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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Apu from "The Simpsons" no longer the only Indian character on TV

I don't mean to create a racial to-do out in the blogosphere, but, man, Indian people are all over television these days.

For the longest time, Kwik-E-mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on "The Simpsons" was the only Indian-American character on TV. And, while his "thank you, come again" line is spot on -- seriously, if you've been to a convenience store owned by an Indian or Pakistani, you know it's not far off -- it was a bit, how shall I put it, unrepresentative of the population as a whole.

(Just so we're clear, I'm talking about Indians as in people who either come from or have ancestors from India, not Native Americans. Also, as another side note, we're not all good at fixing computers, solving math problems or being doctors, but we tend to enjoy spicy food).

In fact, these days Indian-American actors and characters are a-plently on network shows like "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," "Community," "Big Bang Theory, "The Good Wife" and "24." Sweet, we've finally hit the big leagues! Whether it's part of the "Slumdog Millionaire" bandwagon or perhaps a recognition of the range of talent from Indian-American actors and actresses, this Asian Invasion (am I allowed to say that?) is about to get bigger.

NBC announced it would pick up a television version of the movie "Outsourced" -- a 2006 indie flick about an American manager who goes to India to train his company's call center employees -- as a half-hour comedy with longtime "The Office" director Ken Kwapis at the helm. The movie, by the way, was actually hilarious and would make a great sitcom. Fox is also picking up "Nevermind Nirvana," a sitcom about a family of Indian-Americans. At the same time, the producers of the British comedy "The Kumars at No. 42" are looking to translate the show across the Atlantic.

Diversity on television is always a good thing, not to mention realistic ("Grey's Anatomy" is often heralded for its diverse cast, but I find it hard to believe there's a hospital in the world, let alone Seattle, without an Indian doctor). In the same year that Barack Obama was elected President, "The Cleveland Show" was the only new show anchored by a minority character in 2008. That's right: ONLY. Even then, the main character is voiced by a white guy.

While this sudden influx of Indian-Americans on television might be a fluke, I hope it's a sign of things to come -- a television landscape as diverse as the country around us.

-- Malavika Jagannathan,


I'm a little late to comment -- way behind on my feeds -- but I'd love to hear your thoughts about Sayid in Lost and Abed in Community. Both are Middle Eastern characters played by Indian (or, in the case of Danny Pudi, half-Indian) actors. I assumed the Sayid thing was a fluke, but now that there's Abed I'm wondering if there's something a bit more nefarious at work. Did the casting agents assume that "real" Middle Eastern actors are not "dark" or "ethnic"-looking enough to signal foreignness?

For the record, I really love how they play with Tom's ethnicity in Parks & Rec. He is a born-and-bred American who's constantly judged as being "foreign" because of his skin colour. A recent scene had him Wikipedia-ing an Indian temple at a party just so that he could look Indian "enough" to carry on a conversation with a well-travelled white acquaintance. It was a lighthearted look at race and American-ness of the sort I'd like to see much more of on TV.

My word verification is FUNPINGI, which feels like an India-themed theme park!

By Blogger ASG, At March 2, 2010 at 2:53 PM  

ASG, thanks for your comment -- it's very insightful.

It's not unusual for Indian actors (or really anyone with darker skin who doesn't look Latino) to play Middle Eastern characters. Anil Kapoor -- the game show host from "Slumdog Millionaire" -- is currently on "24" playing the fictional president of an Islamic republic. I think one of the reasons – and I could be wrong here – is that there are more Middle Eastern roles in films and TV because they’ve sort of replaced the Russians as the “other” in modern American society. I could be wrong, but Sayid’s character on “Lost” could easily have been cast as an Indian, right? But that doesn’t really make him mysterious in any way. Toss in the fact that he’s Iraqi, and it gives the character a totally different relationship with the average American viewer. What’s sort of funny, and maybe this is just me, is that there’s really no way that Naveen Andrews – who looks very Indian – would ever be mistaken for an Iraqi. But, hey, if Meryl Streep can play a Pole, a Dane and a German in her lifetime, I don’t see it as much of an issue.

Your point about Tom Haverford is spot-on, though. I think it truly says something about race in a sort of sly way. Both he and Kelly Kapoor (Mindi Kaling) from “The Office” are born-and-bred Americans who truly defy the stereotypes of being “Indian.” Unlike the stereotypical “Indians” who either excel at math, science or medicine or own convenience stores, these two are just oddball nitwits, more obsessed with how they look than who they are. I think these types of characters, who step outside the stereotypes, help make viewers naturally more comfortable but also make the point about immigrant America without getting in-your-face or sentimental.


p.s. Alas, my word is quilesse, which sounds French.

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At March 2, 2010 at 4:37 PM  

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