Gouri Dange: Where’s the Indian guy?

28 Dec,2011

By Gouri Dange


I have a question. The Indian diaspora in the US amounts to some… wait, let me Wiki it… ok, here it is: “According to the 2010 US Census, the Asian Indian population in the United States was 1,678,765 in 2000 and grew to 2,843,391 in 2010, a growth rate of 69.37 percent, the highest for any Asian American community, and among the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States.” (Now ‘fastest growing’ meaning the existing ones are having babies all over the place, or more of our compatriots are joining the hordes there? My statistics-challenged mind is not able to figure that one out. But I digress.)

The point that is noteworthy is that in spite of this sizable presence, Indians are rarely seen as part of the script in most sitcoms, romcoms, detective serials, and courtroom or hospital dramas. Now why is that?

Before Indian readers instantly start getting all grumpy about this fact and talk about poor representation and discrimination and all of that, I think we Indians have a hand in this invisibility too. It’s because of the way most Indians are seen to live in the US. Indians by and large (and getting larger) stick to their own kind, work hard, and are not seen as people who hang around coffee shops named Central Perk or shoot baskets with colleagues or sit at the bar after a long day in the courtroom.

The overall impression (partly right, partly wrong) is that they work long hours (take a look at ‘Asok’ from the Dilbert comic strip), scurry home or to an Indian restaurant or to a theatre showing a Bollywood movie or to an Indian wedding (synonymous with a Bollywood movie most times). This is why Indians perhaps simply do not form part of the script or landscape of American TV shows. And I rarely or never see an Indian name in the crew credits either.

The only famous Indian who appeared once on Oprah pouted and neighed her way through the whole show in a hilariously wannabe accent, in a forgettable appearance some years ago. And of course she showed Oprah how to wear a sari. Now if that isn’t typecasting ourselves…

As for fiction characters, there is Apu on The Simpsons. He is predictably the owner of a grocery store and has eight children. (Again, I’m not COMPLAINING here, I am just pointing out how we are perceived.) Hilariously, one scene particularly sticks in my mind: When everyone is making sand castles or other fun stuff on the beach, Apu is industriously making a replica of – what else – The Taj Mahal. And when someone knocks it down inadvertently, he takes great umbrage and cries out in bitter outrage: “You have desecrated our National Monument, you fat American!”

Only recently has an Indian girl called Priya been worked into the Big Bang Theory (Z Café). But already we know that her mother would kill her if she knew she was seeing this boy.

In the hospital comedy Scrubs (FX, Star World, Z Café) too, very few Indians are visible, though we know for sure that in real life, US hospitals are stacked high with Indian doctors. All you see in Scrubs, at the most, is a frightened looking sort of Indian-sub-continent intern as part of the backdrop. I also recently spotted what was supposed to be a Sikh doctor sitting with senior doctors Kelso and Perry on an episode of Scrubs, but he was wearing something like a maroon lacquer box with a thin border of tinsel on his head, which they were trying to pass off as a turban. Strange.

The series Becker had the Ted Danson character in New York refer to an Indian only once – when he returns home and hears – what else – a blaring radio with a Hindi song, and shouts out down the stairwell: “hey Asian guy, turn it down, or I’ll call Immigration.”

Friends has never had an Indian in it (someone correct me if I am wrong) in spite of the fact that it is set in New York, and none of the six friends could possibly live in that city without tripping over one of us Indians.

Knowing the American propensity to be oh-so-fair-and-inclusive (the latest is the so very PC thing of saying Happy Holidays and not Merry Christmas, because in a racially mixed society someone may burst into tears for being included in a Christian greeting, apparently), I’m surprised that there aren’t more Indians on American TV and films, even as incidental characters. However, perhaps they steer clear of it all, given that they don’t really know the Indian in their midst at all.

Naming no Names is the mid-week column where novelist, columnist and counsellor Gouri Dange presents her tongue-in-cheek view of our world.

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4 responses to “Gouri Dange: Where’s the Indian guy?”

  1. H Simson says:

    It may well the human psyche. How often do we in India show the token ‘white girl’ and she is instantly looked up on as loose and not with good morals and this compared to the sati Savirti India lass.
    I agree with you Gouri, we are Indians living in the land of plenty are to blame for living in shells (lest we get seen or worse still judged, negatively or positively). We love playing the discrimination card if we are looked up on or simply because we can. So maybe the media there errs on the side of caution with the characters they portray, all in the make of ‘light humour’ than get into a ‘You have offended our communities, you are insensitive and we will now burn random effigies to prove our point!?’

    Great writing G, love you work. Keep it coming. Happy holidays to you! 🙂

  2. Pooja says:

    My only proper experience of this community are my two cousins born and brought up in California. They are irritating, confused and so adamant about having an opinion about everything that they lose track of their own argument. I am very, very happy not to see more of them on my TV shows :-0. That said, I do like Kalinda’s character in The Good Wife and Nila in ER is fortunately just another doctor who happens to be of Indian origin. I have clearly put an community in a very large box… but if you want to see real typecasting, have a look at the shows Outsourced and Mumbai Calling. Bhagwan!

    • Gouri Dange says:

      haha. hmm. but im saying sometimes we beg to be typecast, perhaps. go to a restaurant in any ‘happening’ city of india and watch how the kids behave! 😛

  3. Ready2Takeoff says:

    As a member of the community you’re describing, I’d say you’ve got it just about right. My speculation is that socially — and that is intended to include representation in the media — the Indian American community is at an inflection point right now. In less than a decade you might see an abundance of Indians in the American media. Note that white collar Indians have flocked to the American shores only in recent decades. (The large numbers reflect recent migrations — not excessive reproductions.)