How to Be Indian (Lessons Learned from the Screen)

Sabine Gaind Staff Writer

Stereotypes, side characters, comic relief. When I was younger, these were the things that Brown people were reduced to in Western television. In short, people who looked like me were rarely at the forefront of popular culture. Imagine my excitement, then, when there were such people on the screen.

Years ago, when life seemed simpler and the future seemed brighter, I’d come home from school, change into some comfortable clothing, and sit down on the couch to relax after a long day of geometry and reading comprehension. I’d turn on the TV; my favourite networks were Disney and YTV.

Amongst my cohort, Disney shows were the most popular, so it was the channel I turned to the most. One of their most popular shows, Phineas and Ferb, is a cartoon about two brothers and their friends creating crazy inventions in order to make the most of their summer. One of these friends is Indian: Baljeet Tjinder. Baljeet is an immigrant and has the accent to prove it. He’s polite and soft-spoken. To him, the worst thing in the world would be to fail math. Throughout the show, Baljeet’s “Indianness” is portrayed as something comical, something that makes him different, something that he has to overcome in order to have fun with the other kids. Another show on the channel, Jessie, featured a similar comically endearing Indian character, Ravi Ross. Born in India, Ravi is adopted by the Ross family and brought to live with them in America. His siblings often tease and prank him because he’s so hilariously clueless about American culture, which the audience is consistently reminded of through his accent and other cultural “quirks”. Back then, when I watched these shows, I don’t think I fully understood that, while I was laughing along at something Baljeet or Ravi did, part of the joke was on me. 

Along with the “funny foreigner,” another trope common in mainstream media is the “rebellious South Asian teen.” While it’s technically a movie, Lemonade Mouth premiered on Disney channel. The story is about a group of 5 teens who decide to form a band in order to defy the social standards of their high school and, ultimately, be who they want to be. The movie itself is revolutionary, both in terms of its messaging and its departure from the usual Disney Channel Original Movie conventions of the time. Particularly, out of the 5 main characters, 3 are racial minorities which contrasts the white lead + token minority best friend formula Disney followed. One of these characters, Mohini, or “Mo,” Banjaree is of Indian descent, yet from the first time the audience is introduced to her, it’s understood that she prefers to be a “normal” teenager. She defies her parents’ strict upbringing in favour of lip gloss, a boyfriend, and a passion for non-classical music. By the end of the movie, Mo stands up to her father and she gets to live the modern life of a teenage rockstar, separate from old-school Indian values. 

Look, I’ll be honest: I will occasionally watch old Disney shows for their nostalgia factor and I still believe that the Lemonade Mouth soundtrack is one of the best film scores of all time. What’s important to recognize, though, is that nothing is without its flaws. It’s okay to enjoy something and yet be critical of it. So, I admit to having a love-hate relationship with these Indian characters. On one hand, seeing Brown characters on the screen is great, which is exactly how I felt all those years ago. But now, looking back, I see how these conventions can potentially be harmful and send the wrong message to viewers. According to these shows, being Indian means fitting into a stereotypical mold, like Baljeet and Ravi. If you don’t have the funny accent or love of all things mathematics, then being Indian shouldn’t stand in your way; in fact, you need to completely break away from it in order to be happy, like Mo. 

Where I think Phineas and Ferb, Jessie and Lemonade Mouth fall flat is in not giving any dimension to their Indian characters. That’s where I think How to Be Indie and Never Have I Ever succeed. At first, both shows seem to have female protagonists who fit into the “rebellious South Asian teen” trope. How to Be Indie is a Canadian television show that aired on YTV about 10 years ago. The main plot follows Indira, or “Indie,” Mehta, an Indian- Canadian teenager. She doesn’t want to adhere to the traditional Indian values of her parents; instead, Indie wants to carve her own path, and for her, that means fitting in with the other “normal” kids at her school. Similarly, Never Have I Ever, a teen drama that was released on Netflix earlier this year, follows Devi Vishwakumar, who wants to shed her identity as the Indian nerd in favour of being popular. Both of these shows have an episode where the protagonists are confronted by the reality of who they are: Brown girls living in a Western society.

How to Be Indie’s “How to Get Some Cred” is about Indie trying to prove to her cousin that she’s Indian enough, which, through her desire to be cool, is something she never truly accepted as part of her identity. In fact, by her cousin’s standard, Indie might as well not be from India, despite her brown skin. Indie only speaks English; she can’t take spicy food; she’s not up to date with Bollywood drama; she can’t dance Bharatanatyam. Indie spends the entire episode trying to prove to her cousin that she is as Indian on the inside as she is on the outside. The Never Have I ever episode, titled “Never Have I Ever…felt super Indian,” follows Devi and her family attending a Hindu festival. Throughout the episode, Devi dismisses and even makes fun of the entire event. However, when she sees others her age enjoying themselves, Devi only becomes more frustrated that she can’t fit it anywhere. At the end of their respective episodes, Indie stands up for herself and Devi has a heart to heart with her crush. Things resolve themselves. Life moves on.

These two episodes, that aired almost 10 years apart, hold a special place in my heart. Like me, Indie and Devi sometimes feel like outsiders in both their cultures: the one of their ancestors’ and the one they grew up in. They are faced with the challenge of juggling their Indian heritage and their desire to be accepted as normal in a society where “normal” tends to inherently exclude people like them. At the same time, they see others in their position (that is, other first-generation Indian immigrants) find comfort and community in celebrating their cultural heritage. 

Navigating these complexities is no simple feat. It’s difficult, confusing, and, honestly, tiring.  As a child of West and East Indian immigrants living in Canada, I’m still learning how to exist in this space. It’s a process, one that I imagine isn’t the same for everyone. I am lucky enough to have grown up in a supportive household where my parents always taught my brother and I to be proud of who we are. I wish I could say that it was that easy, but the reality is there are other sources that offer different messaging — one of which is television. So, to see characters on TV undergo this similar struggle between two (seemingly) conflicting identities, and to know that I am not alone in feeling this way, offers a comfort I didn’t even know I needed. 

The truth is, there isn’t one way to be Indian. More importantly, it’s not an identity you need to justify to others or completely ignore in order to be accepted. As always, there are more layers to these stories. A privilege our white counterparts have in mainstream media is that of individuality. In recent years, there has been a rise in positive representation for minorities, both on and off screen (because that’s just as important!); my hope is that this continues. We deserve complex storytelling and characters to, if anything else, reassure us that we’re not alone.

Staff Writer

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

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