What’s Behind “The South Asian Boom” On TV?

by Latoya Peterson

Mindy Kaling Office

Over at Slate, Nina Shen Rastogi points to the rise of South Asian characters on television. In an article titled “Beyond Apu: Why are there suddenly so many Indians on television?” Shen Rastogi examines the changing opportunities for South Asian actors:

Why are Indians suddenly the “it ethnicity,” as Ravi Patel put it to me?

This, too, is at least partially a function of changing demographics. More Indians in the fabric of American life means we’re more likely to be a source of inspiration for non-Indian writers, like the two Jewish guys from suburban New Jersey who wrote Harold and Kumar—the title characters are based on their friends. Reshma Shetty, who stars as Divya on USA’s hit dramedy Royal Pains, told me that her character was based on a Divya that creator Andrew Lenchewski grew up with on Long Island.

But according to Karen Narasaki, who heads the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, the rise in primetime Asians is also the result of advocacy. Her organization and its partners have been working with the networks to develop diversity initiatives for the past decade, ever since 1999′s infamously “whitewashed” primetime season, in which not a single freshman show had a leading minority character.

Narasaki’s group doesn’t track all the various Asian-American subgroups, so it’s hard to tell if Indians are rising in Hollywood at the expense of, say, Chinese and Koreans. But there are a few reasons why Indian actors might have more opportunities. America’s growing fascination with Bollywood—and relative ignorance of entertainment industries in other Asian countries—may be opening some doors. Narasaki notes that TV executives tend to have a mental barrier that prevents them from seeing Asians as “stars” who can carry shows. But “Hollywood is intrigued by Bollywood,” she says. It’s not so much that Los Angeles wants to start aping Bombay’s storytelling style, but when executives are thinking about diversifying their shows, the allure of Bollywood—and, more recently, the runaway success of Slumdog Millionaire—may mean that Indians seem more attractive than members of other Asian groups.

To float another, more radioactive theory: Are Indians getting a boost from America’s interest in the Middle East? Do Indian characters—and it does seem to be mostly Indians, as opposed to Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis, or Nepalis—function as what film actor Satya Bhabha jokingly called “diet Muslims”?

Whether or not Indian characters are a way of safely avoiding the specter of other, more “dangerous” brown people, the fact that South Asian actors can easily pass for Middle Easterners may very well be contributing to their professional development. Performance historian Brian Herrera theorizes that South Asian actors may have gotten a boost from the flurry of terrorist-type roles that followed in the wake of Sept. 11. A one- or two-episode arc as a featured character on, say, 24 would represent a solid credit line for a young actor, potentially opening the door to more interesting opportunities down the line. It’s a trend Herrera has noted with other minority groups, though in less-accelerated forms. “So many of the elder statesmen of Latino actors got their start doing gang stories in the ’80s,” he notes.

With the possible exception of Outsourced, there are no shows with true South Asian leads yet. It’s therefore hard to completely dismiss the sense that mere tokenism is at work here—that Indians are just the newest a la carte option for making TV casts more colorful. But the optimist in me notes that there’s an encouraging range of character types emerging.

Shen Rastogi brings up some major ideas within the course of her article – what’s the line between representation and tokenization? Does the success of one group in Hollywood have to come at the expense of another? If so many minority actors get their shot by playing to stereotypes, why are we still stuck in so many of the same stereotypes decades later? And even if we get more minorities on screen, does it mean that the writers will develop their characters the same way they will white characters? (It may be useful for us to go back and examine some of the plotlines on major shows, particularly the evolution of Tara on True Blood and the plot lines for Raj on The Big Bang Theory.)

Or, if we want to summarize all these ideas into one major question, how do we measure progress on television?