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LIers ponder TV's portrayal of South Asians

From left, Gunjan Rastogi of Douglaston, Jyoti Gupta

From left, Gunjan Rastogi of Douglaston, Jyoti Gupta of Albertson, Harjot Singh of East Northport, Veena Lamba of Searingtown, and Pradeep Rastogi of Douglaston, discuss South Asian representation on prime-time television shows. Credit: Danielle Silverman

We agree to meet at the Starbucks on the corner of Newbridge and West Old Country Road in Hicksville. There's a Carvel across the street, and a Sunoco on the opposite side. A Smashburger adjoins. It's heartland  Long Island — a booming, bustling intersection jammed with a headlong rush of cars going somewhere or everywhere. Constant change is the theme, forward momentum is the spirit.

Also bland and nonspecific to any culture, this would seem like exactly the wrong place for this particular meeting. 

"We" are a reporter and a small group of South Asian Long Islanders who are here to talk about a watershed moment in TV, in which more Indian Americans now star on more TV shows than ever before. The better place would seem to be just up the road on South Broadway where a right turn takes you straight into the midst of another world . There's Bengali Sweet Shop and Rajbhog Cafe. Another block south is Diwan Indian Restaurant and Bar, right next to Patel Brothers, the giant grocery chain that specializes in Indian groceries. Hicksville is Long Island's center of  South Asian  life and culture, with  about 21 percent of the town's population identifying as "Asian" on census forms and 13 percent identifying as "Asian Indian," which compares to just 1.2 percent of the national total.

Because this discussion about "TV representation" invariably turns to one about "assimilation" too, Starbucks — as blended into American culture as apple pie or iPhones — just might be the perfect setting after all. Gunjan Rastogi  — who declined to give her age — and who is president of the Hicksville-based India Association of Long Island, has brought along a group of friends with her husband, Pradeep Rastogi.  Evidently a more-the-merrier type, she approaches a young man of about 30 who is wearing a dastar or Sikh turban. She asks if he'd like to join us. Sure, he says. Who doesn't like to talk about TV? 

There's a lot to talk about.  Over the past decade,  starring roles for  South Asians — a term that encompasses the entire Indian subcontinent including Pakistan — have gone from none to about two dozen on network, cable and streaming series. The vast majority of these roles arrived in just the past few years, many in the past few months.  Sarayu Blue stars in the NBC sitcom "I Feel Bad," the third commercial network series with a female South Asian lead. (Mindy Kaling's "The Mindy Project" and Priyanka Chopra's "Quantico" preceded.)  

More ground will be broken Sunday when longtime "Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj launches a comedy talk show, "Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj," on Netflix.

That's a first and here's another: In late November, Minhaj along with fellow comedians Asif Ali, Aristotle Athiras and Fahim Anwar will headline an ensemble Comedy Central special, "Goatface," in which they'll joke about "the unique trials and tribulations of being brown in America" and — irony alert — all those ridiculous "Starbucks names," like Caramel Macchiato.

Meanwhile back at Starbucks, Pradeep Rastogi, a retired trader, carefully unfolds a piece of paper on which he has written some  21 names, listed under the heading, "Making Us Proud on Western TV." He begins to read them: "Hannah Simone, 'New Girl,' Priyanka Chopra, 'Quantico,' Kunal Nayyar, as Raj on 'The Big Bang Theory,' Aziz Ansari, 'Parks and Recreation,' Indira Varma, 'Game of Thrones...'"

He pauses. Something's wrong, or rather someone is missing. Oh, right, he's forgotten Kal Penn of "House" and "24." Make that 22, he says. In fact, there are even more.

"Representation" is one of those cinder blocks of a word that sounds important but also is slightly academic and somewhat opaque. It descends from its ivory tower into the real world only when you begin to think about what it actually means. From 1989 until about 2012 when "The Mindy Project" launched, the most prominent "Indian-American" on TV was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon of "The Simpsons." Of course, the cruel joke is that Apu wasn't Indian-American at all but a cartoon cliche voiced by Hank Azaria. Comedian and "Simpsons" admirer Hari Kondabolu produced a 2017 film titled "The Problem with Apu," which  argues that Apu had turned into a hurtful stereotype and epithet directed at a generation of Indian-Americans.

Even at this watershed moment, Apu still lingers. In an email, Kondabolu says "the hate mail and tweets I’ve received, especially the racist ones, for making a film that questions what I think is a stereotypical depiction indicates that Apu does matter to some people. This also tells me that representation matters and that we have a long way to go.”

Harjot Singh of East Northport  —  who is a partnership account manager at Google — says, "I went to school in Mineola and was the only South Asian in my class in the mid-90s. South Asian at that time was Apu and we do still feel a bit of stereotyping. But as more South Asians come to TV and as they present more positive personas, that definitely affects how the community at large perceives you."

Veena Lamba of Searingtown, who works part-time in a real estate office, and Jyoti Gupta, a homemaker who lives in Albertson, nod in agreement when Pradeep says the real turnaround began in 2007 with the introduction of "The Big Bang Theory's" popular character Raj Koothrappali. "When I came to this country [in the early '80s] there was no Indian media [and] we'd only see [South Asians] at the gas pump," says Gupta, "but now you see them everywhere, including the Oscars."

Indeed, momentum picked up the following year with 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire," winner of eight Oscars including best picture.

Predating all of them was Kaling's Kelly Kapoor, introduced on the classic episode, "Diversity Day" of "The Office." But the Kelly of that 2005 episode and the Kelly of the 2013 finale were hardly the same, or as Lamba bluntly explains, "it started with her being shy and then she became a Valley girl." Singh says Kaling "did an amazing job of putting her foot down by saying this is not who I am, but this is who I am. It's up to the actors to go back to the producers to say that there are images that aren't reality anymore."

But what is reality? What are accurate portrayals? An argument could be made that  Big Bang's Raj simply compounded another stereotype, of the Socially Awkward Indian Savvy Tech Guy. Moreover, here's another complicated facet of that unwieldy "representation" word: Can these portrayals change attitudes in both the broader population and South Asian ones? Have they?

Harsh Bhasin, visiting professor of international relations at Stony Brook University,  said in a phone interview, "the mindset still persists among parents in the Indian community of Long Island that they want to see their kids go into engineering and medicine [but] it's increasingly becoming important now if a kid goes to dad to say 'thank you I don't want to go into engineering but journalism.'" Because of so many prominent South Asian TV journalists, like  Fareed Zakaria, he says, "every time they see an Indian face on CNN, it gives them a sense of encouragement, that this is something I can aspire too. The parents will not look down on it, while in my generation they would have."

Gunjan Rastogi agrees, saying that positive TV portrayals have had a profound impact on Long Island's South Asian community. "South Asians are seen as integrated, and doing things for the community and being recognized by elected officials. This isn't just a community of doctors and engineers but we're in every field — my daughter works at Bloomberg — and I have tons of friends who are doing theater because that's what they want to do. As members of the first generation we were all busy working hard, making sure we gave a good education to our kids and now when they want to do something, we allow that — you're not just successful if you are a doctor or engineer, and what I like about TV is that it's portraying the South Asian community as we are."

Lamba says that even a show like "I Feel Bad," about a fully assimilated mother of South Asian heritage married to a non-Indian man, mirrors her own family: "I have three daughters, two of them married, and the older one reminds me of [Blue's] character. One is married to a Jewish man, one to an Italian, so their kids are half and half. I have no problem with that and the [sons-in-law] are very nice, but mixed marriages are taking place."

No one sitting around this Starbucks table seems to believe that the "problem" of Apu has been solved or that television — as capricious and arbitrary as the weather — has embraced South Asians once and for all, or that there is no work left to be done.

The comedian and Apu provocateur Hari Kondabolu put it this way in an email:“I definitely think progress has been made in terms of South Asian-American representation in the media. However, the majority of positive characters are of straight, cis, Indian American males. There needs to be a greater diversity of characters. More women. More LGBT characters. South Asians whose heritage is not from 'India' but other parts of the subcontinent.”

Nevertheless, on this bright fall day, in this Starbucks lying at this crossroads of Long Island, there is an enormous amount of pride and optimism with this newfound TV empowerment. As Singh explains, "we have really good momentum."  

Really good.

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