Is Marvel’s latest venture going to pave the way for better South Asian narratives in American shows and films, or will we stick to lehenga-cholis, Bollywood music, and gaudy Diwalis?
There is a scene in the fourth episode of Ms Marvel, Marvel’s latest series about a Muslim American teenage girl superhero (if your reaction to that was a “say whaaaaa”, which hardened mass of dirt are you living under, sir) where, Kamala, the protagonist, sits by a bonfire on a beach in Karachi, Pakistan, with her cousins and their friends, strumming guitars, and eating biryani out of plastic packets with wooden spoons, with smaller pouches of raita and salan doing the rounds. Kamala, born and bred in the US, comments that she had never eaten biryani like that. I smiled. That scene was such a wonderful slice of lived reality that South Asians share, and till date, I cannot remember many shows or films discussing and exploring intimate facets of the Indian or Pakistani experience in such detail.
In American films and TV, the brown experience, at least till the last decade, has either been about curry conservatism, glitzy festivals with 20-second snippets of Bollywood songs, idiotic dance routines, and the younger generation’s constant whining about wanting to shed their brownness. But with the rise of wokeness and inclusivity, US shows and films have become increasingly diverse. There’s either why-don’t-we-have-a-brown-person-as-her-BFF casting (which, honestly, is a huge step), or shows with South Asian leads and/or primary characters. Sex Education and Special are examples of the first kind, while Never Have I Ever and Ms Marvel fall in the second category. To be honest, the first instance really makes me happy. In the ’90s, it would have been unthinkable to have a brown character in even a secondary role. Brown characters were cab drivers or food truck owners with funny accents.
The US single-handedly created the “Indian” accent with Apu in the Simpsons (ironically named after one of Satyajit Ray’s film characters portrayed by Soumitra Chatterjee, both gentlemen fluent English speakers with crisp upper-crust accents). The accent had a successful trickle-down effect. In the 2000s, it was heartbreaking to see whitewashing of brown characters on TV with zero acknowledgment of their South Asian identities, barring one-off “Hindu festival” plot points. Although I believe Parks and Recreation is the best sitcom this world has seen till date, an Indian Muslim man basically plays a cocky white asshole to such an extent that Aziz Ansari’s character is called Tom Haverford. That is sickening whitewashing.
In The Big Bang Theory, we might explore a lot of things about Raj — sorry, Razh *eyeroll* If you can say “John” and “Jennifer”, you can say Raj, white people — but not his Koothrapalliness. In New Girl, The only time Cece’s brownness is celebrated is, you guessed it, when she gets married. In The Mindy Kaling Project, Indian characters call Mindy out for being a ‘coconut’ (brown outside, white inside), and she is unapologetic about it. Her wedding prep episodes and a horrifying mundan ceremony for her son stick out like eyesores. Mindy Kaling doesn’t come that far from Kelly Kapoor in The Office where the only time we experienced her brownness was, yup, that Diwali episode.
While brown characters might have lost the “Indian” accent in the 2000s and 2010s, they also lost the brown identity along with it. Which is why, back in the 2000s, Gurinder Chadha and Mira Nair films were embraced with such fervour by South Asians everywhere. They spoke about the older NRIs’ heartache for their mitti, and the younger gen’s lived realities of bullying, curry-shaming, and dreams of blending in. So, I guess, showrunners picked up on that dream of blending in, right?
Which brings me to the latter half of the last decade with two shows: Quantico and Master of None. Quantico is possibly the most heartbreaking example of whitewashing a brown character, and also a heavily missed opportunity to change the narrative in entertainment. But PC has made up for it by making Nick Jiju dance to Desi Girl (just kidding). Master Of None, on the other hand, boggles my mind. It is an almost autobiographical story of an Indian-American actor playing an Indian-American actor. Why Aziz Ansari then had to become Dev Shah to play, well, himself, is beyond me. Why could Aziz Ansari, while playing himself in a show he created, not be a second-gen Tamil Muslim man? No idea. And did the show explore any brownness? Nope.
But things started changing, first with shows like Sex Education and Special, where brown characters are playing prominent roles and being proudly brown, and then with the likes of Never Have I Ever, Bridgerton Season 2, and Ms Marvel, which celebrate brown realities and narratives. Although, there is another interesting nugget which makes Ms Marvel even more special — the brown experience has always been a Hindu experience on US TV. This one though is about a Pakistani Muslim family that flaunts the flavours of Karachi, uses Coke Studio Pakistan hits (Peechey Hutt and Pasoori FTW), and discusses the Partition from a Pakistani perspective. That is a proud brown narrative. The young characters are equally at ease with wearing kurta-salwar as they are in their hoodies. There’s pride in one’s identity. Devi from Never Have I Ever could learn a thing or two about brown pride from Kamala and Nakia, although NHIE explores Indian realities and narratives — (Mindy Kaling’s coconuttyness is still prevalent with gaudy Ganesh Pujas, a hyper-religious mother, the protagonist whining about wearing a saree, and her cousin, expecting an ugly Indian man when she is set up for an arranged marriage, being shocked when the prospective Indian groom is hot. This angers me further about how Master Of None) was such a politically-incorrect moment in TV comedy.
Before Ms Marvel, two shows celebrated Muslimness in all its glory – Why Are You Like This? and We Are Lady Parts. WAYLT, an Aussie sitcom, written by Humyara Mahbub, explores three friends, one of them being Mia, a brashy Muslim 20-something who breaks her Ramadan fasts with a shot of Tequila and “Bismillah”. The British We Are Lady Parts is about an all-Muslim girl rock band. Stunningly proud and confident Muslim women, living Muslim realities, in predominantly white countries, without trying to blend in. Ms Marvel takes that ahead.
South Asia is not just a brown Hindu marigold-festoons-Kanjeevaram-conservative-parents-Diwali-haayo-rabba-don’t-date-white-boys-Bole-Chudiyan affair. It’s time writers and showrunners accepted that, and made narrative changes. Marvel’s backing has definitely helped in breaking certain mental blocks, and if OTT platforms are so obsessed about creating inclusivity, they need to understand that brown comes in many shades. We don’t need to North-India-wash every brown narrative on US shows. And, that’s just what the west does. It took a Crazy Rich Asians for most of the west to realise that all Southeast Asians are not Chinese (honestly, many Indians might need that education too). The fact that Kung Fu Panda is voiced by Jack Black is Facepalm 101. So, congratulations Ms Marvel, Bisha K. Ali and Sana Amanat, and may writers, directors, and producers in the US sit up, and take note.
P.S.: Can we also start appreciating brown male beauty too? I love that Kamran in Ms Marvel is a strappingly handsome lad walking out of a pool with Jalebi Baby playing as BGM, while the white boy feels insecure. Memorable brown men on US shows are still nerds with no game, or a sardar Anupam Kher. I want to see brown hotbods in Too Hot To Handle. Who’s with me?
(Image credits: Marvel, Disney, Netflix, CBS, Warner Bros)