By Kahini Iyer Aug. 23, 2020
Hasan Minhaj’s evolution into a brown cultural icon, who goes beyond the milieu of American comedians, came through the now-cancelled Patriot Act. For most Indian-Americans, Minhaj played the role of a kind of community nephew, up for proprietary censure and praise in equal measure.
“I remember calling out to my brother and my mom whenever I saw an Asian person on TV,” says former US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, on an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. He might have been speaking for Indians and desis around the world who would tune in to the American political comedy series on Netflix to watch Minhaj. So when the bomb dropped earlier this week that the streaming giant cancelled Patriot Act, we mourned the loss of one of our own as yet another casualty of 2020.
A comedian and satirist with family roots in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, Minhaj started out as a correspondent on The Daily Show. He came to prominence with the 2017 White House Correspondents Dinner – an annual free-speech tradition where the media and the president roast each other – where he did a sharp bit about the press losing credibility. Referencing the contentious relationship between the administration and journalists, Minhaj informed them that they now had minority status, and would have to be more perfect than ever to be taken seriously.
As if in answer to his own questions about the media, Patriot Act premiered the following year, created by Minhaj and producer/writer Prashanth Venkataramanujam. Over its two-year run, Patriot Act, with its energetic tone and wall of graphics, had become one of the few news shows that reaches brown audiences of all stripes, from right-wing boomers to South Asian millennials, NRIs and second-generation diaspora kids.
Minhaj is one of a few representative faces of the global desi community in both politics and entertainment.
The brown boy Indian-Americans love to hate
Even those who don’t like Minhaj can’t help but be fans. At one point, when he goes to interview Indian-origin voters, Minhaj is interrupted by a pugnacious right-wing uncle who berates him for being anti-national — and a few minutes later, asks him for a photo. Minhaj complies with characteristic good humour, shrugging into his role as a kind of community nephew, up for proprietary censure and praise in equal measure. There’s something about Minhaj’s wide-eyed incredulity, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s saying, that takes the sting out of even his most biting observations.
Minhaj’s evolution into a brown cultural icon who goes beyond the milieu of American comedians came through Patriot Act – a show that, in addition to two Peabody Awards, earned him a spot on last year’s TIME 100 most influential people in the world. Certainly, Minhaj is one of a few representative faces of the global desi community in both politics and entertainment. He kicked off Patriot Act tackling broad-interest topics that would find a desi following: an affirmative action case filed by Asian-Americans, Saudi Arabian autocracy, Chinese censorship, and American immigration policies under Trump.
But in its second season, Patriot Act dove into the murky waters of Indian politics with a segment on the 2019 general election. Naturally, Minhaj opens the episode by talking to a variety of uncles and aunties about his intentions, all of whom warn him against saying anything about the Indian government. Democracy is only for the powerful, insists one man, while another concerned elder urges him to go back to reporting on sneakers so he doesn’t get killed.
Minhaj forges ahead anyway, lampooning the Congress for its history of massive scams, as well as the criminality that permeates Indian politicians. He takes on the failure of BJP’s economic policies, pointing out that those who defend PM Modi for making an effort with demonetisation would never accept the same excuse if their kid came home with an A-. And with his deep dive into the RSS, Minhaj pulls no punches, all while pre-empting the inevitable backlash by referring to himself as a Muslim spy. Throughout the episode, Minhaj not only speaks to our cultural anxieties, but also uses our self-serious lack of humour against us for laughs.
Patriot Act, with its energetic tone, had become one of the few news shows that reaches brown audiences of all stripes.
A bad time to lose Patriot Act
It’s a line that Minhaj, with his multi-hyphenate Indian-Muslim-American identity, has mastered walking. And this empathetic acceptance of our collective absurdity is what allows Minhaj to cross it altogether. In the sixth and final season of Patriot Act which aired over the summer, Minhaj came into his own with a scathing episode on the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. Bereft of jokes and his signature grin, Minhaj takes aim at the anti-blackness, colourism, and political apathy in Asian-American communities.
Calling us out for being ready to dismiss racism as black and white, Minhaj points to the whole picture of the now-infamous scene: the shop-owner who called the police on George Floyd and the cop standing by while he was being killed by another officer were both Asians. We don’t get to reap the benefits of the struggle and sit on the sidelines, says Minhaj, not when we’ve left our own countries behind to escape these same injustices and inequalities.
Was this the Patriot Act at its most powerful, when Minhaj went from being our voice to our conscience? In this shrinking world of Trump Sarkar, Indian Matchmaking, and casteism lawsuits in Silicon Valley, it’s a bad time for the brown community to lose him.
At the Howdy Modi event in Texas last year, Minhaj was barred from entering even as PM Modi held him up as an example of Indian-American excellence. “We’re entrepreneurs! We’re comedians! We’re traitors to the motherland!” jokes Minhaj. Here’s hoping he can get us desis to keep confronting our own foibles on some other platform. For now, we bid farewell to a show that was truly for the culture.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.