Aziz Ansari's 'Master Of None' Episode "Indians On TV" Gets Representation Painfully Right
It's already been wildly praised by just about the entire Internet, and I'm just here to add to Aziz Ansari's Master Of None's oodles of praise. Like everyone else, I've been marathoning the Netflix series since it premiered on November 6, and, in particular, the episode "Indians On TV" hit a little too close to home. To quote Ansari from another one of his specials, Intimate Moments For A Sensual Evening, "Is this what white people feel like all the time?" Because I finally really relate to a character on TV. The issues of racism, representation and diversity that Ansari's character, Dev, deals with in the episode "Indians On TV" make me feel all the feels — and then some.
If you haven't seen the episode "Indians On TV," close this tab and go watch it immediately. It begins with a montage of young Dev watching portrayals of Indians in movies and shows, starting with the scene with the Indian character in the movie Short Circuit 2 that was actually played by white actor Fisher Stevens (Ansari actually interviewed Stevens on Tuesday about the role, and, boy, does Stevens feel bad about it now.) The episode soon moves to Dev's own issues as an aspiring actor in New York: he and his friend and fellow actor Ravi are both auditioning for "Unnamed Cab Driver" on a crime procedural, and Dev gets told outright by the casting director he won't be getting a callback because he won't do an accent. "Ben Kingsley did an accent for Gandhi," is the justification the casting director offers Dev.
What's truly tough to face about this episode is how it echoes reality. Diversity and representation of Indians and Asians on television in general are seriously lacking, to the point where it feels like that chasm is barely even seen as a problem. In a recent study by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Media, Diversity And Social Change Initiative analyzing minority representation in film:
Of those characters coded for race/ethnicity across 100 top films of 2014, 73.1 percent were White, 4.9 percent were Hispanic/Latino, 12.5 percent were Black, 5.3 percent were Asian, 2.9 percent were Middle Eastern, less than one percent were American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1.2 percent were from “other” racial and/or ethnic groupings.
The Indians we do see on American screens, big and small, are, for the most part, stereotypical. Indian or Asian men are seen as emasculated or non-threatening, usually used as "comic relief" with their heavy accents and "foreign" habits. One potent example is the role of Raj on The Big Bang Theory on CBS. Though Raj is a brilliant and capable astrophysicist, he is literally incapable of speaking to women unless he is intoxicated, and that makes him less desirable. During one plot line, where Raj and Penny get drunk and end up sleeping together, another character, Amy, compares sex with an Indian man to Catherine The Great having sex with a horse.
...there's only space for one brown person per show; otherwise white people will feel alienated, even though that's how I feel watching TV literally all the time.
When it comes to Indian or Asian women on TV, their roles are usually relegated to the "exotic" woman without much agency. Even if their characters are developed and interesting, their major plot lines often revolve around their ethnicity. Take Cece on New Girl. On an episode-to-episode basis, many jokes are made about Cece's ethnicity by her love interest Schmidt, and her character barely even bats an eye. In one episode, Cece attends an Indian marriage convention, and Schmidt follows her to win her back while the rest of the gang joins. He makes disparaging comments about Indian people, "complete with references to Kal Penn and Indians sitting on the roofs of buses," as the mic article points out. And yet, Cece sees his intrusion on the convention as a sweet gesture rather than taking him to task for his dangerous, offensive, and outdated stereotypes.
There are a few exceptions though. South Asian women are breaking out more and more, like Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project and Priyanka Chopra on Quantico. Their characters do deal with their race on-screen, but not in a defining, one-dimensional way. Kaling, who has discussed before why she doesn't make race central to her character Dr. Mindy Lahiri on her show, has received a lot of criticism for The Mindy Project not being diverse enough; however, as she recently pointed out in response to criticism on a Reddit AMA, she didn't think it was a problem that she only dates white men on the show, and she doesn't like the idea that she's supposed to date Indian men, "or stick to her own."
...while I might not agree with everything these shows do to depict South Asian women, I appreciate that they are having more nuanced and difficult conversations.
Meanwhile, Quantico, which stars acclaimed Indian actress Priyanka Chopra in her first American show, takes a different, more aggressive approach: "In this context, Quantico does something deliciously new with race. Instead of completely whitewashing the actors’ backgrounds, or forcing them into stereotyped caricatures, Quantico thrusts each character’s complex set of identities out there for us to digest and attempt to understand." Chopra plays FBI agent Alex Parrish, who is mistaken for a terrorist, and the show forces the viewer to consider the implications of racism and religious persecution. Both The Mindy Project and Quantico have taken charge of the race conversation and are in control of the direction, and, while I might not agree with everything these shows do to depict South Asian women, I appreciate that they are having more nuanced and difficult conversations.
So too is Ansari adding to that conversation with Master of None, and approaching the topic with nuance. Not only is he exposing the racism that he's experienced in Hollywood, but he's also talking about the moral and pragmatic issues of actually being an Indian-American trying to succeed in the entertainment industry.
Specifically, the episode "Indians On TV" deals with Dev's refusal to play a stereotype clashing with his desire to get that "David Schwimmer money," or, in other words, his refusal to compromise himself and stay quiet about the casual and not so casual racism he faces as he tries to make a name for himself. One plot point has Dev accidentally being forwarded an email chain the Danvers, the creator of a show called Three Buddies, which both Dev and Ravi auditioned for. "There can't be two [Indian actors]," and a horrible curry joke, are the ugly takeaways from the email, implying that a show on a network with more than one token Indian guy would not do well with American audiences. Dev struggles between wanting to leak the email through an advocacy group or keep quiet, because he now has leverage against Danvers after he exposed himself as casually bigoted.
Dev's agent Shannon (Danielle Brooks from Orange Is The New Black) advises him not to leak the email because that would destroy his opportunity to work with Danvers and potentially star in his show. Similarly, when Dev meets Busta Rhymes at a Knicks game that Danvers takes him to in order to prove that he's not a bad guy, the rapper gives Dev similar advice, telling Dev to "not play the race card; charge it to the race card." The practical advice from Shannon and Busta is to compromise and let some racist things slide in order to make it. And, unfortunately, that's reality.
The "there can't be two" line in particular felt like such a smack in the face. How do I deal with the lack of representation of people that look like me on television when the attitude is still that one Indian person on a show is enough? When there is still that absurd notion that more than that would turn off "mainstream" audiences? Even as shows try to push towards diversity, their idea of inclusion is extremely limited; as "Indians On TV" highlighted, there's only space for one brown person per show. Otherwise, white people will feel alienated, even though that's how I feel watching TV literally all the time.
That being said, what I love most about the episode is how it destroys the "there can't be two" principle, both in the dialogue and the plot. Dev, Ravi, and Ravi's friend Anush discuss the problem of accepted Indian stereotypes — gas station attendants, cab drivers, owners of Indian restaurants, immigrants trying to make it in America — while literally destroying those stereotypes by existing as people who don't fit them. They're just three "regular" dudes: their identities are not one-dimensional nor totally tied to the fact that they are Indian-American. Dealing with representation is complicated when it comes to theory vs. practice. I think what strikes most personally for me about this episode is the sense of conflict between wanting to stand up for what's right, and also having to pay your bills.
Because, unfortunately, you can't eat your moral fortitude. Ansari has spoken about that in real life, and Dev addresses it in the episode: he doesn't judge his friend Ravi for doing the accent, because, hey, you gotta get paid. During a great Q&A at EW Fest discussing Master Of None, Ansari revealed that, even though the show isn't autobiographical in full, he has been asked to do accents all the time for parts, and refuses. He claimed he was asked to do an accent for one of the Transformers movies, and his friend Ravi (same Ravi Patel from the show) ended up taking the role after Ansari refused:
“I once was asked to audition for Transformers with Michael Bay. And it was a role for a call center guy who does an accent. And I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing it,’” Ansari recalled. “Ravi was like, ‘I’ll do it!’ And Ravi did it, and he probably made decent money being the call center guy.”
Not that Ansari held it against his friend or anyone else in the industry who does an accent. “I understand,” he said. “You have to work and some people don’t think it’s a problem. You do it.”
My attitude about trying to succeed in America can be summed up perfectly by Dev's agent's advice to him: "I'm trying to get this Friends money, Dev, and you f*ckin' it up," adding that, had she exposed every leaked email or racist comment she faced in her career, she probably wouldn't have a job. In my own life, I have to pick my battles and weigh each risk carefully: by speaking up, I feel like I am doing the right thing, but it also could jeopardize my opportunities with people in power. This could be as small as speaking up against microaggressions from bosses, college professors, even dudes I meet at bars. But it's not the responsibility of the oppressed to change the behaviors of the oppressor; that theme is potent in "Indians On TV," with Dev's desire to incite change conflicting with the reality of life.
With Master Of None and its cast of diverse characters, Ansari not only tells, but shows, that a series can be successful, brilliant, funny and poignant — without a predominantly white cast. Watching it makes me feel triumphant and smug and I imagine Ansari feels the same way; Master Of None is like a big "I told you so, Hollywood, now get it together." But there's one takeaway that really hits close: minorities shouldn't be judged for how they navigate the racism of good ol' every-day life. Ravi or Dev shouldn't be judged for trying to "get that David Schwimmer money" by doing accents or playing somewhat racist characters, because everybody's got to make a living. It's OK to be conflicted about that.
Dealing with racism while trying to succeed in America in any industry, entertainment or otherwise, is such a complicated, personal, and isolating feeling, and it's incredible to see it articulated so beautifully on Master Of None. Now get it together, Hollywood.
Images: K.C. Bailey/Netflix; Giphy (4)