While watching ‘Gravity’ the other day, I realized something. The main characters were all white… and brown. I then realized that brown as the color of on-screen diversity wasn’t such a new concept. Remember Ranjit in ‘How I met your Mother’? Or Rajesh Koothrappali in ‘Big Bang Theory, Fez in ‘That 70’s show’ and Aziz Ansari in ‘Parks and Recreation?’ And then there are many guest characters as well, like ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Rules of Engagement’. And although unrelated to this post, let’s not forget the many brown stand-up comedians who have made it big.
My first thought was that it’s fascinating how shows/movies about all walks of life think that Indians (or people from that general region) are now an integral part of their lives. And they don’t seem to mind it too much. I take part credit on behalf of my brethren, because we truly do our best to fit in. Although we may step on your toes in lines, we try not to do that culturally. Part of it is our cultural conditioning. Most Indians are partly proud and partly uncomfortable about their heritage. The slight inferiority complex means that we adjust to our host’s culture, and we adjust to our immigrants’ cultural differences too. This makes us excellent immigrants and excellent hosts to immigrants at the same time.
But there’s a certain cultural stereotype that the media has boxed us into:
- Brown means brown: All Indians on TV are just the right shade of mocha, although we commonly range from caramel to espresso. All women are especially dark mocha, have long straight black hair and are composed, naïve, domesticated and have arranged marriages.
- Thank you come again: All Indians on TV have a specific, comical way of speaking, something that is exaggerated and actually spoken by only a percentage of real Indians.
- Social placement: Indians are generally shown as belonging to two sections of society—either as a highly educated nerd (with a funny accent) or a gas station/grocery store/taxi owner (with a funny accent).
If cultures were a book, then we are comic strips. Most Indians portrayed on screen are good-humored, somehow amusing (mostly because of the accent) and get to say very little in the screenplay. It is mostly a good thing, as all our tags are mostly positive and shows amiable acceptance by the local community. Maybe that’s why we seem to be gaining on the other overdone on-screen cultural stereotypes .
Before my fellow countrymen get all riled up about me accepting our social stereotype, may I remind them of how we treat our own cultural differences? Seen any Bollywood movies? Or Mollywood, Kollywood, etc etc etc? Let me highlight some salient stereotypes:
- All South-Indians are ‘Madrasis’. Madrasis are dark, have a funny accent and are in general, the jokers of the movie. Madrasi women are naïve, have long black hair and are domesticated. You got it, the Hollywood stereotype for Indians is the Bollywood stereotype for South Indians.
- In South Indian movies, North Indians mostly wear a turban, speak comically rough Punjabi and frequently say ‘Balle Balle’, and are in general, the jokers of the movie.
To be fair, contemporary Indian movies have tried to move away from this. But movies cater to real people, and cultural stereotyping is real and sometimes not funny. Just a few weeks ago, I was called a Madrasi by a friend, and I shot back, “You’re a Bihari!” Of course, both the action and reaction were outdated and prejudiced. But it happened, and it’s not uncommon.
But the point stands, we handle our own cultural differences by poking fun at them, maybe other cultures have picked up on it too.
Nevertheless, it is much better to carve a humorous niche for yourself than a violent or scary one. As we integrate deeper into the cultures where we now belong, it will go a long way into promoting enriching cultural exchanges. Never mind the media, the people of the world already know there’s more to Indian culture than Yoga, Kamasutra and Ayurveda. Soon (hopefully) the media will reflect that too.
Until then, who’s your favorite Brown?