Growing up as an Indian-American child who loved television, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me on the small screen. At the time, I never thought of it as an issue, and relating to the mostly African-American or Caucasian characters in the shows I watched was not an extremely difficult task. It did, however, slightly irk me that the only times I saw Indian-Americans on television were as caricatures. Apu from “The Simpsons” (1989-present) immediately comes to mind as the immigrant owner of a Kwik-E-Mart, a convenience store much like 7-Eleven. It was Apu who first popularized the phrase, “Thank you, come again,” which is one that I hear all too often.
But I do have a sense of humor and, much like the rest of America, I thought Apu was funny. While Apu’s character was not harmful in itself, it was damaging in its perpetration of stereotypes at a time when there were very few portrayals of Indian-Americans in popular culture; this shaped the way many viewed the whole race, even coinciding with violence against Indians in New Jersey in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Beyond Apu, I can only point to the random appearance of Baljeet Tjinder, a gas station owner in “Phineas and Ferb” (2007-2015), and Sanjaya Malakar, who was viciously ridiculed throughout his time competing on “American Idol” (2002-present). I never expected to see an honest representation of an Indian-American on television; I never knew such a concept existed. Even Russell Peters, the successful Indian-Canadian comedian, perpetuated stereotypes constantly in his material.
What a difference a couple years make.
Today, Indians on television are doctors — Mindy Lahiri, “The Mindy Project” (2012-present); scientists — Raj Koothrappali, “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-present); entrepreneurs — Tom Haverford, “Parks and Recreation” (2009-2015); models — CeCe Parekh, “New Girl” (2011-2014); cooks — Padma Lakshmi, “Top Chef” (2006-2014); private investigators — Kalinda Sharma, “The Good Wife” (2009-present); and whatever Kal Penn does. For the first time ever, there are finally real, three-dimensional Indian characters on television. The fact that this list is so long and that there are so many people I left out is an amazing development. It was something that eleven-year-old me could have never even dreamt of as I watched Disney Channel and saw Baljeet talking about math problems in a thick Indian accent.
Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari are leading the Indian-American television revolution, but they are not alone. Indian musicians, anchors, minor characters, hosts and comedians are popping up everywhere. For example, Ansari’s new Netflix show “Master of None” premiered on Nov. 6. The project succeeds in portraying Indian males like no other American television program has before. Dev Shah, Ansari’s character, is sexual, successful and funny. His story is one of thousands of first-generation Indian kids who grew up devoid of role models like Ansari and Kaling.
“Master of None” features Ansari’s real-life parents and beautifully explores the immigrant story as well as the state of Indian-Americans in entertainment. Much like “The Mindy Project,” though, it does not come off as preachy or incredibly political. Both shows, thankfully, spend a great deal of time focusing on the protagonists’ jobs, relationships and daily lives, which creates realistic and fully formed characters. From Apu selling goods at the Kwik-E-Mart to Ansari selling out Madison Square Garden, Indians have come a long way in Hollywood, and, hopefully, the exciting times will only continue.