As i have mentioned in the previous article, in recent years Indian origin people are entering in to diverse sectors. They are now many prominent financial experts, lawyers, politicians, media persons, doctors, entrepreneurs etc.
Out of them, the Indian origin comedians have emerged as the most potent actors engaged in changing the image of India and Indians. This article tells you who they are and why that is so.
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” ― Mel Brooks
He is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon(if you can vocalize it, you get a cookie) from The Simpsons. One of the most racist portrayals of brown skinned desis. He is shown as the “effete cornershop owner with fractured English, excess fertility, bizarre religious practices, illegal immigration status and a penchant for cheating customers“. To make it worse, the voice actor for Apu is Hank Azaria, a Greek-American doing a brown accent.
I am not being intolerant when I say I am offended by this character. Apu character is equivalent,to say, an Indian film characterizing a ‘typical’ American male as a beer binging, about-to-die-of-obesity, white supremacist. The Simpsons creators might justify it by saying that they are also caricaturing white(yellow) characters as well, in the show. But you see, living in a white majority country makes it difficult to stereotype whites, due to availability of contrary information all around them. Americans(and other western countries) for decades got any little information they cared about Indians, from this Apu character. There was no alternate narrative available for over two decades.
Still Apu’s character is far better than the monkey brain eating Maharaja in Indiana Jones and the Temple of the doom(I don’t understand how any Indian can have respect for Steven Spielberg after watching this overtly racist movie).
The harm-them shame
Some may say, this is just a harmless joke. These people do not realize how comedy and art has been used for perpetuating stereotypes since centuries. For example anti-semitism is blatant in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, where Shylock(a Jew) has been characterised as shrewd, rigid and greedy in contrast to the genial, good-natured and forgiving Christian characters in the play.
Our brains create, what are called schemas to categorize information about the world around us. People who are exposed to only stereotypical depiction of a whole nation through their favourite comedy show, will naturally come to hold inaccurate schemas. People’s behaviour is fundamentally affected by these faulty schemas including their beliefs, expectancies and emotions towards other nations and cultures. Also we do not always act on our stereotypes consciously, most of the biases we hold are implicit and we deny any existence of such biases, though our behaviour is affected by them.
There are many negative effects emanating from this phenomenon. For example, we are living in the age of Big science, where scientists and universities belonging to different countries work in collaboration on a single project by pooling their resources. Indian universities are looking to work on joint projects(at CERN, space programmes, nuclear fusion technologies etc), with foreign scientists, this can only happen if they trust us and have faith in our capabilities. When western scientists’ decisions are unconsciously biased in thinking that Indians are incompetent and corrupt due to the negative image of India in media, our plans get frustrated. Another example could be the slumdog millionaire effect-where tourism to India decreased based on the publicity of poverty in India through the film. US sitcom Outsourced showed Indian BPO firms, as set in some villages with cows roaming around the offices, with diarrhea causing food and matchbox sized homes. Even British empire historians might have been nicer and less stereotypical and less racist about India than Outsourced. If this is the image that is being perpetuated in US about India, why would any one want to come to India and do business in this “horrible” place. It also directly effects indian outsourcing industry because the image being projected is that the outsourcing firms are being run by some child-like, incompetent & silly Indians.
Also, somehow we do not see a funny racist as a racist. Through a comedian, a stereotype gets mainstreamed more easily, It becomes ‘just a joke’ which needs to be taken in our ‘stride’, its like joking that women are bad drivers without any proof of only women being bad at driving, I think the Saudis who banned women from driving would get along well with these jokers. And it gets difficult to object to a racist joker as you would be labelled as a free speech denier, as intolerant or as a humorless person(it is a far worse insult).
Extreme effects of stereotypes include prejudice and discrimination of the ‘other’ group members. Sometimes it leads to physical violence as well, case in point being 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, USA where a white supremacist killed 6 people and shot himself to death, Though, such extreme views are reserved for our middle eastern cousins. Indians are mostly lampooned about 3Cs- cow, curry and coliform.
Another harm of mainstreaming stereotypes is ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’. When people are labelled as possessing some characteristics and society expects them to behave in a certain way, people often act in accordance with those labels and expectations. This in turn validates the label/stereotype. If a Dalit kid is labelled as incompetent in studies by his teachers, he begins to feel incompetent and loses his self-efficacy which leads to bad performance, this in turn validates the label.
Cometh the desi comedian
The previous generations of immigrants were happy to be wallflowers minding their own business and ignoring any racism directed towards them. Some were just happy about mentioning of anything related to India in films or TV, which made them blind to racism embedded in those messages.
But their kids who grew up in an environment where south Asians were largely negatively stereotyped and so had faced bullying and discrimination because of these portrayals. They are now entering high profile jobs, including comedy. They are offering an alternate positive narrative about India and Indians. The encouraging thing about these comedians is that they wear their Indian identity on their sleeves proudly. They are comfortable with who they are and are ready to engage and carve a niche in the entertainment industry.
Russell Peters who was bullied in school by his racist seniors, took up comedy as a defence mechanism and turned his rage into something positive. Russel peters is the first brown guy to make it ‘big’ and made the audience laugh with him and not laugh at him. He is a shrewd observationist and has mastered the art of finding humour in very ordinary settings of life. He exposes shortcomings of humans in every culture which makes him connect with a large global audience. His insights in to the quirks of every culture shows that even if different cultures may not be similar, they are at least equally weird.
Russell talks about stereotypes:
The famous youtuber Lily Singh aka Superwoman is a Punjabi-Indian Canadian. Through her 3 million worldwide subscribers, she introduces a whole set of audience to the experience of being a daughter of an immigrant ‘brown’ family. There are a lot of insights to be gained about different cultures by reading the comments under her videos. Girls(80% of her subscribers) from as diverse countries as Mexico and Japan; Nigeria and Russia commenting that they had similar experiences with their moms and families shows that we have more in common with other countries than we recognize. She introduces tens of thousands of her fans to Indian culture and bollywood through her videos.
There was a huge spike in the number of youtube views for the ‘Subha Hone na de’ song used in this video, many of the viewers having their first bollywood experience.
The Mindy project is the first sitcom in American TV history to have a desi person in a lead role. The adorable Mindy Kaling is its writer, producer and director. At a time when countries around the world are denying their daughters(Malala) basic rights like education, Mindy Kaling has been named as the Glamour women of the year 2014 and described as every girl’s BFF. This projects an image of a culture having progressive family values. Interestingly, she does not dwell in to the subject of the experiences of brown girls growing up in America, instead her life is shown to be similar to any other American girl. She finds jokes not in ethnicity but in situations and characters which makes her more relatable to girls of all colour. This reduces prejudices and negative expectations between different racial groups.
There are many other equally funny desi comedians whom you can check out and support. Kal Penn whom you all know from Harold & Kumar series was deeply disturbed during his teens by the negative Indian stereotypes in Hollywood movies like Temple of Doom which goaded him to work against this trend and became the first Indian-American to play a major character on Hollywood screens. Aziz Ansari of Parks and recreation fame- the cool thing about Aziz is that, even though he is proud of his identity, his jokes does not revolve around the Indian immigrant experience nor does he do the accent to get laughs. You may not have heard of Hari Kondabolu, he is more a social critic like George Carlin than a comedian, but he has some epic observations about history and society. UK had been more welcoming to South Asian community than US, this could be because, the percentage of desi population in UK is around 3 times that of in US and also colonial guilt may be? Check out Goodness Gracious me of BBC, a early hilarious takedown of Indian stereotypes in Britain. The Daily Show by Jon Stewart, the most influential fake news show on earth employs two Indian comedians as correspondents- the very funny Aasif Mandvi and Hasan Minhaj. There are many other unmentioned Indian comedians achieving success worldwide.
All these comedians and actors may not take on stereotypes directly, but their presence in high profile entertainment industry and acting in characters like astrophysicists(Kunal Nayyar), electronic media experts(Dev Patel in News Room) and private investigators(Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife) makes it difficult to pigeonhole Indians in to taxi drivers and doctors.
The only thing that’s missing now is a bad ass Indian actor in a hollywood action movie, chewing tobacco, blowing stuff up for no apparent reason and killing people randomly. Just to show that we could be badass too.
There are two spin off effects of these comedians. One is the blooming domestic stand up scene in India. They provided inspiration and instilled self belief into youtubers like AIB, East india comedy and professional Indian comedians like Cyrus Braocha(his The week that wasn’t is a cheap imitation of Daily Show).
And the other effect is the redefinition of beauty. Beauty for most part is a social construct and in today’s world it is defined by what media deems to be the perfect beauty. For example, evolutionary process has made men attracted to ‘healthy’ women with wide hips(can produce healthy babies), but in recent years the size-zero, anorexic looking girls are being branded as the ideal body figure, which most men i know, think is ridiculous! There is also a bias in people which goes like this: ‘what is beautiful is successful and what is successful is beautiful’. Combining these two concepts we can say that, when more number of successful brown people enter entertainment industry with greater visibility, the “ideal beauty” image will undergo a change.
This epic rant by Hasan Minhaj is a great example of how the new age Indian comedians are taking down stereotypes through sharp wit
I wish John Oliver makes his next ‘Why is this still a thing’ segment on Apu from The Simpsons.
I have to clarify that apart from USA, Canada and UK to some extent, I have very little knowledge about what goes on in the media of other countries But as these shows have immense popularity worldwide, my views may have considerable validity.
If you are living in other countries where there are other great desi comedians breaking stereotypes, please share with us in comments.