Indian people on TV

Aziz Ansari’s new series, Master of None, premiered on Netflix on Friday, November 6. It’s Saturday, November 7 and I’m currently on episode eight in a 10-episode series, having dedicated a significant portion of my precious weekend to this show. No regrets.

Image credit: IMDB

Image credit: IMDB

SPOILERS BELOW – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

So far, my favourite episode is ‘Indians on TV,’ which I was already looking forward to because of this Huffington Post article: Aziz Ansari Slams Unwritten Minority Casting Rules In New Netflix Series. Aziz’s comments in the article (about whether white people can connect with ethnic characters) reminded me of a conversation I had with an acquaintance a few weeks ago, in which he said he “[couldn’t] identify with “black shows”” (he is Caucasian).
To clarify, by “black shows” he was referencing shows with a majority black cast, such as those found on BET or some American networks.

I know he did not mean to offend…but what he said bothered me.

I’m an immigrant and a woman of colour (from Trinidad, of Indian heritage). I grew up in the GTA, and spent my impressionable teen years watching shows like The OC and Gossip Girl – which you could call “white shows,” I guess. After all, both of these shows are, on the surface, about one or more lower-middle class WHITE kids living among a lot of upper-class (PRIVILEGED) WHITE kids who throw wild parties, have oodles of spending money, receive very little parental supervision, and have a lot of sex in closed friendship circles of WHITE people (who did Serena van der Woodsen NOT sleep with in the Upper East Side? ANSWER: any man of colour — which is totally fine, may I add, but it could have been nice to mix it up a little).  Basically, the show was about a bunch of white kids, living a life of privilege. There was certainly no one who looked like me in these shows, and my lifestyle was a far cry from designer jewels, private parties and weekends in Tijuana (as I imagine is the case for most people). And yet I could understand the teen angst, the crushes, broken friendships, parental drama — because I didn’t think about the skin colour of the characters — I thought about their stories.

And I think this is what Aziz Ansari is pushing for in Master of None and specifically, the ‘Indians on TV’ episode — he wants people to focus on his characters’ stories and more generally, to think of ethnic characters as real people and not props. He deftly tackles the topic of racism, discussing minority/ethnic casting in mainstream television/movies, criticizing stereotypes such as “the cab driver with the Indian accent,” and addressing token racial and sexual diversity and unwritten quotas for characters “outside of the mainstream.”

There is even an exchange in which Aziz’s character, Dev, challenges a media company executive’s notion that a “mainstream” (READ: Caucasian) audience wouldn’t be able to relate to a show with a lot of racial diversity among the main characters. I have helpfully transcribed this dialogue below:

DEV: Why can’t there be two Indian people in the show? Why is it me or Ravi? Why can’t there be two?

JERRY DANVERS (media company executive): Ok, look I’ll be frank with you –- if I do a show with two Indian guys on the poster, everyone’s going to think it’s an “Indian” show. It wouldn’t be as…you know…relatable to a large mainstream audience.

DEV: Yeah but you’d never say that about a show with two white people. Every show has two white people, people don’t say that. People don’t watch True Detective and go “uh, there’s that “white detective show,”” you know?

JERRY DANVERS (media company executive):Ok but just to be clear, that’s not me — that’s the public.

My acquaintance seems to be a part of “the public” that Danvers references given his seeming inability to relate to shows with a largely black cast. But I hope that with growing representation (as we’re seeing on TV these days), he’ll change his mind and will look a little deeper into this genre defined by race, and appreciate the stories being told instead. While some of my white friends and acquaintances may have never had to/wanted to learn to identify with a story without seeing their own reflection in the characters, now might be a good time to start. The faces on TV and in movies are changing, and you might miss out on some great content if you don’t challenge yourself to look beyond your prejudices.

I’m glad that Aziz Ansari is addressing racism in his Netflix series. I think this is a sign that at least some people are ready for something different…like THREE Indian people in a show (as is the case in some episodes of Master of None)!

And if, like me, you were wondering what the awesome song during the ending credits of this episode was, it’s Jab chhaye mera jadoo by famed Indian songstress Asha Bhosle. Thank you Shazam!

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