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“Indians on TV”: Master of None and TV History’s Mundane South Asian Idols

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Abstract:

The fourth episode of the critically acclaimed Netflix show Master of None, entitled “Indians on TV,” opens with a montage of racist caricatures of South Asian boys and men from the last 50-odd years of film and television. Some of these characters are animated, such as Hadji from Jonny Quest, while others are white actors in brownface, such as Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party. This montage sets the frame for an episode that is all about how South Asian actors are struggling to make it in a world where there are seldom “Indians on TV”; even when they are present, they are just in brownface. This look to the past is at once mournful and repulsed. We are supposed to be appalled and dismayed that these were the only representations to be found in popular culture, yet defying Hollywood conventions of teleology in terms of racial representation we are offered no narrative of progress. If anything, the only thing that is offered as progress is Master of None existing as a show with multiple Indian characters, at least for 2-3 episodes of the season. Rather than simply lauding Master of None for its complexity of South Asian representation, I use this episode to explore the relationship between South Asian American (Desi) artists and the history of Desi representation.
While one impulse in artistically defining Desi identity today would be to wholly reject this unfortunate past, Master of None uses this visualization of racism as ammunition. Similarly, rather than orienting itself toward Bollywood and the global spread of various Indian language cinemas, Master of None locates itself within the urban domestic antics of the sitcom, the highly mediated form of “everyday” US middle-class life that is most often defined by whiteness. This desire to be “everyday” is what I interrogate in my paper. By drawing connections between the historiographic work of Master of None with other scholars working on the history of South Asian popular culture representation at large or within the South Asian American Digital Archive, I want to understand how the desire to find and celebrate the mundane in the archive and pop culture representations can relate to the current precarities South Asian people in the U.S. have felt since 9/11, and are facing now in the wake of the election and regime change.

Bibliography

Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian 36(4), November 2014: 26-37.

Dave, Shilpa S. Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Desai, Jigna. Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Desai, Manan. “Korla Pandit Plays America: Exotica, Racial Performance, and Fantasies of Containment in Cold War Culture.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 48(4), August 2015: 714-730.

Kim, Ju Yon. The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday. New York: NYU Press, 2015.

Mani, Bakirathi. “Beyond Bollywood: Exhibiting South Asian America” Journal of Asian American Studies 18(2), June 2015: 193-217.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1261712_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Murugan, Meenasarani. "“Indians on TV”: Master of None and TV History’s Mundane South Asian Idols" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, <Not Available>. 2018-06-18 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1261712_index.html>

APA Citation:

Murugan, M. L. "“Indians on TV”: Master of None and TV History’s Mundane South Asian Idols" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Chicago, Illinois <Not Available>. 2018-06-18 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1261712_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: The fourth episode of the critically acclaimed Netflix show Master of None, entitled “Indians on TV,” opens with a montage of racist caricatures of South Asian boys and men from the last 50-odd years of film and television. Some of these characters are animated, such as Hadji from Jonny Quest, while others are white actors in brownface, such as Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party. This montage sets the frame for an episode that is all about how South Asian actors are struggling to make it in a world where there are seldom “Indians on TV”; even when they are present, they are just in brownface. This look to the past is at once mournful and repulsed. We are supposed to be appalled and dismayed that these were the only representations to be found in popular culture, yet defying Hollywood conventions of teleology in terms of racial representation we are offered no narrative of progress. If anything, the only thing that is offered as progress is Master of None existing as a show with multiple Indian characters, at least for 2-3 episodes of the season. Rather than simply lauding Master of None for its complexity of South Asian representation, I use this episode to explore the relationship between South Asian American (Desi) artists and the history of Desi representation.
While one impulse in artistically defining Desi identity today would be to wholly reject this unfortunate past, Master of None uses this visualization of racism as ammunition. Similarly, rather than orienting itself toward Bollywood and the global spread of various Indian language cinemas, Master of None locates itself within the urban domestic antics of the sitcom, the highly mediated form of “everyday” US middle-class life that is most often defined by whiteness. This desire to be “everyday” is what I interrogate in my paper. By drawing connections between the historiographic work of Master of None with other scholars working on the history of South Asian popular culture representation at large or within the South Asian American Digital Archive, I want to understand how the desire to find and celebrate the mundane in the archive and pop culture representations can relate to the current precarities South Asian people in the U.S. have felt since 9/11, and are facing now in the wake of the election and regime change.

Bibliography

Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian 36(4), November 2014: 26-37.

Dave, Shilpa S. Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Desai, Jigna. Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Desai, Manan. “Korla Pandit Plays America: Exotica, Racial Performance, and Fantasies of Containment in Cold War Culture.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 48(4), August 2015: 714-730.

Kim, Ju Yon. The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday. New York: NYU Press, 2015.

Mani, Bakirathi. “Beyond Bollywood: Exhibiting South Asian America” Journal of Asian American Studies 18(2), June 2015: 193-217.


 
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