Hollywood productions (and English films in general) have to go a long way in terms of representation of identities like the so-called ‘brown identity’. While brown-skinned characters from India and its neighbors have been featured in English films for a long time, they often fall prey to stereotypes or appropriation. Even though portraying an Indian character and their struggles might seem like ‘Oscar bait‘, some of the elements in these stories hardly feel relatable to local Indians as well as the Indian-American diaspora.
Actors and filmmakers like Aziz Ansari, Gurinder Chadha, Hasan Minhaj, and Dev Patel are changing the perspective to an extent, portraying characters and writing stories beyond the ‘curry-eating’, ‘mystical and exotic’ narratives. Otherwise, with popular shows and movies, some stereotypes can, unfortunately, be formed in the heads of non-Indian viewers.
10 Hinduism Isn’t The Only Religion In India
In many depictions, Indians are equated to being Hindus. Surely, Hinduism is a major religion in the country but its diverse landscape also harbors Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, and other faiths. Hence, showing all American-Indians as worshippers of the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, complete with Hindu-style offerings and incense sticks is just generalizing Indians under one category.
Further, even with the Hindu Indians, not all of them are intensely devout believers. Just like the generic and dominant American Christian characters in popular media, some might be of stronger faith while some might hardly worship their deities at all.
9 Tacky Accents
It has been automatically assumed that all Indian accents are more than often funny-sounding and grammatically incorrect. The root cause of this was racial ignorance and the earlier depictions of Indians by white actors (wearing brownface) like Peter Sellers in The Party and Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit.
Of course, the stereotypical ‘Indian accent’ reached disastrous heights with the character Apu in The Simpsons. Apu was so offensive to the diaspora that even a documentary called The Problem With Apu got released in 2017, dissecting the stereotypes and racial microaggressions the character presented. Actor Kal Penn even revealed how some studios wanted him to have an ‘authentic Apu accent’ in his roles! Recently, Apu’s voice actor Hank Azaria apologized and stepped down from the role.
8 Romanticizing Poverty
India has a concerning rate of social inequality and poverty. Some films like Lion have tried showing a financially-troubled protagonist in a realistic light and empathetic light. But otherwise, foreign films often tend to romanticize poverty (or show ‘poverty porn’ as some might say) or paint the entirety of India as a backward nation with no modern infrastructure. The Darjeeling Limited, Million Dollar Arm, and many others mock and generalize Indian cities as having nothing but shoddy shacks of buildings and half-naked children.
Indian directors frame their scenes in the backdrops of ruined buildings, crowded streets, and cows in the middle of traffic, but they paint the context as being from a particular area in India, rather than generalizing the entire country as an undeveloped urban jungle.
7 The White Savior Narrative
Movies that deal with the interaction of foreign and Indian characters evoke pity sympathy, but maybe, they can do better with a more empathetic portrayal rather than a sympathetic one. Lion and Million Dollar Arm both depict white characters turning the fates of poor Indians. Both are based on true stories and do justice to their source material to an extent.
However, Indian representation should also involve portrayals of self-independent characters who can make it on their own, rather than depending on white people all the time. Colonial cultural hegemony is unfortunately still engrained in India after two centuries of British rule. The ‘fair skin’ is still glorified even in Indian communities, with fair skin being equated to a very desirable quality. Hence, bolder Indian lead characters are needed not just to fight the generic white savior narrative, but the racist biases that some Indians themselves internalize in their thoughts.
6 Bollywood Isn’t The Only Indian Film Industry
Bollywood is the name largely attributed to the Hindi film industry. However, India produces films in the rest of its languages too, with some modern gems acquiring critical acclaim at international film festivals too. These languages can range from Assamese to Malayalam to Bengali, and so on. Further, not every Indian film is riddled with Bollywood cliches like musical numbers, grandiose sets, and majestic gestures of romance.
Scenes like the final dance to Jai Ho in Slumdog Millionaire and the wedding scene in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reinforce the notions that Indian celebrations mostly involve grand, choreographed song and dance like a typical Bollywood film.
5 Exoticism and Mysticism
Cults like those in Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, and the spiritual journeys in India as shown in Eat, Pray, Love, paint India as a highly ‘exotic’ land filled with mysticism and superstitious beliefs.
The argument against this stereotype can again be explained as the point for India’s multi-religious identity. Not all Indians are blind worshippers of bearded mystics and gurus. As of last year, about 2.9 million Indians are atheists, while some consider themselves to be rationalists despite holding onto their religious identity. Otherwise, India is a diverse land of its own, rather than an exotic, archaic, and divine fantasy-world of sorts.
4 There’s More To Music Than Just Classical
India does boast of historic classical and folk music styles, having exported maestros like sitarist Ravi Shankar to the rest of the world. Still, such forms of music hardly make way to the Indian music mainstream in today’s times. Film music or independent music usually dominates the playlists of many Indian demographics. Many independent artists are experimenting or reinterpreting foreign genres too, be it hip-hop or electronica.
That’s why rather than relying on a ‘traditional’ sound, films shot in India can feature several new-age Indian artists and their musical styles.
3 Purposely Complicated Or Inaccurate Names
Indians, Arabs, Koreans, and many other immigrants get mocked for their names that are difficult to pronounce by the dominant citizen groups in the countries they settle. Some even have to Anglicize or shorten their names for the convenience of the Westerners. Instead of mispronouncing or changing the names of the people from this diaspora, maybe the Hollywood narrative can make an effort to accurately show some Indian names. It’s not that difficult always.
Even though today, foreign productions do try to accurately portray Indian characters and their names, there used to be Indian characters with names complicated and exaggerated beyond measure. The biggest case yet again is Apu’s surname, Nahasapeemapetilon. Older films were even more careless in christening their Indian characters. In Annie (1978), an Indian bodyguard was simply named Punjab (an Indian state, hardly ever used as a person’s name).
2 The Cuisine Doesn’t Always Give Diarrhea
Indian food might provide a spicier culinary experience to Americans or Britishers who are not used to the taste. There’s an actual term ‘Delhi Belly’ referring to the upset stomach that foreign tourists have when they visit India.
Western portrayals have often reduced Indian food as something heavily spicey or gooey that leads to diarrhea. Such tropes are played around with Jon Hamm and Alan Arkin’s character in Million Dollar Arm. Another done-to-death stereotype is referring to Indian gravy dishes as ‘curry’. There are so many diverse meat and vegetable-based dishes from all Indian states that it’s hard to categorize any particular Indian dish as a curry. A good alternative to such cliches can be The Hundred-Foot Journey that normalizes the cooking habits of Indians.
1 Supporting Characters For Comic Relief
Indian-Americans were often shown as shop clerks, drivers, doctors, or any other supporting character. Often reduced to caricatures with the aforementioned accents, they were hardly given any scope for character development or background stories.
However, now, with slightly higher representation, this attitude is changing. Examples like Aziz Ansari’s lead role in Master of None and Rahul Kohli in The Haunting Of Bly Manor are helping in giving Indian-origin American and British actors a more nuanced and multi-layered portrayal.