From Apu to Alex Parrish

Humour

From Apu to Alex Parrish

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

Y

ears ago, when I had just stepped off the boat onto American shores, I used to chat online with an American lady. One day she suggested moving the conversation to the phone. I agreed.

“Hello, how are you?” I opened, quite heartily.

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“Hahaha,” she responded.

“Er… hehe?” I said, somewhat puzzled, but assuming she was laughing at something humorous transpiring in her field of vision. Maybe a little old lady slipping and falling while crossing the street.

“Very funny,” she said, still laughing.

“What is funny?” I was truly perplexed now.

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was the commencement of America’s journey of getting to know Indians.

Courtesy: Wikicommons

“Wait, aren’t you doing an Apu impression? From the Simpsons?” she said.

“No, this is how I normally talk,” I said.

“Oh…” she responded.

That was the last time I spoke to her on the phone. Or any woman. Ever.

I don’t really blame my phone lady. When you have a television show based on a country you know virtually nothing about, it’s going to be one humongous stereotypalooza. And Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was the first such blooper to break out on American TV.

According to Hank Azaria, who gave voice to Apu, he based the character’s accent and mannerisms upon the Indian and Pakistani convenience store owners he met in Los Angeles. That was the commencement of America’s journey of getting to know Indians.

The portrayal of a particular ethnic group on television has always been a barometer of our cultural understanding of that group. When there are gaps in our understanding of that culture, television shows very graciously fill them for us with terrible, and mostly, racist stereotypes.

In the case of Indians of that time, America only knew us in our convenience store owner avatar and hence Apu – 20 percent Indian, 80 percent stereotypical Indian convenience store owner – was born.

“Bathroom is for customers only. Thank you, come again.”

The TV show Outsourced didn’t help our cause, either. Every tired Indian stereotype was thickly packed into the show – cows on roads, explosive diarrhoea from roadside food stalls, Indian support technicians faking Texan accents and Punjabi guys with homoerotic names. Yeah, maybe it was funny at times, but that’s only because it is hard to be completely unfunny when you’re literally being paid to be funny.

Why, oh why, brother Koothrappalli? Why would you set back our hard-earned cultural progress in such an insidious manner? Instead of exclaiming, “I swear to cow”, you could’ve said, “I swear to Tendulkar”.

Soon, American students began attending college with Indian buddies; some even shared living quarters with them. America discovered that there was more to being Indian than a funny accent and delicious food containing goat. (I explain it as an animal that is kind of like lamb but somehow contains more bones per capita.)

We were still eons from mainstream, but we’d shifted the needle just a little bit from exotic. And then came Rajesh Koothrappalli of The Big Bang Theory fame.

Koothrapalli is a character I’m truly conflicted about. On the one hand, I relate to the shyness and social anxiety disorder manifested by his character. Like Koothrappalli, I too was unable to speak to a member of the gentler sex before lubricating my vocal chords with some C2H5OH. But on the other hand, whenever he started to perpetuate a horribly trite Indian stereotype on the show, I had to turn off the TV and slap a puppy. An adorable puppy. Not one of those labradoodles.

Why, oh why, brother Koothrappalli? Why would you set back our hard-earned cultural progress in such an insidious manner? Instead of exclaiming, “I swear to cow”, you could’ve said, “I swear to Tendulkar”. It might have cost you some low information American viewership but in exchange you would’ve won over the entire sub-continent.

Koothrappalli took us down a few notches, but Indians have a way of clawing back. Today, American TV has new generation of desi characters more than willing to discard a traditional Indian identity in favour of a more culturally integrated one.

Mindy Kaling in The Office and The Mindy Project and Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation and Master of None were the first Indians to embrace the freedom of simply being humorous people of Indian origin with human quirks unrelated to their ethnicity. Their Indianness on TV never came through an accent or exaggerated stereotypical behaviour. So, if TV is any indicator, at this point in our history of amalgamation into America, we’re doing pretty well. We’re almost like any other guy, just with browner skin.

If Priyanka Chopra were a heroin-snorting double agent with a thirst for mass murder, we’d have hit a home run.

Courtesy: Quantico/ABC

As greater numbers of second- and third-generation Indians enter the American workforce, this much-desired “any-guyness” – a quality hankered for by any minority group in America – will have us onscreen in more diverse, eclectic professional roles. Maybe as educators, politicians, or cops.

Since Priyanka Chopra has cracked the FBI in Quantico, pundits are crowing about how we’re already there, but Alex Parrish’s innocence is what stops us from going to the next level. She’s mistaken for a terrorist but she’s not one. We should have rooted for her, because when a bastion of political correctness like American TV feels comfortable enough to portray a member of your minority ethnic group as an evil character on television, it means you’ve finally made it.

If Priyanka Chopra were a heroin-snorting double agent with a thirst for mass murder, we’d have hit a home run.

This article has been published earlier.

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