It can be hard to find relatable representations of Indians in international television and online series that don’t reduce the community to stereotypes

A posterised collage of Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Kunal Nayyar and Priyanka Chopra Maitreyi is smiling Kunal wears a serious look Priyanka is seen on the phone Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Kunal Nayyar, Priyanka Chopra
Flix Entertainment Tuesday, October 06, 2020 - 20:11

In the globalised world we live in, it’s not difficult to find multicultural cities and spaces with people from diverse backgrounds living together.

However, it’s a different story when it comes to representation and popular culture. While OTT platforms are challenging this to an extent of late, coming up with more diverse and intersectional casts and characters in their original productions, it can be hard to find relatable representations of Indians in international television and online series that don’t reduce the community to stereotypes. 

TNM brings you seven Indian characters in international series. Admittedly, most of these characters are privileged and seemingly upper caste, but they do lend some relatability as opposed to stereotypes of brown people in the West. 

Raj Koothrapali in Big Bang Theory – Played by Kunal Nayyar, Raj Koothrapali is one of the most well-known Indian characters to have been written in a hit international television comedy series. An astrophysicist who initially has crippling anxiety when it comes to talking to women unless he is under the influence of alcohol, Raj embodies a very typical aspect of Indian upbringing – that between girls and boys, you shouldn’t be seen mingling with the other gender. While there are several references to his Indianness, he also struggles with his American-Indian identity due to his dislike for Indian food as well as questionable knowledge about Indian culture – something that many Indian-origin or Indian people who have grown up in the West would relate to. Though Big Bang Theory is not without its flaws of typecasting the same characters (‘nerdy men’) it sets out to lead the series with, Raj does evolve into a more confident version of himself by the end of the show.

Kala Dandekar in Sense8 – Netflix’s Sense8 is a sci-fi drama show with one of the most diverse casts and characters portrayed. One of them is Kala, a woman from Mumbai played by actor, Tina Desai. She plays a pharmacist and one of the eight people in a cluster who are connected telepathically. You’ll find her relatable not only because of her parents' (played by Anupam Kher and Natasha Rastogi) obsession with finding her a match, but also because she struggles with her father’s preoccupation with her wedding than her professional accomplishments. She is also shown as a religious woman, who devoutly prays to Ganesha, and struggles with her confusion over having feelings for two men. However, she is not typecast into an exotic brown woman in the show, and has significant parts to play in the story that unfolds over two seasons, and a feature length series finale.

Neal Sampat in The Newsroom – Dev Patel plays Neal Sampat in the three-season American political drama The Newsroom and is a major character in the first and second seasons of the show. While there isn’t much to his background in the show beyond the fact that his dad is a mechanic and how he knew he had a shot at journalism, Neal’s portrayal stands out because it normalises the presence of a brown person in a predominantly white newsroom, and does not emphasise his ethnicity. The show and the character focus on his work as the writer of protagonist Will McAvoy’s (played by Jeff Daniels) blog and as an electronic media expert, apart from his role in the daily programming of the newsroom.

Mohinder Suresh in Heroes – Sendhil plays the role of geneticist Mohinder Suresh in Heroes, an American superhero drama series that ran from 2006 to 2010 on NBC. Mohinder is originally from Chennai, and endeavours to uncover the truth behind the sudden demise of his father, who was looking into ‘superhumans’ on Earth. He is one of the primary characters on the show, and is portrayed in a refreshingly non-typecast way. He does work as a taxi driver initially to make ends meet – a role that Hollywood films over show brown characters in – but the people he meets during these rides further the plotline. He also accidentally gains enhanced abilities later in the show. And while he doesn’t really become a ‘superhero’, that’s saying something for that time, given that there is still little diversity in major superhero franchises.  

Alex Parrish in Quantico ­– The first South Asian to lead an American series, Priyanka Chopra made history as Alex Parrish. Alex’s character in Quantico – a thriller drama – stands out not only for being a brown woman playing protagonist in a mainstream Hollywood series, but also because she is an FBI agent – a role that has most often been reserved for men on television. Quantico was praised for its diverse cast, but Alex challenged the Indian stereotype in Hollywood by representing a strong, sexually liberated brown woman with a multicultural upbringing. While the series had its share of criticism, Priyanka playing Alex was a significant step towards representation of brown women in Hollywood.

Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project Comedian Mindy Kaling plays Mindy Lahiri, an obstetrician-gynaecologist living and working in New York City, while searching for love in all the wrong places. Kaling, whose family is from south India, wanted to create a show that put a successful modern Indian woman at the center of the frame. As Mindy Lahiri, she is brash, no-nonsense and is unashamed of her active love life (though it doesn’t always work out as she plans). But in criticism of the show, some pointed out that The Mindy Project’s supporting cast lacked diversity, particularly the men she dated in the show who were often white. Mindy grapples with that criticism head-on in an episode where an Indian-American man calls her the pejorative “coconut” (white on the inside, brown on the outside). Through the episode, Mindy tries to get in touch with her Indian side through kurtas and conservatism but ultimately realises that being herself is enough. 

Devi Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever Never Have I Ever made a splash when it premiered this year, with Devi Vishwakumar, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, as its protagonist, an Indian-American high schooler in California who really wants a boyfriend and really, really wants to have sex. To Devi, being Indian is both central and incidental to her identity. For the most part, she moves fluidly between the two parts of her life (her Indian background and her American upbringing), which makes her refreshingly regular. Rather than focusing on overwrought storylines around “tradition” or “culture,” the show instead puts Devi’s emotions at the centre, and everything else revolves around it. There has been criticism of the show, including the accents portrayed as well as Devi’s worldview, which is limited to a rich, upper class and upper caste perspective. 

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