Indian-Americans in Media

By Zhaoyang Liu

The children of Indian immigrants, who in recent years have become more prominent in entertainment, are finding new ways to reconcile the culture of their parents with the society that they grew up in. In the past, Indian-Americans have struggled to find representation in film and television, with only a few examples such as the controversial character of Apu from The Simpsons. Representation in media is an important aspect of integration, as it helps make the participation of immigrants within society visible. Accompanying the increased amount of South-Asians on the big screen is the question of how they use the medium to both express and understand their unique American identities.       

An NPR News story from 2009 explores this topic. The first person that the podcast chronicles is Mindy Kaling, a daughter of Indian immigrants who wrote, produced, and acted in the NBC sitcom The Office. She wrote one episode about Diwali, a traditional Indian holiday. Celebrated from October to November, the holiday is named after rows of clay lamps that are lit to represent the victory of light over darkness. In this episode, the work space of The Office celebrates the holiday, introduced by Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor. Ironically, however, Kelly lacks much knowledge about her own traditions. Kaling reflects that the episode “was kind of the perfect meeting of both being the child of immigrants and writing for a comedy show.”

She later elaborates:

The Office is just observational comedy. Growing up and observing how your parents are not the same as other people’s parents and the tiny things that make them different than the quote unquote normal white American parents, your perspective on things gets sharpened.”

Kaling additionally describes the “everyone against you” mentality that many children of immigrants experience when growing up. Immigrant parents often come to the country to seek a better life for their families, and thus wish for their children to lead clean but unadventurous lives.

Mindy Kaling’s birth name was Vera Mindy Chokalingam, but she shortened it when she started performing comedy due to the difficulty other’s had in pronouncing it. She is not the only Indian entertainer who has changed their name, however. Indian-American actor Kal Penn had his name shortened from “Kalpen Modi” since it was too specific. Brown actors are generally recruited to play a multitude of ethnicities, so some fear that their birth names might limit their potential work. Penn plays a doctor on FOX television show House. He mentions that without the Immigration Act of 1965 and its associated policies, South-Asians would not likely be so commonly cast in hospital shows. His parents were among the countless medical professionals who came to the country following the change of law.

Vik Sahay, an Indian-Canadian actor, plays a computer geek at a large retail store similar to ‘Best Buy’ in the NBC show Chuck. He uses the fact that both he and his character are children of immigrants to enrich his performance and connect the separate parts of his identity. For many actors with immigrant roots, their profession can be a way for them to both express and come to terms with their disparate worlds.

The full NPR podcast can be heard below:

However, the full picture of Indian-Americans in entertainment is not complete without the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from the hit television show The Simpsons. As was mentioned earlier, Apu is surrounded with controversy. Stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary about the character in 2017, titled The Problem With Apu. While criticized for the stereotypes interwoven into his character, Apu was for a period of time one of the only representations of Indians in American entertainment.

Indian-American actors have expressed frustration at the expectation of playing roles in the stereotypical Indian accent reminiscent of Apu. Along with that are their childhood experiences of being made fun of through Apu and his accent. Yet another topic of criticism is that the character is voiced by a white man and not an Indian-American, adding to the caricaturesque qualities associated with Apu. Conversely, many believe that Apu is an ultimately harmless and perhaps even positive figure in a show focused on making fun of a variety of cultures and stereotypes, with no less ridicule being put on American society. The controversy serves as a reminder that all of us want to see ourselves represented. That being said, how our stories are told, and through whom, matters.

A podcast about The Problem With Apu can be heard below:

Reflection Questions:

1. Mindy Kaling describes the “everyone against you” mentality that many children of immigrants adopt while growing up. In what ways does a conflict of culture contribute to this? How might this mindset affect immigrant children even as they grow older?

2. Indian-American actors often portray either doctors or the technologically proficient, which pertain to the stereotypical occupations of their immigrant group. Is portraying Indian-Americans and other immigrants in this way harmful or helpful to how they are perceived?

3. Many Indian-American performers shorten their names to make it easier for themselves to find work. Why do they choose to do this? How is this similar to the way in which other immigrants have Anglicized their names upon arriving in America? 

4. Acting is just one way in which the children of immigrants are learning to encompass their multiple identities. What other methods or mediums, besides entertainment, can immigrants also accomplish this through?

5. Opinions regarding Apu from The Simpsons are deeply divided; some believe that he propagates racist stereotypes, while others state that he is treated no differently from the other cultural representations which the show blatantly makes fun of. Do you think that Apu is a harmful character, or do you think that he is acceptable in the context of the show? Why? Is it possible for characters to contain stereotypes without being fundamentally offensive? If so, how? Regardless of your opinion on Apu, to what extent does media representation affect the way in which immigrants are recognized by both themselves and others?

6. What immigrant or minority groups do you think are currently best represented in mainstream media? Which groups might benefit from more exposure? How can we make sure that these particular groups get adequate acknowledgement?