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Indians are popping up on American television screens in new and still typecast ways, typically for the laughs they get. Watch awhile, though, and you know this is mostly about America coming to terms with emerging realities

It stands to reason that the US has not yet produced its Midnight’s Children. Salman Rushdie’s novel, perhaps the most important and certainly the most celebrated novel of the past 50 years in the UK, served as a clarion call for British Asians to impose their influence on, even shape, mainstream British culture. And as police comb the home of yet another Muslim (albeit of Iraqi rather than Subcontinental origin) apparently radicalised in Britain, it seems worth reiterating that British culture, its music, film, television and literature, indeed contemporary British life, is unimaginable without its Asian contribution. This is not so in the US, where South Asian immigration only began in earnest in the mid-1960s and cultural influence has largely been confined to a mediocre restaurant in every small town. Of course, Britons of South Asian birth or ancestry make up nearly 7 per cent of the UK population, while their American counterparts comprise less than 1 per cent; the numbers militate against cultural heft.

If the South Asian presence in Britain comes loaded with colonial baggage, in America they are just another immigrant group seeking space to create their own version of the putative American Dream. Shorn of historical weight, there is perhaps available in America a licence for American-born Indians to manufacture identity, to escape pre-ordained narratives. This is not to say that there are no stereotypes, merely that the stereotypes are relatively fluid, changeable alongside social circumstance.

The Beats, writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg (though, really, the literary link with Indian religion and philosophy goes back to Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalists of the 19th century), and the hippies of the 1960s led to stereotypes about far-out, drug-addled spirituality and Indian mysticism, a cultural phenomenon that made curious icons out of figures as disparate as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Ravi Shankar. Indian classical music in the West, the sitar in particular, still signifies not so much a serious millennia-old tradition as a slightly risible fad of the 1970s counterculture. Immigration patterns of the 1980s meant a new stereotype to replace, or at least scrawl over palimpsest-like, the incense-scented hippie illusions of India.

Indians (and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) on American screens, if there were any at all, now tended to drive taxis or work long hours in 7-Eleven convenience stores, speaking English in that ridiculous ‘bud-bud-ding-ding’ accent Peter Sellers employs in The Party. The apotheosis of this type is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons, owner of the Kwik-E-Mart and holder of a PhD in computer science. Apu is, of course, broad-brush satire, his accent and bizarre ways intended as much to poke fun at American provincialism as get a cheap laugh at the funny foreigner’s expense. Whatever the makers’ intentions, Apu’s singsong catchphrase “Thank you, come again!” inevitably turned into a playground taunt to be used against Indian-Americans.

Well into the 1990s, the working class Subcontinental immigrant with the funny accent was a TV trope. Mujibur and Sirajul, two ‘painfully good-natured immigrant salesmen’ as Time described them in an article published in 1994, appeared regularly on David Letterman’s popular talk show as real-life Apus, to be gently patronised by the host and laughed at by the audience. As Apu has his PhD, so Mujibur and Sirajul have their education in law and literature, respectively, from the University of Dhaka; yet, they are reduced on American TV to the sum of their accents. This is not strictly true, but is how it must have appeared to Subcontinental immigrants and their children chafing under derisive stereotypes, and, as Time put it, ‘under no illusions about what America is laughing at’. In the 1990s, by and large, the working class Subcontinentals on screen, however decent and industrious, were there for popular condescension, the object of casual racist scorn, as endured by the South Asian convenience store owner in Richard Linklater’s 1996 film SubUrbia.

The stereotype of the South Asian immigrant with the heavy accent, working long hours at a dead-end job, has now been replaced by the high-achieving doctor, Silicon Valley entrepreneur or science geek. The South Asian presence—particularly Indian and Hindu—on America’s most prestigious campuses, in its laboratories, in the offices of banks and technology companies, and their inexorable upward mobility, is mirrored in the popular imagination. Most of this is easily explained by demographics—by well over 100 per cent growth in the Indian community between 1990 and 2000 and a further 53 per cent growth between 2000 and 2007, according to US census figures—and record immigration. Americans of Indian parentage, with their generally high levels of education and wealth, are bound to become more visible. More importantly, it is difficult to typecast Indians as doctors, technology geeks or 7-Eleven proprietors when they are all those things, as well as politicians, writers, actors, comedians, ballet dancers, chefs and astronauts.

Ethnicity is a secondary concern, if a concern at all, for many of the South Asians playing prominent parts on American television. Archie Panjabi, a British Asian actress, for instance, won an Emmy award in August for her role as Kalinda Sharma, a hardboiled, possibly bisexual private investigator in The Good Wife on CBS, one of America’s three major TV networks (NBC and ABC are the other two). That Kalinda is of Indian descent is incidental. The same can be said of Mindy Kaling, born in Massachusetts to Tamil parents, who plays Kelly Kapoor in the hit American version of the British sitcom The Office; Kaling is also a writer and producer on the show. Identity is not a source of angst for Kaling’s character; indeed, she’s savvy and cynical enough to manipulate it, showing up in a salwar kameez for a minority executive training programme.

Kaling’s broad appeal is even clearer on Twitter, where she has over a million followers. The likes of Kaling, or Naveen Andrews, who played an Iraqi on Lost, or the actors who play doctors on American TV, or the comedian Aziz Ansari, host of this year’s MTV Movie Awards, show that Americans of South Asian descent have a secure enough place in American society not to have to worry about their ethnicity or be typecast. In fact, so casual is the approach to ethnicity that Iqbal Theba, a Karachi-born civil engineer-turned-actor with an accent, plays the role of a school principal (with the famous Pakistani name of Figgins) at an Ohio high school, the setting for the enormously popular musical sitcom. Again, his ethnicity is not an issue. For an actor, this must be liberating.

None of this is to suggest that America, even on TV, has become a post-racial society. After all, nothing about these attractive American people (where their parents were born being of little consequence) presents any sort of challenge to the status quo, not even a knotty accent to unravel. Their diversity is like the diversity so loudly trumpeted by American universities, mostly a superficial diversity based on skin colour but uniform in terms of class and conviction.

In late September, NBC took the apparently brave step of airing a sitcom set entirely in an Indian call centre in Mumbai and staffed entirely by Indian workers. Based on a middling film of the same name, starring Ayesha Dharker, the sitcom retains the basic plot: an American call centre outsources its operations to India to save costs (healthcare and pensions, the sitcom pointedly makes clear) and requires the manager to move for a limited period to train the Indian workers. The manager, Todd, is compelled to take the job by the spectre of the $40,000 he owes in student loans. This is a timely setup, effectively encapsulating the future so many young Americans face in the present economy: take whatever job you’re lucky enough to find that pays you just about enough to make the interest payments on the large loans you had to take to pay for the education you were told you needed to get a leg-up on that corporate ladder they’ve just whisked from underneath your feet.

But Outsourced is not about the effect of outsourcing on American workers or even Indian workers; instead, it eschews a piquant premise to trudge through an old-fashioned litany of gags (accents; diarrhoea; arranged marriage versus dating; sacred cows…) in an effort to arrive at the banal conclusion that an office in India, all said and done, is not all that different from an office in America, and that Indians, once you get past the silly accent, are more or less the same as Americans. The show doesn’t even quite have the courage to leave America to film in India, so we get the occasional shot of Indian streets (mostly rickshaws) to offset the absurd simulacrum of a Mumbai street erected in a Los Angeles studio. And to compound the foolishness of not filming in India, the casting directors chose not to hire English-speaking Indian actors but a ragtag collection of Indian-Americans and British Asians who fail utterly to mimic a plausible Indian accent. The show has succeeded, though, in extending its run on American TV and in the face of complaints over racist stereotyping, insensitivity to the plight of Americans who’ve lost their jobs to outsourcing, and, most seriously for a comedy, unfunny jokes. Some feat, that.

My parents, when I was young, often watched VHS tapes of Mind Your Language, a late-1970s English sitcom set in a classroom filled with students of English as a foreign language. The racial stereotypes were crude, but my parents never found the accents of the Indian characters offensive because they would never have imagined that anyone would take these obvious buffoons for real Indians. Immigrants, for obvious reasons, are more thin-skinned, more attuned to how they are represented. It is hard to imagine Indian-Americans or Indians in America watching Outsourced without the occasional wince. But the ‘Indians’ aren’t really the point here; it’s the Americans seeking to retain some semblance of control over a world on which their hold is turning tenuous.

HBO, meanwhile, in the latest season of In Treatment, a drama set in the office of a New York psychiatrist, the first in which it relied on its own storylines as opposed to those adapted from the original Israeli show, featured Irrfan Khan as Sunil, a Bengali widower struggling to cope in New York. Sunil, who has spent all his money on his son’s education and his wife’s hospital treatment, is adrift in America, penniless and reliant on handouts from his son’s domineering wife, a glamorous blonde literary agent whose control over her family, at least as Sunil sees it, is total. Irrfan Khan’s performance is remarkable; I urge anyone who has read this far to seek the show out online. Jhumpa Lahiri, chronicler of upper middle class Indian-American life, served as a consultant on the script, and for the most part it succeeds in bringing to American screens an individual Indian man trying and possibly failing in a foreign land to hold on to his sense of self. The writers do not shirk or soft-pedal Sunil’s unease, his distaste for aspects of American life, and his fundamental alienation. But what the writers also do, what perhaps all writers and artists must strive to do, is evoke empathy.

The lesson to take from In Treatment is that without depth and complexity in their representation, the multitude of Indian or Indian-American characters on screen mean little. The key is not to minimise or flinch from difference, but to show that difference is not an impediment to understanding.