Like many of the first generation Indian-Americans, I have waited and hoped for more representation of us in the arts. I’ve always been into film and comedy and wanted us to be more than just the comic relief, or the token with zero lines. I’ve grown up watching “Saturday Night Live” and I’ve dreamt of being the first Indian person to host but only ever thinking of it as a dream. And now Aziz Ansari is living that dream as he hosts SNL this weekend.
As a kid, I remember watching and thinking it would be spectacular so see someone who looked like me as a host or cast member. I wish someone could fill that spot not just once, but it would be the norm to have more of us in that capacity. “Saturday Night Live” and “MadTV” (RIP) had all kinds of cast members throughout the years but I still couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t diverse enough. It did not start with Aziz Ansari nor will it end with him, and we will continue to fight to be seen. I, myself, have dreamt about being on the show and have been motivated to explore the comedy world by taking Improvisational theatre and sketch writing classes.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand why my parents felt the need to point out every “brown” person they saw on TV or in a movie. I didn’t understand what a big deal it was to see people like us, representing us in positive ways. South Asian performers like Aziz have shown me that it’s possible and better yet, has shown my parents that everyone starts from somewhere. While it is always exciting to see an Indian-American in a primetime TV show, they have also had to have that conversation with their parents.
Through the entertainment world and the media, we, as South Asians, were trained to think the world was black or white and that only black people were oppressed. They had much bigger problems than us so no wonder we were pushed to the sidelines when it came to talking about equality. Even on our television sets, we were watching “Family Matters” and “Boy Meets World,” so we got the best of both worlds. We had BBC Asia so we had our Bollywood, too. There wasn’t a need for us to be on American television. We knew we existed and that’s all that matters, right? WRONG.
The only representation we had was Hank Azaria playing a convenient store owner, Apu, who had an impossibly long last name that no one could pronounce, on the beloved show, “The Simpsons.” The show has great writing, and I won’t say anything bad about the show, but I always wonder what the conversation was between the masterminds of creating this character and if they knew it was so controversial that they wouldn’t dare cast an actual South Asian male or if they didn’t think there was anyone willing to play the part.
Ever since I could remember being in school, I would get teased about worshipping cows, having a red dot on my forehead, being a vegetarian, and not belonging in this country. Every day I would have to remind everyone, I have never prayed to a cow, I’ve never wore a red dot on my forehead, I eat hotdogs and pepperoni pizza and was born in Manhattan, NY. I felt I was always put into a box. I wanted to break out of that box but didn’t know how. I wanted to be in entertainment, (still do) and not be considered “white-washed.”
I always felt the need to justify that just because Bollywood wasn’t my favorite genre and my family doesn’t go to India every year that I’m not Indian and just because I like rock music and “Saturday Night Live” does not make me a wannabe white person. It has been hard to figure out what was enough for myself instead of thinking about what was enough for everyone else. I have lots of support in my life and I will never be what others want me to be, so as long as I can be happy with myself, I will feel true success.
Aziz Ansari is someone who is relatable and someone who is in their own league. From watching Human Giant videos to seeing him perform at Madison Square Garden, he is defying all odds in a world that wants to shy us away from the public eye unless we play into the stereotypes they want us to be.
I felt the same way when I saw Kal Penn in “American Desi,” to his own movie franchise, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” WITH ANOTHER MINORITY LEAD. I felt the same way when Mindy Kaling was writing for one of my favorite tv shows, “The Office,” to having a small part, to an actual story line and directing episodes, and being in Blockbuster movies to creating and starring in, “The Mindy Project”. The list goes on and on from Manish Dayal playing a short-lived love interest with cancer in “90210″ to then starring with Om Puri and Helen Mirren in “The Hundred-Foot Journey” to Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone making the transition from Bollywood to Hollywood.
These big moves from South Asian entertainers are coming but there is still so much more we can do and be in the arts to show the world we’re more than just the kids you wanted to cheat off of in Math class.
I want to show some more love to Ansari for a minute. I have yet to mention his well-deserved Emmy Award for writing with nominations for acting and directing for his show, Master of None. He was the first South Asian person to even be nominated for a lead in a television series. In this show he created and stars in, he talks about the hustle of an Indian-American male in NYC trying to make a name for himself, while the world still wants to define him and keep him in the box that he’ s been out of longer than he was in it.
Aziz Ansari means so much more than an entertainment figure to me. He is someone who I WANT to represent me, even though that is not in his job description and I feel he has done that, and done it damn well. I am not about idolizing celebrities because they are, in fact, people just like us. I want to think of him as motivation rather than someone who should be worshipped. He has accomplished so much and hosting “Saturday Night Live” is in no way the end.
It is so inspiring to see him and so many others follow their dreams while positively representing us and proving that we’ve been here, we’re still here and we’re not going anywhere. With this, I thank you, Aziz, for being more than just an entertainer and I hope our paths cross soon.
Tiffany is from the metro-Detroit area and has been in the Midwest her whole life. Her day is job is a legal assistant and her passions include Improv, writing, and film. She is one-half of the podcast, Chai Tea Party, where they explore taboo topics in the South Asian community through storytelling.
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix
Over the past few weeks we’ve all seen Mindy Kaling shoulder the blame for misrepresenting the South Asian diaspora in her work. I want to expose us to the flip side. She’s not “Indian enough” for some in our communities and “not American enough” for mainstream television and media. But I don’t know a single South Asian living abroad who doesn’t feel this dissonance. We’re a generation born to parents who strived to stay connected to their homeland but knew they had to assimilate to survive. Many of us got lost in the mix. I definitely did. And from the looks of it, Kaling did too.
I feel like I’ve oscillated between these two extremes all my life. I’ve had moments of code-switching — performing as a white version of myself, melting into the groups around me. And moments of being a “coconut” (or an “oreo” depending on where you come from) — suddenly donning an accent as if Hindi was my first language. It wasn’t conscious. It also wasn’t fully unconscious.
It wasn’t until I watched Netflix’s“Never Have I Ever” as a 35-year-old mother of two that I realized what teenage Ambika was up against. Still wearing tank tops in secret, while girls my age had moved on to the midriff-baring trend of the early 2000s. Not thinking it was okay to explore my sexuality. Not seeing that sometimes I knew what was better for me than my parents did. Not understanding that it was okay to expand my romantic interests beyond the few Indian boys I knew. And then I rewatched “The Mindy Project” while on maternity leave with my second kid. And I ate it up.
I rewound dialogue as Dr. Lahiri got engaged, left a man who lost his drive, fell in love with the unexpectedly handsome curmudgeon, got pregnant, learned to mother, and found a new version of herself. She addressed her pregnant body insecurities on-screen (in “What to Expect When You’re Expanding — brilliant!). She grappled with her ambitions in the face of motherhood. She owned who she was when most of us were taught not to. She dated outside of her race. Her audacity and levity gave me so much oomph at a time when I needed it the most.
Art comes from lived experience. And when individuals reflect their life back to the masses through art, it’s a tenuous balance. Comedians in particular have to toe a fine line between hyperbole and reality, having the paradoxical job of speaking the truth (the dark truth, often), and simultaneously making people laugh.
Even though I didn’t speak Spanish — my parents don’t speak Spanish — early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ‘ay, mija.’ My mom doesn’t call me ‘mija.’ My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, ‘hey, girl!’ She talks like me. You know what I mean?
This is the inherent paradox that exists in Velma as well. Kaling, as she often does, takes her own experiences as a young Indian girl growing up against the backdrop of white America, and amplifies them. And now, Kaling is a grown, Indian woman whose career is evolving against the backdrop of an America, too.
Critics across different racial groups frequently talk about “the representation trap.” Even if a minority group is represented in a piece of art, literature, film, or television, the manifestation of that group is still filtered through the white gaze. In Ismail Muhammed’s New York Times piece “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap,” he says:
Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible.
The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience?
Let’s not forget that many of us (or maybe all of us?) came up in a society that devalues women, and horrifically devalues people of color. Let’s not forget that the majority of executives across every field still don’t look like us (if by chance you’ve forgotten, read this piece byRuchika Tulshyan). Let’s not forget that when people are introduced to something foreign and unknown to them, their default is to reject it (again, if you’ve forgotten, read about “the mere exposure effect” and racism).
I’m unsure how Kaling has inherited the immense responsibility of representing all of the South Asian American diaspora? And is then being criticized for her representation of it. Third-generation South Asians are very different from second-generation, who are very different from first-generation. Our identities and how we fit into American culture, mainstream media, and business, are still forming as we speak. We are not a monolith.
And plenty of men have done exactly what Kaling is being criticized for, without anywhere near the same level of criticism. All men I (hopefully, we) love.
Riz Ahmed has taken on roles in which his race isn’t the central focus. Hasan Minaj doesn’t get criticized when he uses stereotypical accents to represent South Asians or for using politics as a launch pad for his content. We don’t hate on Kumail Nanjiani when he suddenly gets a six-pack, even though he also once played a nerd. I loved when Aziz Ansari went to Italy to make pasta and didn’t make it Indian.
Why are we tearing down one of the only women in America who is working to showcase South Asian culture and people? Because she uses humor and caricature? Because she’s not putting herself in the mindset of the type of Indian person who has learned to thrive at the intersection of their upbringing and their environment? Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist!
It’s not on Kaling to represent every dimension of this diaspora. She’s done her job.
I’m a proud, second-generation, Indian American woman, married to an Indian American man, with two Indian American children. I was nerdy just like Kaling. I had arm hair just like Devi. I pined after white boys in my teen years just like Bela from the HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too. And Kaling is an absolute inspiration to me.
I see a South Asian woman who chose to have children on her own. Whose career, post-children, skyrocketed. Who committed herself and her craft to tackle the most deep-rooted stigmas of South Asian culture — mental health, sex, and interracial relationships — while still honoring the way it manifested in her life.
It’s now our job to get out into the world and dimensionalize our cohort. Show the world what us supposed “ABCDs” have grown up and done; who we’ve become and what we’ve accomplished.
It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”
We still exist in a house of cards. Why are we kicking the building blocks of our own home?
I’ll leave you with this quote from Kaling herself:
People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.
I hope this woman never gets discouraged. We need her in more ways than one.