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Being Indian in the Eyes of the West

Indian representation in Western pop culture has always been a matter of conflict.When it comes to the representation of characters, stereotypes shown and theportrayal of India as a culture and lifestyle raises certain challenges for influencersand icons of mixed backgrounds in a professional capacity.

Reinforcement of the Eurocentric views regarding the ‘Orient’ and South Asianculture begins from a young age, with cartoons like Phineas and Ferb portrayingBaljeet as the ‘nerdy and mellow’ character, or Apu from The Simpsons portrayed inthe classic stereotypical manner of having a nagging wife, struggling to balance jobsand family, and so on. Not only this sort of humour promotes a culture of ‘The Other’,dichotomising behaviour of people from different races in the minds ofimpressionable young children, it also has seen to impact the children who a part ofthe community, creating an environment to internalise the said stereotypes.

The new age pop culture does seem to progress in terms of allowing higherrepresentation, especially in major roles and positions, even so on a tokenisticmeasure to increase ‘diversity’, it becomes imperative to realise the need for genuineicons and influencers, instead of the usual faces seen everywhere. Instances ofinfluencers capitalising on their identities have been criticised by viewerseverywhere, be it Lilly Singh or Superwoman reinforcing stereotypes of ‘typicalIndian parents’ or the portrayal of characters such as Devi and her family, in therecent show Never Have I Ever; essentially work of icons having mixedbackgrounds.

Reviews of such shows usually include critical praise for the representation ofdiverse characters and for higher diversity, however, they fail to take intoconsideration the complexity of said diversity. These are raised by critics belongingto the very backgrounds, in terms of seeing only a ‘Savarna’ representation, rigidsexuality, exaggeration of accents, and other typical stereotypes in education andoccupation; where Indians are portrayed to be ‘brainy’ and mostly are found workingin fields of engineering or medicine, as seen in popular shows like the Big BangTheory, in the case of the character Raj.

Movies and shows placed in the Indian context, by Western creators, tend to bedominated by a certain perspective already prevalent in the industry; reflecting onlythe lower echelons of the Indian society due to relevance, as seen in Slumdog Millionaire, or the perceived culture of spirituality as the very essence of Indianculture, as seen in Eat, Pray, Love. Here, it becomes significant to emphasise on theobsessive nature of the Western industry to place primary focus on the slums ofIndia or the alternative being a culture of spirituality and the ‘exotic’ aspect of theIndian lifestyle; both sides being seen in not only movies but also in music videossuch as ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ by the band, Coldplay.

Keeping in mind these challenges to explore the tenets of Indian representation,inspiration can be found in the work of icons and influencers, who work towardsreclaiming the space of inclusivity and diversity by bridging the gap of genuine andaccurate portrayal and the Eurocentric outlook on the same. Influencers like Alok VMenon can be an example of propagation of one’s own culture without the tendencyto capitalise on the same, or work by Mindy Kaling in her show ‘The Mindy Project’which revolves around her acceptance of not being ‘Indian enough’ or ‘Americanenough’, acknowledging her identity as an American-Indian and living up to it, or theportrayal of her brother quitting his ‘Ivy League-level education’ to pursue a moreregular career in the music industry.

Recognising the significance to promote a balanced and accurate assimilation of thecomplex identities of local Indians and Indians in the West, it becomes important toprovide the required space to genuine representation and creators andacknowledge their struggle to amalgamate qualities of each culture and identity theychoose to portray.

With shows like Sex Education, Sense 8 and Outsourced and movies like Lion andThe Hundred-Foot Journey, cultural assimilation and representation becomes clearerwith regards to acknowledging certain differences, while depicting them without abiased outlook; making it necessary to avoid internalisation of stereotypes andfeelings of being different, while simultaneously placing importance on the value ofthe culture and the traditional roots. This aids in creating a balance not only in themindsets of the viewers but also on how the Western entertainment industry viewsIndia.

Gayatri Ahuja

Delhi South '21

Just another day-dreamer.
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