth speaks for itself. How he represents the truth also matters because Hasan speaks for us. He has a platform and a broad audience of many colors who are open to his point of view, voicing the issues that concern all Americans and marginalized ones. On The Patriot Act, Minhaj tackled Free Speech, Amazon, Big Oil, as well as Affirmative Action, Immigration enforcement, and Civil Rights. To his South Asian fans, all of these topics matter.

A whip-smart comic

In 2014, I first watched Hasan Minhaj in a New York comedy club before he became a star in the Daily Show firmament. We paid $25 for a ticket. His sharp observations and comedic instinct were instantly evident, so the seamless transition to The Daily Show faux Correspondent came as no surprise.

He told the unpalatable truth in articulate, no-nonsense terms. It’s why Congress invited him in 2019 to tell them about the crushing student loan crisis. His Netflix show The Patriot Act (co-written with Prashanth Venkataramanujam), had its finger on the pulse of what mattered to regular folk at large and South Asians in particular.

To Minhaj fans, he represented an unvarnished South Asian voice amplifying the concerns of a  minority community in language the mainstream could understand.

He was no Apu from The Simpsons – when Hollywood used a white guy (Hank Azaria) to play an infuriating South Asian stereotype. Hasan has an all-American accent and a spiffy wardrobe.

He was real. He was brown, South Asian, Muslim-American, and his life and experience were relatable. We tuned into The Daily Show, The Patriot Act, and The King’s Jester to see ourselves reflected in the stories he chose to tell.

Minhaj broke the South Asian stereotype convincingly to represent authentic South Asian Americans. It’s a small cohort – Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Hari Kondabalu, and Kal Penn among others  – that is trying to change the narrative. So, when one falls off that elusive seat at the table, an entire community winces at the ouch.

Why representation matters

The Hasan Minhajs of this world shape how our stories are told, and how diverse communities are seen inside and outside our borders. They help determine how Hollywood and other media offer access to jobs and creative opportunities for aspiring creative folk from minority backgrounds. While representation has slowly advanced in film and television many jobs in the entertainment industry still need to reach parity with the ethnic population numbers and our value as an audience.

Unfortunately, when media icons like Hassan Minhaj undermine the truth we tell about ourselves, it rocks the boat for South Asians aspiring to create more diversity in media and entertainment.

Minhaj did have defenders who blamed the toxicity of the entertainment industry for his choices.

Can we tell our own stories yet?

According to media experts like Michael Tran, co-author of the Hollywood Diversity Report, the short answer is no. Twice a year the report studies TV and film looking at the relationship between racial and gender diversity and the bottom line in Hollywood. Over 11 years of data, trends show that lack of diversity is an ongoing problem.

Tran told an August 25 Ethnic Media Services briefing, “Even though diversity is more visible these days, you still have a ways to go for these directors, writers, and actors, for the proportion of them within the industry to reach parity with how diverse America is.” A second consistent finding he added, is that diversity sells when movies and TV shows with diverse casts best match how diverse the U.S. is.

“Hollywood’s economic interest lies on top of its moral and cultural interests,” remarked Tran, so progress has come in fits and starts, happening a lot quicker in television than in film.  He pointed out that the rise of streaming and digital platforms has expanded markets. “There’s a lot lower risk (with) TV. So, they gave (women of color) a lot more opportunities.” This may account for actors like Priyanka Chopra playing lead roles in Quantico and the more recent Love  Again.

But the more resounding impact in American living rooms came from TV shows like Never Have I Ever, a Mindy Kaling project about an American-Indian teen, and The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. Never Have I Ever won a People’s Choice Award in 2022 and was watched by 40 million households worldwide after its release.  

Before it was canceled, The Patriot Act lasted six seasons on Netflix and won a Peabody Award which recognized Hasan Minhaj for creating, “the perfect model for engaging his fellow millennials in contemporary politics and public life. With his trademark high-octane energy, the first Indian-American and Muslim late-night host brings a welcome voice to political entertainment television.”

Diversity in front of the camera, not behind it

Undoubtedly, the casts of shows are getting more diverse. Tran said, “On-screen diversity has almost reached proportionate representation with the diversity of the United States.”

But it’s less diverse behind the camera – that’s where the creators behind the screen sit, the ones that really shape the stories, pitch the projects, and where the decision-making happens – behind the scenes.

So media makers like Kaling and Minhaj have an abiding responsibility to ensure their opportunities to tell stories behind and in front of the camera are handled with integrity, though it’s somewhat an unfair and onerous burden to bear.

Growing diversity in any industry is challenging.

People usually ask me, said Tran, “When are we going to get there? And I will say that the industry right now is in a time of great uncertainty with the rise of streaming, the rise of AI, our labor disputes, the pandemic. Uncertainty usually brings back bad habits and uninformed decisions. The progress that we’ve seen is, are mostly things that can be taken away at any instant.”

Helping ethnic media creators ‘get there’

AAPI industry leaders are working to change that environment for ethnic media creators.

At the briefing, Takashi Cheng, Chief Creative Officer at ChimeTV – First Asian American Network in English Language,  reiterated that progress is very slow. “While we’re going through this environment with the strikes and observing the corporate greed and how the studios have positioned themselves, it’s very evident that that studio model has not only negatively affected creators, but it has also definitely negatively affected ethnic creators.”

At Chime TV, Cheng is charged with developing and showcasing the best of Asian entertainment in the English language, sharing stories, issues, heritage, and cultures that are uniquely of Asian experience and perspective that have never before been seen on screen, in English only.

His organization is spearheading a project to recruit ethnic creators, and ethnic talent, and build a platform in a system where people of color have equal opportunity to deliver homegrown cultural stories from ethnic communities in the English language. That’s something that’s not yet been done before.

“It’s an ambitious plan. But I think that it’s timely. And it’s the best way for us to showcase our stories authentically in the English language that is the fabric of this country.”

Is it just a white movie with some color?

What that could mean, is that instead of having just one Crazy Rich Asians, one Joy Luck Club, or one feature film once every 20 years, more ethnic stories created and produced by Asian Americans can go mainstream.

“It needs to go a little quicker,” said Cheng. “I don’t want to wait another 20 years for another blockbuster hit that accurately reflects the AAPI community. They are everyday people in America, just like we are. They can tell jokes. They’re funny. They’re doctors, they’re lawyers on screen. And they’re not just kung fu artists, they’re not just, you know, cast in one negative stereotype.”

Afro-Latina actress and director Adargiza De Los Santos agreed that making a real investment into a creator community can offer fresh, original stories that will do ethnic communities justice.

 “I don’t mind having a Japanese American Little Mermaid … but that’s not the story I want to see….Instead of just slapping us into your story, …how about investing in the storytellers that can create a new generation of characters?”

Fact, fiction & falsehood

When storytellers like Kaling and Minhaj create believable characters they tend to be based on the truth (Devi in Never Have I Ever is said to be an autobiographical portrayal of Kaling’s teenage years) while Brother Eric in The Patriot Act was allegedly based on a white convert to Islam that Minhaj met at his neighborhood mosque. Both writers combine autobiographical elements in their brand of comedic, social-justice storytelling that embodies the power of representation in entertainment. Minhaj in his series often insinuates himself into the narrative, referencing his family and community in his anecdotes. Viewers expect that the characters and incidents he introduces onscreen reflect authentic real-life people and events they can relate to. It turned out that Brother Eric was a fake character.

So when whip-smart Minhaj acknowledges that he exaggerated the unsettling stories he shared about his family, that they were, in fact, untrue, and built on ‘emotional truth’ rather than real people and incidents, the fabrication reflects poorly not just on him, but the community he claims to represent. His ‘alternative facts’ undermine the authenticity of our experience of ugly truths like racism, prejudice, and misrepresentation.

Why does Hasan Minhaj need fiction and fake victimhood to sell the plain, powerful truth?

Is that punchline a smokescreen?

Last year Minhaj’s Netflix special The King’s Jester shared hilarious stories about ‘fertility, fatherhood, and freedom of speech by discussing some of his recent life events.’

In a review for The Guardian, Brian Logan could not quite pinpoint his unease with Minhaj’s spiel. He called Minhaj ‘humble braggy’.  He wrote, “It’s brash. Minhaj’s self-mockery feels like a smokescreen for self-regard, and the sentimental conclusions are packaged too neatly for me – but not for Minhaj’s US crowd, who cheer the schmaltzy moments to the rafters.”

“I feel ungrateful pushing back against a show that’s this accomplished. Too accomplished, perhaps – there’s something clinical about how finely wrought every individual part is: the moment of sincerity, the tightening spotlight, the pause – then the punchline.”

Except this time round, for Hasan Minhaj, the punchline of emotional ‘truthiness‘ backfired.

Fans of the talented comedian find it hard to articulate their disappointment and frustration with him. But canceling Minhaj does not do the conversation justice.

The question remains – if someone as successful as Hasan Minhaj needs to spin falsehoods, where does that leave the rest of us who don’t have his platform, his influence, or his savvy?

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of India Currents. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, individual or anyone or anything.

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at desicollective.media. She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...