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Do Recent Television Series and Reality Shows Objectively Portray Indian American Life?

Do Recent Television Series and Reality Shows Objectively Portray Indian American Life?

  • “Indian Matchmaking” or “Never Have I Ever” don’t bring mainstream America any closer to properly understanding community than “The Simpsons” did in the 1990s.

The challenges of raising a family for the past few generations grew increasingly complicated especially as the world grows “flatter” in the words of New York Time columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Thanks to the social media, the relative ease of availability of smartphones and by extension the access to Facetime, WhatsApp video, Facebook Video chat, Teams, Skype, Zoom and the like, one thing is clear: distance can no longer be cited as the reason for lack of communication. This is only enhanced when you factor in recent stay-at-home or social distancing orders put in place to stem the Covid-19 global pandemic. 

People don’t communicate because they don’t want to make the effort, or they don’t know how to do so effectively. It’s true that there is an art to communication — “Say what you mean and mean what you say” or “It’s not the message delivered, but the message received.” People only comprehend things based on their level of empathy. In order to fully comprehend, you have to want to understand what the other person is saying, and you can only do that if you approach the situation with an open mind. This can be applied between two people or even across cultures. It truly is an art.  

Since 1965, there have been waves of South Asian immigrants entering the U.S., but never before has there been so much attention placed by the American/U.S. mainstream entertainment industry on growing up Indian in America and the impact of Indian parents as there has been in the past year. When I was growing up, the only thing that depicted Indian people on mainstream TV was Apu in the “The Simpsons” – hardly an accurate representation.

A scene from “Family Karma” on Bravo. Top photo, a scene from Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking.”

But do shows like “Family Karma” on Bravo or “Indian Matchmaking” on Netflix do any better?  Perhaps the only show that was somewhat relatable was “Never Have I Ever” on Netflix – and the irony is, that was a sitcom versus the first two that were “reality” tv. 

Maybe I’m being unfair in expecting TV shows to carry the burden of educating the public about other cultures when curriculum in school doesn’t do nearly an adequate job. Afterall, TV is supposed to be entertaining while schools should be educating children.  Society has to want to learn.  That being said, what are these shows teaching those that weren’t raised by Indian parents about Indian culture and what impact will that have on society going forward? 

To answer that question, you’re going to have to travel back in time to my 8th grade class (mid 1990s) when a girl very seriously yet maliciously asked if I had had the red ruby surgically removed from my forehead so my father could use it to pay for a 7-11 franchise. Recall, this was when “The Simpsons” was at its peak popularity and Apu was the most interaction anyone had with an Indian person. 

Viewers that don’t know any better believe they are “learning about another culture” and most Indians I know are left wondering when there will be a show that truly reflects who they are as a people.

Before you ask me how I responded, let me just say I don’t think I did because I was confused by her question – did she think that all Indian females were born with red rubies implanted in their head? How did she think that actually worked? Suffice it to say I rolled my eyes at the time. But think about that for a minute. Thanks to a TV show, someone with average or below average intelligence thought this. Fast forward, how easy would it be for her now to be manipulated with another piece of misinformation (think along the lines of “China-virus”).  

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My point is that while watching “Family Karma” I think as people of South Asian descent, we all thought of the busybody “aunties” we have in our own lives that stick their nose in our business even though their own kids behave like deer lost in the headlights. It was no different during “Indian Matchmaking” when the audience bolted from Akshay and Aparna’s mothers, respectively.  

At the end of the day, these shows serve as nothing more than on-screen gossip with a cultural twist. Companies like Netflix and Bravo benefit from the PR surrounding the shows, viewers that don’t know any better believe they are “learning about another culture” and most Indians I know are left wondering when there will be a show that truly reflects who they are as a people. The shows did nothing to show the lives of most Indians or Indian Americans, but rather tried to highlight cases such as those of a gay Indian American, the child of a divorcee dad, young men who are under the thumb or their moms and women who are portrayed as overly-aggressive because they know what they want. 

My question is: where were the everyday average people? As the shows did nothing to fight for the causes of the aforementioned groups, it can only be concluded that they wanted to promote the stereotype that traditional Indian society is struggling to overcome its issues with these problems versus just showing everyday average folks because while that would educate the public it wouldn’t make for good TV and where is the fun in that? 

Kanika Chadha is naturally inquisitive and is fueled by her desire to unveil mysteries. Kanika has worked as a Business Analytics professional for 8 years after 9 years on Wall Street. She holds a dual M.S. in Financial Economics and Multinational Commerce from Boston University. In addition, Kanika has supported various South Asian focused 501(c)3 organizations, including the Sankara Eye Foundation. She lives in New Jersey with her son and husband.

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  • Great article! Although I do not live in America, It mande think about “how to learn about other cultures” apart from TV shows ir movies with the sole intention of entertainment. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about that, as I also live in a multicultural country. Congratulations!

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