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South Asian Treatment in Entertainment By Mahir Behl

Abstract

In recent decades, South Asian representation in the entertainment industry has been a more prominent issue. While there have obscene acts of racism in both casting from injustice done to Priyanka Chopra and character choice, especially cartoons, as we can see through “The Simpsons” and “Phineas and Ferb,” discrimination is on the decline. There are more shows and movies that actively seek South Asians for main roles rather than stereotypically racist supporting roles. A hallmark of better representation is seen through Hasan Minhaj’s keynote speech where he gets to speak in front of journalists about the state of the country. As a Muslim Indian son of an immigrant, by the fact that he got to speak and recevied positive reception shows the improvement in levels of racism in the industry.

What is the state/history of South Asian Representation in Hollywood?

When we think of our greatest films, when is the main character of South Asian descent? The only stars I can think of who had high grossing films were Kumail Nanjiani and Priyanka Chopra. Otherwise, there may be an Indian or Pakistani side character here and there in the shadowing a white main character. This is genuinely an interesting topic as, with no research done, I can say that representation is on the upswing especially as the aforementioned stars recently debuting in the United States. Other actors or those in the media I can think of are Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, and Dev Patel, starring in movies that usually do not necessarily reach the mainstream. Thus, I want to understand how South Asian Representation in both the media and Hollywood has evolved, where it currently stands, and what room for improvement still remains. Before I delve into how I will conduct my research, I will specify which parameters of research pique my interest. Firstly, I want to take note of any stereotypical roles that South Asians played both in history and now. In doing so, I will make case studies for the most popular films with South Asian actors. Furthermore, I would like to make some sort of timeline for South Asian involvement in order to map the evolving aspect of Hollywood and the media. Stand up comedy might also be a good reference, and some key figures in that field are Russell Peters and Hasan Minhaj. Another potential subtopic I can discuss is representation in the video game industry. In order to conduct all of this research, I will read academic articles on journal databases that tackle my research, especially of different biases, so I can understand all the different possible sides and takes on South Asian representation. In addition to scholarly articles, it would be crucial to look for primary sources - perhaps some interviews conducted by the South Asian actors themselves and key figures in entertainment.

Essay

My object of study is the 2017 White House Correspondents Dinner- where all news media sources gather around as a formality to commemorate the state of the country. The keynote speaker for the event is Hasan Minhaj, a Muslim comedian of South Asian descent. He satirically highlights the polarized social and political climate due to Donald Trump’s presidency. Hasan Minhaj opens up his speech by addressing the fact that he might get arrested for his speech. This is in part due to racism, but also because he is, and sometimes feels like an outsider, criticizing the fully white and racist cabinet and president. Throughout his speech he mentions how ironic it is that a South Asian Muslim is giving a speech on the behalf of the country. This is namely due to our racist cabinet and president. It is very important to note that it is very surprising that a South Asian would give a speech of this nature in our current political climate. This goes to show how South Asian representation in the media has been increasing. With Minhaj’s opportunity to speak in front of a big audience, especially comprising of people who have a lot of people in the media, Minhaj makes a great attempt and successfully notes minority struggles in our country, and his actions are very inspiring, and most certainly will set a precedent for the times to come. In the following images, I will delve into its role in South Asian Representation in the media.

When we look at our classic blockbusters, what do we see? Usually, it is a homogenous cast with the occasional person stereotyped into fulfilling an insignificant role. Among such people are South Asians. In history as time progressed one can see that South Asians never really took on major roles until recent years, and even then there is still a significant amount of discrimination against South Asians. We can see this phenomenon through interviews of prolific actors and actresses in the field, including Priyanka Chopra, Hasan Minhaj, and many others. From such study, one may acknowledge these trends in the industry, but as a matter of fact, the industry has been improving. As racism is slowly declining in our country, we can see that it is starting to grow apparent in Hollywood and the media.

General stereotypes in Hollywood undermined South Asian roles in movies and television, segregating South Asian people in society. There are several instances of where a minority South Asian is only hired to play a superficial role that lacks substance. For example, in the Simpsons, there has always been this character perpetuating these stereotypes: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Apu is one of the characters that is solely there for people to laugh at. He is only “funny” because he is Indian. His character has the stereotypical long name, and he speaks in a thick Indian accent despite living in the states for several years. Furthermore, he has a degree in computer science, he works a store similar to “7 eleven”, and was an illegal immigrant. Apu is seen to have absolutely no substance in terms of his personality, and the directors of the show pay no remorse for taking advantage of South Asian people. In having this character in the show, the directors dehumanize South Asians, and make a profit in hurting large groups of people that are no different from themselves.

Another deeply rooted racist source of “entertainment” is in Phineas and Ferb. This is a children’s show, at first glance, sounds very interesting an innocent. The show is essentially about two children who make fascinating inventions to fight an evil scientist trying to take over the world. However, if we analyze some of the supporting characters, we can get to the same conclusion we did with the outright offensive adult show “The Simpsons.” One of these characters is this one small Indian boy named Bajeet. Similar to Anu, he shares many similar characteristics. Bajeet is an elementary school student who is notoriously awkward, only does math problems in his free time, and his lineage has according to the show, been killed by tigers. It is significant to note that this show is supposed to be one that is family friendly. Yet, there seems to be a laughing stalk South Asian who embodies a culmination of all the Indian stereotypes, and that is what the directors presented to growing children throughout their childhood. Not only is racism rooted with shows for adults, but also for shows that cater to children. This results in teaching children very improper lessons about how to treat others. By having a character, Bajeet, that always gets bullied, namely for being Indian, the directors lack giving children proper life lessons about society. The directors of the show create a society that perpetuates a society of hatred rather than one of love.

Racism in entertainment has not only created cartoon monstrosities, but it has also affected numerous actors and actresses in the country. One of the most prolific South Asian actresses is Priyanka Chopra, and yet she has still faced discrimination throughout her career. Just recently she had an interview sponsored by InStyle, and she opened up about the discrimination she faced as an Indian women in the industry. She was auditioning for a movie role just two years ago and got rejected. The directors’ line of reasoning was that “she had the wrong physicality.” In other words, because of the color of her skin color she did not get the role. About the industry, she stated “It happens at the casting level. There are not enough meaty, strong lead roles for women where we don’t have to compromise on every level just to get the best job.” No matter what, there will be racism in the industry, and it could take many different shapes- whether one does not get the role, or they have to change something about themselves in order to obtain it.

While there is still outstanding racism in the industry, we should still be optimistic about the growth we have made in recent decades. There have been more shows and movies casting South Asians. For example, Master of None - a show that starred and was directed by Aziz Ansari brings light to the struggle being an immigrant, and received positive reception. This example leads me to my object of study: The White House Correspondents Dinner in 2017 with Hasan Minhaj. For some context, Hasan Minhaj is a comedian who has several specials and television shows, and among them, is the Patriot Act - a show where he discusses significant issues and unjust in our country. With such a bright personality, he shone in his keynote speech at the Correspondents Dinner - a dinner where all renowned journalists formally come together in order to celebrate the progress made in the country. However, in 2017, there was little celebration due to the political climate of the country. Despite the racism our political leaders exuded, the son of a Muslim Indian immigrant gave the keynote speech. In his speech, he highlights the progress the country has made by having a South Asian give such a significant speech, and continues by discussing his life being an immigrant and how the president created panic, but we as citizens must work together to ensure societal progress.

The struggle for South Asians is very complex. South Asians are in the mix of two polar opposite groups of people. Many see our society as this binary that distinguishes among white and black people. However, what about the people who do not identify with either group? While South Asians are considered the "model minority," this stereotype in of itself is racist, and treats them us as some sort of outcasts - rather than ordinary Americans. In the past, Asians in general (including South Asians) were barred from entering this country due to the Immigration act of 1924, facilitating the racism that has been fostering over the years. Finally, now that people are speaking out, people are realizing the very complicated societal structure in the United States of America. Tying this back to my topic, discrimination in the media is still very prominent, but we are on the upswing, and should continue to push for equality for everyone’s sake.

This is an image of Hasan Minhaj. He has a Netflix special, and due to his success, he was selected by Netflix to do a show. This show is the Patriot Act where he discusses topics that delve into serious topics in a satirical manner.
This is Priyanka Chopra. She is a very influential actress who has started in multiple shows and movies, including Quantico and Baywatch. She has pointed out across interviews and other sources that south asians are not treated fairly in the film and television industry. Including herself, as she lost a role in a film simply because she was Indian.
This is Mindy Kaling. She initially had a recurring role in the prominent show, The Office. After The Office ended, she starred in her own show The Mindy Project. She also spoke out supporting South Asian in the media.
This is an image of Hari Kondabolu. He is a prominant figure who has starred in multiple movies. He has been in interviews where he critiques the Simpson's depiction of Indian and other people of South Asian descent, and had many people in the media standing behind him.
This is Utkarsh Ambudkar. A prolific figure in the industry, commented about how the roles South Asians receive has been on the upswing and for the better.
This is an image of a South Asian child. Many would be quick to assume that he is a math wiz, showing how south asians have been associated with being a math wiz. Many prolific actors and actresses noted that initial roles were simply being a background stereotypical person who was insanely intelligent.
Another stereotype South Asians are associated with is being the 7 eleven worker. Consequently, roles in movies and shows are given to South Asians for being the stereotypical store clerk.
This is Aziz Ansari. He is a prime supporter of South Asian representation. He has several comedy specials on Netflix, and he has two seasons of a popular show known as Master of None.
This is a character in the Simpsons who completely fits the Indian Stereotype, Apu. Apu has been a mark of loads of controversy, completely polarizing the fans of the show, indicating much progress for the South Asian Community.
This is Kumail Nanjiyani. Kumail has starred as one of the primary characters in Silicon Valley. He also directed his hit movie, The Big Sick. The Big Sick showcased his South Asian identity, inspiring many and overcoming many racial barriers as a Pakistani.

Bibliography

ET CONTRIBUTORS. “View: One of the Main Reasons Why Indian-Americans Are Subjected to Racial Abuse in US.” The Economic Times, Economic Times, 7 May 2017, economictimes.indiatimes.com/nri/nris-in-news/indian-americans-in-us-find-themselves-in-an-increasingly-strange-situation/articleshow/58554714.cms. Accessed 23 Nov. 2019.

Priyanka Bansal. “ON THE FRONT LINES: South Asian Americans Need More Representation in Media.” The Daily Targum, 23 Jan. 2019, www.dailytargum.com/article/2019/01/south-asian-americans-need-more-representation-in-media. Accessed 24 Nov. 2019.

Proudfoot, Jenny. “Priyanka Chopra Gets Real about Losing Roles Because of Her Skin Colour.” Marie Claire, Marie Claire, 11 Apr. 2018, www.marieclaire.co.uk/entertainment/tv-and-film/priyanka-chopra-discrimination-590310. Accessed 24 Nov. 2019.

Reflection