More than an exotic accent

'The Mindy Project' marks a new kind of Indian character on American TV, where the character's Indian-ness is incidental

Indian American actor, producer and writer Mindy Kaling's new show, The Mindy Project, premiered September 25 on Fox the same network that includes the famous cartoon character with the distinguishable Indian accent, convenience store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on the long-running television series, The Simpsons. The journey from Apu-like characters on American TV to more diverse leading characters such as Dr Mindy Lahiri (played by Kaling) has been a long time coming.

Before Apu's appearance on The Simpsons in 1990, there were small parts on American television and in film for Indians. But unlike other Asian American groups, such as the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino/a and Vietnamese, associated with early American history, spiritualism and American military action and movements, South Asians were not as visible in popular American mainstream media. The majority of Hollywood portrayals emphasised Indians in the context of British history rather than as part of US history. Most Hollywood images of South Asians were confined to British tales of adventure or spiritual discovery set in colonial India.

There were a few Indian actors, like Sabu, playing lead roles in early Hollywood films, but like many ethnic and racial characters in Hollywood, it was primarily white actors, from Rudolph Valentino to Peter Sellers, wearing makeup and performing as Indians. Contemporary examples include actor Hank Azaria, who articulates Apu's accent as part of the character. These racial performances present Indians as a collection of characteristics and the object of humour rather than distinct characters and tend to influence representations (in scripts and minds of directors) of Indian and Indian American men.

But in the 21st century, South Asians have been appearing on US television with increasing frequency. But the characters are often men who are variations of Apu smart, foreign-looking, out-of-place, emasculated nerds who are always the sidekicks, never the leaders. They are featured on shows with American protagonists or as part of racially diverse ensemble casts for instance as scientists in dramas such as Heroes and on network comedies like The Big Bang Theory (with Kunal Nayyar as particle astro-physicist Rajesh Koothrappali). This also includes dramedies with characters like Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba) on Glee and non-situational comedy with Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The increase of roles for Indian actors (Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor, Frieda Pinto) and British Indian actors (Raza Jaffrey, Dev Patel) points to the popularity, importance and continued presence of Indian roles in American film and television. All four major networks featured television shows with South Asian or Indian American actors in the first part of this century.

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