As we saw with The Big Sick, Aziz Ansari’s two-season miniseries Master of None takes off on a similar route. Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev Shah, a rather self aware, amiable struggling actor in his early 30s, comes from a family of Indian Muslims. While Ansari attempts to highlight contemporary issues through his portrayal of Dev – like the task of telling one’s parents you were no longer a practicing Muslim or delving into Hollywood’s race problem in an episode where Dev is required to do ‘the accent’ for a role – the issues, although sensitively executed, often leave the audience feeling as if they’ve only skimmed the surface. One is left with the feeling that it is a mere redundant must-do to gain the approval of the contemporary audience – a crowd which requires a discussion on race but only to the extent that the white man’s spotlight isn’t overshadowed.
It causes me to wonder to what extent does Aziz Ansari himself know the challenges of the average brown man. After all, he was one of the few who made it – an exception constituting a mere fraction. He was part of the lucky few who filled the quota of the number of racial identities allowed in Hollywood while the rest were blacklisted without even a chance to get an audition across.
In Master of None, Dev almost exclusively dates white women and even transfigures his primary love interest into a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ – a female archetype whose sole purpose is to serve as a means of character development for the male lead. Francesca, romantic lead in the second season of the show, is an engaged Italian woman who leaves her entire life behind in the blink of an eye for Dev.
The audience is momentarily miffed at how simple Dev makes it look. Even though Ansari briefly discusses the struggles faced by a brown actor, we realise that Dev is not a person; he is a dream, an unattainable goal. He is a second-generation immigrant who stands on the shoulders of white giants and achieves nearly all his dreams. The series features him living in an expensive condo, scoring roles in the most acclaimed productions, starting his own cooking show with a celebrity chef and winning the affections of multiple beautiful women.
And while the illusion is enjoyable every so often, it still does not offer a realistic depiction of the truth we so badly need to see on the big screens.
We saw something of a similar sort in Mindy Kaling’s TV series The Mindy Project, featuring Kaling herself playing the female lead – also named Mindy. The character is an overweight Indian immigrant whose blunt and vivacious personality eventually endears her to her peers. She is introduced to us as a single, romantically frustrated but successful OB/GYN.
The problem I faced with The Mindy Project was similar to that which I had with Aziz Ansari’s show as well. Mindy, almost exclusively, dated white guys and her racial background hardly ever – if not at all – became an issue in her relationships. Now we could put all this down to pure luck on her part or her talent at knowing how to pick ‘em, but it bordered on an unrealistic picture, especially when one of the new series regulars, Jody Kimball-Kinney (portrayed by Garret Dillahaunt) – a loyal Southern white male who, on multiple occasions, revealed his distaste for feminism, ethnic rights and immigration – became a love interest for Kaling’s character. Yet that factor presented no trials for the couple despite Jody continuing with his beliefs.
Moreover, Mindy displays an almost dedicated aversion to her cultural roots. She readily defends her birth religion, Hinduism, without knowing anything about it. She exoticises her ‘otherness’, handling it with a falsified ‘ooh aah’ treatment normally reserved for her white counterparts. When she attempts to date an Indian man – a first for the show, yet only as a means to get a point across – she shows a shameless disinterest in her homeland by saying, “I want to say there’s a river there… and some tigers?” Her reply causes her to be labeled a ‘coconut’ by her date, an almost satirical response on the show’s part as it indicates “brown on the outside, white on the inside.” Whereas the end of this episode could have concluded with a realisation on Mindy’s part that she should be more culturally attuned, instead, it ended with her flippantly accepting her own indifference towards her roots.
A minority – at least at this stage – does not have the leisure of celebrating their individuality in solitude. Each portrayal must reflect that of a larger mass whose voices have not yet been heard. It is a responsibility that is heavy but it cannot be shirked.
Instead, such depictions often imply that the only acceptable brown person is one who has assimilated themselves in white culture. These people become the honorary white folk and the racial treatment that they undergo becomes exclusive.
Both Kaling and Ansari’s characters live lavishly, enjoying their upper-middle-class lifestyle and hardly have to deal with the hardships of other immigrants who were not as blessed as them.
Mindy is also revealed to be openly naive, extremely quirky and unfiltered. Her overtly sexual and crass nature was a refreshing change from the boorish, submissive portrayals of brown women, initially. However, it became a forced aspect later – as if the producers were trying to rigorously assert the contrast in an attempt for audiences to overlook their initial expectations for a role that was not usually reserved for a brown woman who did not conform to conventional beauty standards.
The trope started irking me more when I viewed Judd Apatow’s highly acclaimed film The 40 Year Old Virgin, which featured not one, not two, but three brown characters. It was when I relished in the delight of this fact did I realise the wrongness of it as an afterthought. I was alerted to how starved we were for representation – so much so that I felt the need to celebrate that a movie had invested in something more than the token POC character or followed through with what should have been the norm.
It was time we stopped rewarding mediocrity, I felt. It was time we stopped celebrating the bare minimum and taking Hollywood’s unwanted scraps – that fodder for appeasing their diverse viewership.
When they gave an inch, we took a mile. But in the end all we amounted to was an afterthought.
But I digress. Two of the three brown characters (I’ve often wondered whether the production managed to squeeze in the extra few because both played store clerks), Mooj (played by Garry Bednob) and Haziz (Shelley Malil), indulged in crass comments and severe profanities, all the while sporting the classic stereotypical accent. The third character, Amy (Mindy Kaling), albeit occasionally crude in her speech, was relatively more subdued than her male counterparts.
It might have been an attempt to break away from the stereotype but in its escape, it created a new one. The characters’ brusque behavior was too aggressively applied and teetered on a forced unnaturalness that failed to humanise them when witnessed by an audience.
It is through observing these racial tropes that we realise how regressive they truly are and that their mismanaged execution is transparent to those in a position less privileged than those who have been granted the opportunity of representing the former. We have taken part in our own alienation and we have turned a blind eye to the race and religion question in an attempt to shrug off our duties – forgetting how deeply rooted identity is in us all.
Khadijah Ahmad is a student and freelance writer based in Lahore