Parents, traditions and other hurdles: Portrayal of Indians in interracial relationships

The representation of Indians in interracial relationships on screen largely remains stuck in ethnic stereotypes.
Parents, traditions and other hurdles: Portrayal of Indians in interracial relationships
Parents, traditions and other hurdles: Portrayal of Indians in interracial relationships

Eighteen years ago, the popular romantic-comedy Bend It Like Beckham released, and with it came this loaded question from British-Indian teen Jess Bhamra to her older sister, Pinky: “Pinks, do you think mum and dad would still speak to me if I ever brought home a gora?” 

Jess (played by Parminder Nagra) is an 18-year-old living with her Sikh family in a suburb of London, surrounded by a lively Indian community, alongside a revolving cast of aunties, uncles, cousins and of course, would-be suitors. To the dismay of her sister Pinky, however, Jess is falling for Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyer), her white football coach. 

“Look Jess, you can marry anyone you want. It's fine at first when you're in love and all that. But do you really want to be the one that everyone stares at every family ‘do, because you married the English bloke?” Pinky asks.

“He’s Irish,” Jess responds. 

Jess and Joe may have preceded Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra by several years, but in some ways, the representation of Indians in interracial relationships on screen remains stuck in ethnic stereotypes. Romantic comedies typically tend to involve various obstacles that the two lead characters must surpass before they find happiness. In films and series that depict interracial or inter-ethnic relationships with Indians, the tropes tend to repeat themselves, whether it’s controlling parents, geographical worries or a vague reference to cultural differences that the couple couldn’t possibly overcome. Ultimately, the argument never veers too far from Pinky’s logic: Sure, you could date a non-Indian. But isn’t it just easier for everyone if you didn’t? 

Marriage between different ethnicities and races in the United States has increased significantly since 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled that such marriages were legal in the Loving v Virginia case. Though the US Census lumps Asians under one umbrella term, it’s still important to note that 46% of US-born Asian newlyweds have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity as of 2015. In the United Kingdom, inter-ethnic relationships only account for 7% of marriages, and by some estimates, south Asians fare poorly in this regard. 

So somewhere between reality and perception, there are movies. Sometimes there are call centres and long flights, often generational screaming matches, frequently another person who is more “appropriate” (read: Indian) and on at least three occasions, there has been a disapproving father played by Anupam Kher. Aishwarya Rai has done it twice as well, falling in love with Dylan McDermott and Martin Henderson amidst two of India’s biggest cultural exports, spices and weddings. 

Bend It Like Beckham follows Jess who longs to play football professionally, and ends up joining a local women’s team after meeting Juliet (Kiera Knightley), a fellow football enthusiast. Though Jess has grown up in London, her family almost entirely socialises with the suburb’s large Sikh community, and balks at the idea of Jess dating someone from outside that group.   

The objecting parents, whether lovingly chastising or downright controlling, are seen time and again in movies involving Indian characters and non-Indian love interests. In 2008’s The Other End of the Line, Priya Sethi (played by Shriya Saran), a call centre worker for a credit card company, falls for American man, Granger Woodruff (Jesse Metcalfe), who she has gotten to know through several phone calls about Granger’s lavish purchases. Though she is engaged to a boring man named Vikram, Priya hops on a flight from Mumbai to San Francisco to meet her crush, only to be chased down by her parents and scolded for her betrayal of Indian tradition, often seen as antithetical to all things western.  

Though they end up together in the end, it’s not before Granger must win over her father through a few lines of badly-spoken Hindi to show his ‘respect’ for him. (Note: This movie was widely panned by critics). 

And while The Other End of the Line involves no small amount of hand wringing over “culture” and “tradition,” it’s not an outlier in this space either. In 1991, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala released, an interracial lovestory set in the American south starring Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washignton. In the film, Mina (Saritha) falls in love with Demetrius (Denzel), a Black man with his own carpet cleaning business in Greenwood, Mississippi, where Mina’s family runs a handful of motels. Often in these movies, the burden of family, community and the expectations that come with it, fall on the Indian character’s shoulders, while their partner (who is often white) lacks those same concerns. Mississippi Masala however, offers a new perspective, where both Demetrius and Mina bring their own experiences with racism to the table. 

“Racism, or as they say nowadays, tradition, is passed down like recipes. Now the trick is you gotta know what to eat and what to leave on your plate,” Demetrius says.  

Though Mina tries to keep her relationship a secret, her parents eventually find out and are shocked and unsupportive. When Mina confesses her love, her mother Kinu (Sharmila Tagore) questions his family background, and her daughter screams back, “This is America, ma! No one cares!” 

A good line, no doubt. But in reality, is that really true? 

Take the Netflix hit series Indian Matchmaking, where Indians’ desire for endogamous unions both at home and abroad is front and centre. Two of the Indian-American women, Aparna and Rupam, seek matches from specific communities and religions. All the while, their sisters, both of whom appear to be in interracial relationships, watch on.  

In another instance, actor-comedian Mindy Kaling, who is of Indian descent, was slammed for her series The Mindy Project. She was accused of lacking diversity in her casting and having mostly white men play her love interests on the show. She eventually responded to the criticism: “I always think it's funny that I'm the only one asked about this, when sitcoms I love with female leads rarely date men of color. I guess white women are expected to date white men. I'm expected to 'stick to my own.’”

But sometimes, there comes a story that offers a look into relationships that stretch beyond hackneyed hangups over cultural differences, without forgoing where the characters come from. 1999’s Chutney Popcorn, by award-winning director Nisha Ganatra, has a somewhat offbeat premise — Reena (played by Nisha) is a henna artist living in New York City with her girlfriend Lisa (Jill Hennessy). When she finds out her sister Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey) can’t conceive with husband Mitch, she offers to be artificially inseminated with his sperm and carry the baby for them.      

While Madhur Jaffrey as their mother, Meenu, fulfills some of the overbearing mother tropes, the film is ultimately about two women trying to make choices, regardless of perceived expectations, while navigating relationships with white partners. After Reena gets pregnant, Sarita’s relationship with Mitch suffers when she realises she no longer wants the baby, as does Reena’s with Lisa, when Reena decides she wants to keep the child. But for these women, their anxieties, fears and joys aren’t constrained by a loose understanding of being Indian. Instead, it’s just part and parcel of their identities. Imagine that?

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