How Indian Americans have failed to make a strong impact on US mainstream culture
In movies, music, and theatre, the Indian-American immigrant experience is still a long way from making an impact in mainstream popular entertainment.
The community has done well in academia and also in the corporate world. Prominent Indian-American writer Chitra Divakaruni sees writers who are choosing the immigrant experience genre getting recognised. “Indian-American writers such as late Bharati Mukherjee, Deepak Chopra, Jhumpa Lahiri, myself, Mindy Kaling and Akhil Sharma have won prizes and have been on bestseller lists. Our books are taught in colleges and universities and are book-club favourites. So I would say we are making a distinct mark on American society.” But the fact remains that these are more exception that the rule. The India diaspora has not been able to make a larger impact on the psyche of the US mainstream culture, when compared with, say, the Chinese Americans.
Students in American higher education institutions looking to study foreign languages have little or no options from India. There are few offerings of Hindi, Urdu or Sanskrit and even fewer of languages such as Bengali and Tamil. But Chinese and Japanese are among the top 10 foreign languages Americans learn in schools and colleges. In movies, music, and theatre, the Indian-American immigrant experience is still a long way from making an impact in mainstream popular entertainment. It is, in fact, quite ironic that the meatiest role in American TV so far was bagged not by an Indian-American actor but by Bollywood’s crossover star, Priyanka Chopra, in TV drama thriller Quantico. But even such moments are few and far between.
Swati Ali, a New York-based independent film-maker, says the underlying differences in culture between the two countries could be the reason for the poor Indian representation. “Internationally, after Hollywood, India probably has the biggest footprint in cinema. However, we have still not been able to capture the imagination of America, like we have in other countries. The reason for this could be a dramatic difference in culture and the tone/style of movies in both countries. The most common stereotype with regard to the average Indian American is that he/she is a techie.”
Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!; Slumdog Millionaire and Manoj “Night” Shyamalan have had major success in Hollywood. But such accolades and recognition continue to be rare for films with Indian themes. Even Shyamalan has not explored Indian themes.
Arts & Entertainment
Vishakha Desai, a scholar of Asian art, who was the president and CEO of the influential Asia Society from 2004 to 2012 and is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University, puts things into perspective: all Asian-Americans suffer from a lack of representation in arts and entertainment in the US. “The first generation of Indian immigrants focused on professional degrees in science, engineering and medicine. Plenty of second generation Indian Americans are exploring more diverse fields, including arts and culture. But like other Asian-Americans, they also suffer from stereotyping of their ethnicity or simply from exclusion.”
One Asian group that has done comparatively well on this front is the Chinese-American community. There is, of course, an historic advantage. The Chinese started arrived in the US in the 18th Century, while the large wave of Indian immigration began in the early 19th Century, says Aroon Shivdasani, a founding member of the Indo-American Arts Council, a New York city organisation promoting artists of Indian origin in North America. Tradition has remained important for Chinese and Indians, irrespective of their employment and education, she says. However, the basic difference has been that “as part of getting settled, the Chinese popularised their food and festivals wherever they could. Early Indian immigrants concentrated on employment and education, considering the arts an indulgence.”
Indian-American immigrants are among the highest per capita earners, and have deep pockets. But they have arguably not encouraged their children to push their heritage through art, music, theatre, dance, film. Arvind Manocha, 46, was an exception. The music lover grew up in Ohio listening to everything from Indian ragas to Beethoven to Queen. Manocha is now president and CEO of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, a non-profit organisation that partners with the US National Park Service to provide concert and performing art facilities in Virginia. This background has helped him grasp cultural nuances. Indian Americans can be more visible in music and arts only if their aspirations are nurtured, he says. “And in our community, it’s very important for the parents to see their children in the arts, than just the children themselves.” Manocha was lucky as his parents supported his career choice. “I have often been the only Indian American in the organisations in which I’ve worked.”
Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi, a Los Angelesbased cinematographer who was part of the camera crew of The Dark Knight Rises and Life of Pi, says a difference will be felt when more talented people of Indian origin start working not just as actors in Hollywood, but also start getting involved in behind-the-scenes roles. “We still have a long way to go, but I see more diverse voices in Hollywood.”
But till that happens, Indian Americans in US movies will continue to be the stereotyped Gujaratis, with caricatured accents, running convenience stores, or nerds who work as computer programmers — much like the characters played by Kal Penn in the film series Harold & Kumar or Kunal Nayyar as Dr Raj Koothrappali in the TV series The Big Bang Theory.