I was 10 years old when Slumdog Millionaire came out. I was too young to watch it due to its R rating, but I was old enough to be excited that Indian actors filled the main roles. I even share my last name with Dev Patel, the main actor in the movie. I watched it win eight Academy Awards in 2009, but it was not nominated in any acting categories. It has been 8 years since then, and I was so excited to see that Dev Patel has been nominated this year for an Oscar for Best Actor in the film Lion. But I could not remember the last time an actor of Indian descent had been nominated. In fact, according to Mic, the last time an Indian actor was nominated was 2004, when Ben Kingsley was nominated for House of Sand and Fog.
I have always been very lucky that there are countless films from India with strong leads, both male and female. Growing up in America, however, Indians are portrayed very differently on screen. A Buzzfeed Video in 2015 titled “Indians React to American Pop Culture Stereotypes” criticized the portrayal of Indians in American television shows, including several shows I have grown up watching, including The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. Raj Koothrapalli is portrayed as intelligent, yet incredibly awkward and seems to have an inability to find love. As one participant said when watching a few of Raj’s scenes, “It’s four geeks, and somehow the Indian is still the biggest loser.” In The Simpsons, Apu, the owner of Kwik-E-Mart, is portrayed with a stereotypical, exaggerated accent. Even when watching a comedy like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, I was frustrated that the Indian character, Pahud, is portrayed as creepy, with a shrine to his girlfriend in his room and a GPS tracker on her phone. In the words of Pari Mathur, a writer for the Huffington Post, “We need to unite and tell the world who the real Indian-American community is, otherwise we will always be portrayed in this laughable and negative ecosystem and won’t be able to grow as one of the largest minority groups in America.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Indians are the third largest Asian American group, yet they are represented poorly in Western media. Things are changing, however, especially in the last few years. I am so proud to have Indian role models on American screens, with people including Mindy Kaling, who writes and produces her own show, The Mindy Project; Aziz Ansari, a comedian and star of his own show on Netflix, Master of None; Priyanka Chopra, whom I have admired since childhood, with the ABC show Quantico; and Hasan Minhaj, a comedian and senior correspondent on The Daily Show. My ten-year-old self could not have imagined all the people of Indian descent on American television shows and movies. Dev Patel may only be the third Oscar nominee of Indian descent, but actors like him are paving the way for more diversity in the future.