Indian Representation in Western Media

The portrayal of Indians in Western media is an emblem of misrepresentation, generalisations and stereotyping. Many people still think of Indians as nerdy, curry-loving, convenience-store owning people, whose only main purpose in Western Media is to provide a diverse facade. The way that Western Media has depicted Indians throughout the years has enabled stereotypes and microaggressions towards Indians. Indians have been underrepresented in Western Media and in the off chance in which they are represented, it’s a misrepresentation. As we progress into the 2020s, we have seen shifts in the way that Western Media has portrayed Indians, however, that doesn’t dismiss the years of underrepresentation and misrepresentation that Indians have faced in Western Media. 

Indians are usually stereotyped as being nerdy and dorky, heavily accented, working-class people.  Sometimes they’re exotic, cultured, or family-oriented love interests. Western Media tends to get very creative with how they generalise and portray Indians in specific ways that have remained common tropes throughout Western Media. Whether it’s the funny cab driver on the way to the airport providing comedic relief, the wise old Indian who shares advice in a strong accent, or simply the sidekick to the white hero, Indians are thrown into a few boxes by Western Media and essentially told to deal with it. 

The problem lies wherein Indians are underrepresented in Western Media, and when they are represented not only is the character enabling stereotypes which deviate far from the truth, but they tokenize Indians, creating a single-surfaced, uninteresting, unrelatable character that is a step back and promotes misinformation. 

There have been many notable characters that symbolise the demeaning stereotypes labelled on Indians, however arguably one of the most offensive is Apu from The Simpsons. For a lot of South Asians, Apu was the first representation they saw of someone that looked like them, which was monumental. But Apu’s character is deeply flawed.

To start off with Apu is a convenience store owner, reinforcing a demeaning and common trope of Indians being cab drivers, convenience store owners, waiters, and working other service-class jobs. As Hari Kondabolu, who created the documentary The Problem with Apu, said, “We (Indians) are fundamentally defined in the show as part of the service class”. Which is not to say that there aren’t Indians who are part of the service class, but Apu’s character promotes the stereotype and generalisation that all Indians are. Next, Apu’s accent is problematic because it’s so inaccurate and feels like a mockery. Apu is also voiced by a white man, who only stepped down from the role earlier this year. Why couldn’t Apu have just been voiced by an Indian man in the first place, who could surely have provided a more accurate accent? Apu is shown as a man with octuplets in an arranged marriage. Again this isn’t to say that there aren’t Indians with many kids and are in arranged marriages, but it reinforces a stereotype. Apu is also shown as a cheap character who re-labels expired food in his store and re-packages food that has fallen on the ground as if nothing happened, again pushing forward a stereotype. It is worth noting that while Apu’s character may be supposed to be satirical and an exaggeration, there are instances in the show where the show’s white writers have stereotyped Apu, displaying “soft” racism. 

Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory is also a character that highlights stereotyping in the media. The Big Bang Theory was an iconic sitcom and having an Indian character be part of the main friend group was refreshing. However, on a show about nerdy guys, Raj is at the top of the list. He’s the nerdiest guy on a show about nerdy guys. He’s never good with women, the butt of most of the jokes, and a reinforcement of a common trope. 

Not only are Indians misrepresented in Western Media, but India is too. Scenes filled with elephants, dirty roads, poor people, crowded spaces and more, depict India in a one-sided, outdated manner, that fails to show even a fraction of the country’s true colours. On the contrary – India is a colourful, diverse melting pot of cultures, technological and innovation hotspot, full of cosmopolitan metropolises, which isn’t usually shown in Western Media, further contributing to misinformation and misrepresentation.

People develop notions of Indians, mirroring what is displayed in Western Media, and which are usually extremely incorrect and can be subtly and unintentionally racist. For example, people tend to be shocked when they encounter an Indian who isn’t academically smart, or when they meet an Indian who doesn’t enjoy curries or spicy foods, or even when they see Indians with liberal parents that aren’t strict. Small instances like these are not only perpetuated by Western Media but embraced. With an audience spanning the globe, Western Media has the power to spread accurate representations of minorities like Indians, but rarely does and continues instead to flaunt the tropes and stereotypes that real-life Indians are tired of seeing.

Some of your favourite movies probably tokenize people of colour and minorities. It’s as if throwing in a couple of people of colour here and there actually diversifies the narrative. Indians are rarely the main protagonists of popular film and TV (with a few exceptions) and are usually two-dimensional characters, comic reliefs, or sidekicks that only serve to aid the rhetoric of the story. 

Indian representation in Western Media has been deeply flawed and based strongly on biases. However with shows like Never Have I Ever, The Mindy Project and Master of None representation is slowly becoming more accurate and reflective of Indians. Never Have I Ever, created by Mindy Kaling, features Devi, an American-born Indian girl trying to work her way around high-school and all its ups and downs whilst balancing a relationship with her traditional Indian mom. What Never Have I Ever got right was the depiction of many first or second-generation Indians, who feel unsure of their identity because they don’t feel Indian enough, or American enough. Devi doesn’t feel Indian enough at times, which can be highlighted in an episode where they attend an Indian festival, and other times she doesn’t feel American enough, having been raised in an Indian household. This is reflective of how a lot of first/second generation Indians feel. Devi’s character is not an over-exaggerated caricature of an Indian person like Apu and Raj, and it doesn’t reinforce insensitive stereotypes. Instead, it provides a normal depiction of a young Indian girl trying to figure herself and her world out.  

The beliefs of many people have been impacted as a result of years and years of Indians being portrayed in stereotypical versions of what they actually are. Western Media needs to break the boxes that Indians have been put in and start creating real, multi-faceted Indian main characters with more depth to them than the tropes we are used to seeing. 

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