Having grown up a minority in America, I could probably name every TV or magazine moment where a South Asian minority was named in the arts over the last twenty years. Itīs no great accomplishment...there havenīt been that many. And Iīve always been weary to note where South Asians, the people or the culture, have been misrepresented or characterized derogatorily. I was one of the grade schoolers who wrote to the producers of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and told them that Indians donīt eat monkey brains. Several of my friends are members of various media-watchdog groups that watch for that fine-line between a joke and an insult. So here we are in America defending Indiaīs honor...and one just has to look to Indian cinema to see our reward.
I watched yet another film last night where the handsome Indian hero was about to lose the girl to an overdressed, pompous, big mouth NRI.
Lots of problems with that characterization. For one, if you are Indian and living in America, can you really recall ever meeting one of those egotistical types you see in Indian films? I mean, if you arenīt put in your place the moment you start going to school or work, you soon will be. Things that might make you special in India, money, family name, a fair complexion, just donīt mean as much here. Not in the same ways. You are still a minority, still someone who is going to have to prove him or herself. In the movies, the NRI will say, "Hi, Iīm a computer scientist in America," and thatīs supposed to make the auto-driver hero feel like heīs no good. At my birthday party a few years back, some of my friends (including a coffee-shop waitress and manager at a local record shop) asked my cousin what he did. His answer of "computer programmer" only elicited a "gosh, donīt you get bored?" response.
The other thing is, most of us are so thrilled to go to India to visit that most of our time is spent being with family and friends. Who has time to show off? And who wants to anyway? Itīs so difficult to find the time and the money to make the trip that the trips are infrequent. And when you get there, there are issues of being able to fit into your family. Sometimes, even if you havenīt changed, everyone thinks you have...and you spend your time trying to convince them youīre the same person.
My heart nearly broke for our neighbor the last time I visited India. He had been in the United States doing his masters for two years, and was home for a brief visit before beginning a new job. After braving two Midwestern winters, a daily diet of cold cereal and pizza, and being the only Asian person in his degree program, all he wanted was to come home and be himself (or at least relive some of his childhood.) But his mother and aunts were convinced that their son would return to them as some sort of modern hotshot. The week before his arrival, his mother spent every morning at my familyīs home, trying to convince me to teach her some American dishes. Since I was spending my time caring for my elderly aunt and uncle, and since I knew her son wouldnīt want to come to India to eat American food, I tried my best to dissuade her. Finally, my aunt was able to pack the neighbor off by giving her the stock of cereals and pastas she always kept in case my brothers or I should want them. Two weeks later, I saw my neighborīs son sitting forlornly on the steps of his house eating...Macaroni and Cheese.
In one movie I saw, the NRI is a student in America who comes home for a visit. He tosses each of his sisters a box and says, "Here didi, a diamond necklace for you." As an American graduate student, let me tell you, I donīt have a penny to spare, much less a couple of thousand dollars to buy a diamond necklace for anyone. And as the friend of a couple of graduate students from India...I donīt think they have any cash lying around to give diamond necklaces either. My dad nearly had an ulcer trying to stretch his grant money to cover his graduate work in the seventies. One uncle we knew worked as a janitor to pay his way through his masterīs at UCLA in the eighties. The guy who works the nightshift at my local convenience store is a graduate student at Berkeley during the daytime. He is usually working on problem sets during his downtime.
While I understand that some artistic license must be taken in movies, I resent the repeated characterizations of NRIīs as the "villains." Indian films donīt always say it outright (though Subash Ghai has the character say "Iīm bad, Iīm really bad" in "Pardes") but itīs at least implied.
Published in Planetbollywood.