This post was originally published via Reappropriate.co and republished here with permission.
Just a couple weeks before the season two premiere of “Quantico,” Priyanka Chopra (obviously) made the interview rounds, and of course, we saw tons of our friends sharing Refinery29’s splashy new profile of the 34-year-old star.
Unfortunately for Chopra, people weren’t posting about her stunning photos or their excitement over the return of the show. Instead, there was plenty of side-eye towards her views on diversity in Hollywood.
After reading the piece, I immediately reached out to my friend Asha Sundararaman, so that we could have one of our epic G-chat conversations breaking the piece down. An edited version of that conversation is below.
Lakshmi: Asha, what was your first thought once I sent you the new Priyanka profile?
Asha: That I wish “Quantico” were a better show!
Lakshmi: Don’t we all.
Asha: No actually, it was about the headline. When you say something like “I don’t want a label” (and yes, that might just have been the headline writer), you’re usually missing something fundamental about today’s global culture and the way it operates.
Lakshmi: Yes, I’m instantly wary of any celeb who tries to play that ‘don’t put me in a box’ game.
Lakshmi: Also, there’s the actual structure of the piece itself. We begin right with a reference to Hindu goddesses. “For eons, women have been told how to be or think or dress,” the quote reads. “I come from a part of the world where this debate is so heated, especially because we’re a country that has goddesses. We pray to women. But at the same time, we prey on them.”
She could have taken a moment to talk about the Indian feminists who have been working to change this. Or mention the current movement to police the way Muslim women dress in Europe and the outrage about that. Instead, we don’t get much.
Asha: I’m also wary about people who invoke Hindu goddesses. Because there are so many problematic stories involving women in Hinduism.
Lakshmi: Yes. Also, every time I see that I’m like INDIA IS SUPPOSED TO BE A SECULAR DEMOCRACY, FOOLS.
Asha: Also true. India does not have goddesses. Hinduism has goddesses. They are not one in the same.
Lakshmi: And it just doesn’t help when perhaps the most well-known Indian celebrity in the states is pushing that Hindu goddesses equals India narrative.
Asha: Way to play into stereotypes, Priyanka!
Lakshmi: Well, Priyanka’s career trajectory has been interesting in that she has been playing those stereotypes to her benefit for a while. Remember that ‘Exotic’ song? One of the lyrics was “I’m feeling so exotic/ I’m hotter than the tropics…”
Asha: I don’t actually.
Lakshmi: Oh! Well, you missed a treat!
Asha: Sounds like it!
There was something else that struck me. When she was talking about “Quantico” and Alex Parrish, she says she speaks, thinks, and looks Indian.” What does that even mean?
Lakshmi: This is a good time to mention that like Alex Parrish, you’re also biracial. What did you think of the portrayal Alex’s identity?
Asha: It seemed super muddled to me. In full disclosure, I didn’t finish the season. I got bored.
Lakshmi: You’re definitely not alone. Just from the feedback I’ve gotten from my recaps I think a lot of people stopped watching because the storyline was too hard to follow or it just didn’t capture their interest.
Asha: But the whole interview seemed to just stress Priyanka’s distance from the American experience.
Lakshmi: I know the quote that got both of us to raise our eyebrows was the one where she says she’s not a person of color. Let’s take a second to break it down more fully. “I don’t like the phrase ‘woman of color.’ I feel like that puts women in a box,” she says. “I’m a woman, whether I’m white, Black, brown, green, blue, or pink — whatever. I think we need to start looking beyond that. It would be a big win for women, period.”
Anytime someone starts ROY G BIV-ing I stop reading. Green! Blue! Pink!
Asha: Hahaha. I think it just illustrates the disconnect between people who grow up as minorities and people who grow up as the majority. She has the luxury of not thinking of herself as a “woman of color” because in India she’s part of the majority culture and her time in Hollywood is just a lark of sorts. So she gets to disconnect from American reality.
Lakshmi: Definitely. And Priyanka, as a light-skinned, high caste person has known a sort of privilege in India that most Indian women will never know. Of course, she doesn’t care about color! She has the color everyone has always cared about.
Asha: Exactly! And now as a Hollywood star, she still doesn’t face what most people go through on a regular basis.
Lakshmi: Reading that quote also made me realize that she probably completely didn’t understand why people were upset a few years ago when she was cast as Mary Kom – the Indian Olympic boxer from Assam who has a distinctly Northeast Indian appearance.
Asha: Nope, she has no idea. I couldn’t believe they cast Priyanka. That was ridiculous.
Lakshmi: When the casting was announced, Quartz did a great list of actresses from the region who would have been better picks.
Asha: It’s true that Bollywood is just as exclusionary as Hollywood. The regional film centers barely make up for them.
Lakshmi: Yes, and anytime a role requires you to don “prosthetic eyelids” it’s just best to run away as fast as possible.
Asha: Haha. And it just plays into India’s vision of homogeneity. When the biggest film industry in the world is only made up of a certain look, it’s easy to forget the diversity of the subcontinent.
Lakshmi: Definitely. Part of the reason I wanted to do this post with you is that I know that we both have had a lot of conversations about how some immigrant members of our families don’t seem to understand race in the U.S. and how Priyanka’s quotes really embodied that. What do you wish you could tell her before her next interview?
Asha: Open an American history book. Was that too mean?
Lakshmi: Not mean, but not likely?
Asha: Probably not.
Lakshmi: The ‘don’t call me a WOC’ bit was really weird because her show has tons of really great WOC characters. Nimah and Raina were game changers in the way Muslim women were portrayed and Miranda is just fantastic.
Asha: This is off-topic, but there’s also this quote: “I’m not, by nature, physical,” Chopra says. She doesn’t train or keep a regimented gym schedule. Mostly, she assumes she’ll get a little beat up on set.” But that’s a different conversation.
Lakshmi: Also, I don’t believe it.
Asha: Me neither.
Lakshmi: I mean, I believe she hates the gym, but I don’t believe she NEVER goes.
Asha: Don’t we all. She’s probably trained her entire life. I mean to be Miss World, you have to at least do some exercise.
Lakshmi: Exactly! I’ve seen “Miss Congeniality!” I know what those girls go through in order to win.
Asha: But back to your original question. I wish I could tell her that diversity is about humanity. It’s about recognizing that people experience the world differently depending on history, culture, gender, religion, birthplace, etc. It’s about not erasing those experiences or distilling them down to a single narrative and it’s about being comfortable with that.
Lakshmi: Definitely! On a lighter note, I do appreciate PC’s personal campaign to get herself cast as James Bond.
Asha: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. I wonder how a female Bond would change the character, especially since he’s such a womanizer.
Lakshmi: Also, it’s just neat that an Indian woman wants to play an iconic British character. Imagine what Twitter would be like if that happened!
“Look,” she says, “It’s a story about a British guy who happens to be a white dude. There’s nothing wrong with that, whoever came up with it.” But the way she sees it: If Victor can become Victoria, then James Bond can be played by a woman. “And not Jane,” she says, with emphasis. “She should be James Bond, and she should be able to sell it. Why not?”
Asha: Hey, I know a woman who goes by “James.” I think her given name is Jamie, but it’s always been “James” to us.
Lakshmi: That’s neat. I think, judging from the way she portrays Alex Parrish, Priyanka would LOVE to play a character that sleeps around as much as James Bond does. And I mean that in the nicest, most encouraging way possible.
Plus, a postcolonial take on a character that was created at a time when the British Empire was crumbling would be so interesting to watch! To see an Indian woman be a hero and save everyone, it’s really a more countercultural idea than Priyanka realizes.
Asha: So true. It’s like she doesn’t want there to be barriers, but she also doesn’t realize how they got there in the first place and why they stick around.
Lakshmi: Here’s another quote from the piece that definitely lends itself to that theory. “I want to be able to conform, to evolve, and be whoever and go wherever. Just like everyone else,” she says.
Asha: Yep. But you can’t just do that willy-nilly anyway. There has to be some self-reflection involved (which there clearly wasn’t when she played Mary Kom).
Lakshmi: And anyone who has followed her efforts to break into the American market knows her journey has been very calculated (as it had to be.)
Well, I’m interested to see how “Quantico‘”s writers continue to portray her Indian identity next season. Maybe we’ll see her mom more! I still crack up when I think of the fact they named her mom Sita.
Asha: They probably couldn’t think of other names. Sita is one story that I have a hard time getting behind but also another conversation.
Lakshmi: Well, I know your lunch break is almost over, so I’ll let you go now. Thanks for chatting about our favorite ridiculous TV show with me.
(And, yes, I think it’s likely that a certain segment of people reading this can also rage about the Sita story for hours.)
Lakshmi Gandhi is a journalist and pop culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Metro New York, NBC Asian America and NPR’s Code Switch blog, among other sites. She likes it when readers tweet her @LakshmiGandhi with their thoughts on Asian American issues and romance novels.
Asha Sundararaman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Oakland, California. When she’s not discussing pop culture, she can be found in her kitchen blending the flavors of her Southern and Indian roots.
The feedback from the microphone gratingly penetrated the vacant bubble I had fallen into after watching yet another performance by the youth, educating us on the benefits of Jainism. I had been daydreaming of the skits I had put on as a child, remembering the diligence with which I memorized my lines. “Why did I?” I wondered. I never truly knew what these skits were about. I knew the plot, but they all felt a little too neat to me.
Every problem had an answer; every story ended triumphantly. Victory over evil. Good deeds are rewarded. Back on stage, I saw an auntie wrapped in a sparkly red sari walking to the center of the stage, her hands folded together graciously. “Let’s put another hand together for these children!” she said, gesturing behind her. Some children sheepishly peeked out from behind the curtain. “And let’s thank their parents. Parents, it is your responsibility to bring your children to the temple. Without your involvement, our children will not know the correct way to live. It is your duty, your dharam.”
Glancing over at my mom, I could see her eyes clouding as she clapped. The weight of that word was not lost on me, and it certainly wasn’t lost on my mother. Dharam felt like a heavy word. To me, it felt like it somehow encompassed morality, duty, and culture all into one. Many religions have a version of dharam, they all define it differently, but it always seems to boil down to the same idea: a guide on how to live one’s life. I felt like it was interpreted in a much more rigid and arbitrary manner. The skit highlighted waking up early, not spending too long on your phone, and doing your homework as dharam. Growing up, some of the whims of my parents: not staying out after dark, spending too much time with our friends versus our work, and being obedient, also fell under the umbrella of dharam. Dharam was being diluted.
Dharam, when broken down into its roots, means ‘to support’. But often it would feel like the opposite of this, suffocating with heavy expectations that seemed to grow with each year. What did it mean to be a good daughter, good sister, or good person? How had a guide on how to live life turned into the only correct way to live at all?
I remember telling my mother I wasn’t sure I believed in religion anymore. My mom was driving me back from the temple, and it no longer felt peaceful to me; no longer felt right. Walking around after the pooja, speaking to all of the aunties and uncles…I felt out of place. All of them told me how lucky I was that my parents were such pillars of our faith. They forced me to promise that I would come to the temple every time I was in town when I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. It felt wrong lying; it felt wrong to pretend that I was religious when I wasn’t anymore.
My mother’s nostrils flared, but she kept her eyes on the road. She increased the speed of the windshield wipers even though it was only drizzling slightly.
“How can you say that? How can you reject a god that has given you so much?” she fumed. “You know nothing about Jainism. You know nothing about what you are just throwing away. You don’t know how lucky you are to be born into this religion.” I let her fume. My change of heart hadn’t come out of thin air. I hadn’t prayed in years. I only went to the temple for my mother’s sake. Deep down, I think my mom knew I didn’t have a strong attachment to my religion anymore, but she didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she thought dragging me to the temple would somehow make it habitual for me; a part of my routine. But religion cannot be forced, and no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work for me.
Maybe part of the shock of my disbelief was the fact that secularism feels non-existent in India. Indian soap operas emphasized the proper actions of a good daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and villainized those who deviated from traditional roles and values. Even progressive shows such as “Anupamaa,“ which shows a housewife divorcing her husband, entering the workforce, and creating her own dance studio, showed that divorce is only acceptable in extreme circumstances. Failing to impart these values to your children is viewed as a failure in your role of a good parent.
But my mother is an amazing mother. She raised me to learn to question the world around me. She fostered the importance of working hard and being humble. She taught me to be a good person and care for others, not because I was obligated to by my faith or karma, but because it was what I should do. She supported me and taught me to support others, which I believe is the meaning of dharam. She did not fail her dharam as a mother, but because of how dharam was presented to her, she will never know that.
Eid-ul-Fitr is a special holiday that marks the end of Ramadan — the month of fasting — for Muslims worldwide. Ramadan is a time of gratitude, spiritual focus, forgiveness, celebrating community and helping the needy. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan.
Rubab Bukhari is a busy mom of five based in Calgary, Canada. She shared that Eid, for her family, is a day of gathering with loved ones and sharing a delicious meal together as a symbol for breaking fast. “Eid is celebrated as the most joyous occasion where we put up Eid decorations and exchange gifts with everyone in the house. New clothes are made for everyone; the girls get excited about getting henna on their hands and the boys get more excited about receiving their Eidi (gifts/money).”
A published author, spoken word artist and dance fitness instructor, Nazhah Khawaja shares how she’s built new traditions with her two children and husband in Illinois, Chicago despite not being exposed to the “Eid flavor” herself while growing up.
“My sister suggested decorating the house for Eid with the goal of getting the kids in the holiday mood,” she said. Regardless of the exhaustion that followed due to decorating while fasting, Khawaja realized that her sister “was onto something.” She added that “kids are very visual learners and interpreters — the visual display of decorations helps them to feel the festivity more. Forever grateful to my sister for encouraging this tradition that our family has embraced.”
Another new tradition that she has embraced is celebrating Eid festivities with her husband’s family who are non-Muslim. Furthermore, she insists on taking photographs during Eid-ul-Fitr to keep memories alive because one never really knows if the people in the photos will be there next time around. She also includes that the “Eid nap is a must — which means adults are dozing off while the kids are running wild; ample heavenly chaos and beautiful noise.”
Passing down familial customs from her mother, Khawaja remembers a story she had told her of how as soon as the dawn of Eid arrived, the villagers in Pakistan walked down unpaved streets welcoming Eid with a tune: “Mubarak Eid Mubarak/ Mubarak Khair Mubarak/ Saheliyon Eid Mubarak!” Khawaja’s mother used to sing it every time. “Growing up, my siblings and I would sing this tune in our not-so-refined Urdu, giggle at one another, create our own, often goofy lyrics, and even dance silly moves,” she shared.
Meanwhile, Bengali shemai, Kashmiri kheer and ma’amoul are the favorite Eid desserts in Janan’s household! She is the founder and CEO of the publishing company, Global Bookshelves Intl., a pharmacist by profession and a mother of three young girls, based in Louisville, Kentucky. They look forward to dressing up their best for Eid prayers the most.
Likewise, Ursula Sarah Khan who is a mom influencer and an accountant by trade, said that they fill their Eid-themed gift bags with all sorts of goodies like candy, bubbles and pencils. On Eid-ul-Fitr, her eight-year-old son, Ibrahim, distributes these bags amongst the boys after Eid prayers, while her five-year-old daughter, Eliyah, hands them to the girls.
They also bake Eid cookies together in addition to swapping their Ramadan decor with Eid decor, while still in their Eid pajamas in their Northern Virginia home!
Blending older traditions with some newer ones, Sarah carries on her mother’s age-old tradition of making sheer khorma — a Pakistani dessert made with vermicelli, milk, dates and nuts — in the morning.
She also explains to her children the importance of Zakat or charity, which is what her mother taught her: “I now take this same approach with my children to ensure they have a deep understanding of the generosity Islam teaches.”
Speaking of home and family, Haffsa Rizwani — a Canadian, currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, as a PhD candidate — said: “Living away from home, Canada, where my immediate family resides, we have a tradition of traveling from Stockholm to my aunt’s house in Oslo, Norway, every Eid. Especially to mark the celebration as a family event for my children.” Together with her aunt, Haffsa’s daughter gets her henna done and goes shopping for bangles! She goes on to explain how Eid-ul-Fitr is an opportunity to not only dress up, but also regain that morning ritual of chai and evenings with games like carrom board; “a game played till my uncle wins.”
As Rizwani so eloquently puts it, “While my children are still quite small, my daughter is now of age to appreciate and understand the meaning of gratitude, blessings, and giving back. She now has the empathy to comprehend the inequalities and injustices in the world. Ramadan is therefore a month of being thankful and making extra duas. Eid is a day of celebration with gratitude and blessings.”
The expansion of digital content across radio, television and internet has allowed audiences to engage with media rapidly. As technology advances, the entertainment industry has grown exponentially and people have a wealth of information at their fingertips in the blink of an eye. Since high school, Deepa Prashad was fascinated by this power of media and aspired to be an on-air personality who could interact with viewers through creative content whilst representing her Indo Caribbean heritage. After navigating the competitiveness of Canadian broadcast hosting for seven years, Prashad continues to push herself into various modalities of media and add to her growing successes, while championing others to share their own authentic content.
Self-confidence and the desire to show a different perspective on entertainment prompted Prashad to be interested in broadcasting. While initially nervous about her family’s reaction to a nontraditional career path for Indo Caribbean women, Prashad received her parents’ full support and became the first person in her family to study broadcasting at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.
She began applying for television-hosting positions in her first year despite not having any experience or a finished degree, affirming, “I totally believed in myself and my capabilities.”
In an interview with Prashad, we delve into her career path, diverse representation in media and her courage to create and promote content that reflects her individuality.
How did you begin your career in hosting and digital content production?
The kids channel I watched growing up, The Family Channel, was doing a nationwide casting call for their new TV host. The host would host interstitials between shows, digital series, and do TV show and movie interviews. I didn’t have an agent at the time so I applied on my own. I was called in for my first audition ever and it was quite shocking. A room full of 10 to 15 people just observing me as I delivered lines and did mock interviews for fake shows. Two months later, I was officially cast as the host of The Family Channel!
While ecstatic about her first job, Prashad was met with racism. She stated,
Someone else, who applied for the position, made it a point to come up to me in person to say that they hoped I knew the only reason I got the job was because I was brown and the company obviously just needed to fill a quota.
Brushing the words aside, she continued hosting on The Family Channel for five years. She has also worked as an entertainment and food reporter on Canadian shows, Breakfast Television and Cityline. By advocating for herself as capable, personable and multifaceted, she did not shy away from new opportunities to advance her career and showcased herself as a leader who could resonate with broad audiences.
Wanting to explore new horizons, Prashad approached the social media company blogTO and pitched herself to be their first full-time video host focusing on Toronto food hotspots. After being hired, she visited multiple restaurants daily to host, film and edit her own content and curated personalized food videos for viewers to immerse themselves in. Prashad later forayed into the world of radio, one she never thought she would join but quickly fell in love with. She was most recently the first female voice on Toronto’s KISS 92.5 channel’s, The Roz and Mocha Show. Prashad enjoyed the greater flexibility of being on the radio compared to television and video hosting,
All I had to present was me. It became such a personal experience for me getting on that mic, sharing stories with listeners about the way I was raised, coming from a Guyanese household, being part of an (interfaiths marriage), [etc…] That created an incredibly strong bond between myself, our listeners and our friends that I’m so grateful for.
Tell us about your current position.
“I’m moving onto new adventures now and adding sports reporting under my belt. I will be joining BarDown | TSN to cover Formula 1, this includes doing content for TSN in the digital and TV space. I’ve never dabbled in the world of sports, so this is going to be an interesting new road for me.”
What topics are you most passionate about when creating digital content and why?
Food has to be my number one passion when it comes to digital content. Obviously I love eating and trying new things, but food is such a universal language. It connects people, it excites people and often teaches people about different cultures. I love to see how that content can generate conversations and I love to see when people admit they’ve never tried that particular food or cuisine, but added it to their list.
I also love creating Formula 1 content because Formula 1 is a massive passion of mine! I currently Twitch stream playing the Formula 1 video game F1 22. I’ve been on a pursuit to continuously learn more about the sport and to even get better at the game, because let’s be real, I’m terrible at it but I’m also OK with that!
Prashad is not immune to online mockery and negative comments about her work. When making the switch to Formula 1, she was ridiculed by some male viewers over her love of the sport and was inundated with comments like “go back to the dishes” or “go do laundry where you belong.” Antiquated and sexist notions over being a working woman in the media led to her looks being graded; there were comments regarding her extroverted personality and rampant discussions over her weight. There was a moment in her career where Prashad admits,
I actually wanted to make changes to myself — try to be a little less outgoing, not be so loud, change my hosting style from this incredibly bubbly style to a more laid back informative take.
Drawing on her self-belief, she soon realized that, “This doesn’t work for me. I began to appreciate all my quirks.”
Is there an area of hosting or content production that you believe you’re better at?
I really love to host digital content in particular because there’s a certain freedom that comes with it. I don’t always have to be prim and proper like sometimes I do need to do for TV. I can be me — loud, goofy, and incredibly dorky. I never want to have two different personas — one for the public eye, and then a private. On social media, what you see is exactly what you get. Digital content has allowed me to love myself even more.
Prashad plans to continue in the industry for the forseeable future. She recognizes the impact of being an Indo Caribbean woman at the forefront of media and defines her success as, “…I can continue to represent my culture and how I make others feel.” Her best moments are connecting with others through their lived experiences and offering a different lens on growing up in Canada.
How did you feel breaking into the industry as a woman of color?
What a great feeling that was, and even better, being an Indo Caribbean woman. I went through my fair share of hardships. I’ve faced racism, sexism and bullying throughout my journey of getting to where I am today. But, I have stood up for myself every single time. I will never allow myself to be walked all over. And believe me, people have attempted MANY times. But I pick myself back up and continue along my way.
I think it really hit me that I was making an impact when I started to hear from people how much they related to my childhood stories, the way I was brought up, the movies I watched as a kid. It’s those moments that made me realize I accomplished my goal.
How has your background influenced your interest in hosting and digital content production?
I never saw people like me in the media growing up. I always wanted to change that. I didn’t feel that I had anyone I could personally connect with when I watched TV. And to me that was always so mind blowing because the media, although so broad, is such a personal industry.
I have always been proud to say on air that I’m a Guyanese woman. I have made it a point to fight for more Caribbean content on air. I’ve made it a point to share stories about my family, where they came from, and even the experiences I’ve had growing up in a Guyanese family. Promoting Caribbean culture in general has always been important to me. And progress has been made! At my previous radio job, I pushed incredibly hard to start interviewing Caribbean artists and to highlight them. I had the opportunity to interview artists like Sean Paul, Kes and Konshensand those interviews aired nationally which was massive.
Prashad often infuses cultural content into her work by showcasing Indian and Caribbean food, offering Bollywood movie recommendations, detailing her trips to Guyana, talking about new music and sharing information about Caribbean events in Toronto. She does not believe that cultural content needs to be pared down for the masses, but instead advocates for aspiring Indo Caribbean creators to keep releasing diverse and authentic content that is representative of themselves.
She notes that the Indo Caribbean experience is not a monolith, and that,
We need more representation! What feels most authentic to you can be vastly different from other content creators. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way of creating content, but the best version of content you’re going to create is when you’re being true to who you are, and having fun.
At only 27 years old, Prashad’s journey has taken her across multiple forms of media. From interviewing Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities to hosting various television shows and being an online and radio voice, she continues to explore different mediums as a means of storytelling and connection. Hardships were plenty during Prashad’s rise to fame, but a steady belief in herself and a willingness to take on new endeavors with authenticity have provided her the grit to overcome challenges.
Prashad is eagerly awaiting to leap into her next digital venture and is actively commending more Indo Caribbean content creators to step into the spotlight with their own personal stories.