Indians on TV: How Aziz Ansari and ‘Master of None’ Navigate the Anxieties of Representation

Indians on TV: How Aziz Ansari and 'Master of None' Navigate the Anxieties of Representation
Indians on TV: How Aziz Ansari and 'Master of None' Navigate the Anxieties of Representation

In the first scene of “Indians on TV,” the fourth episode of Aziz Ansari’s smart, funny new Netflix series “Master of None,” a childhood version of Ansari’s character Dev watches “Short Circuit 2” on his family television. The scene in question features Fisher Stevens, a white actor, in the role of Benjamin Jahrvi, an Indian character, adopting a stereotypical Indian accent while he talks to robot Johnny Five. The episode then cuts to a brief montage of stereotypical Indian caricatures across the history of pop culture, including Hadji from “Johnny Quest,” the monkey brains scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” Peter Sellers in “The Party,” and the 2013 Popchips commercial with Ashton Kutcher in brownface. Ansari and Alan Yang, who created “Master of None” and wrote the episode, make a crucial point with this montage: It’s not any one stereotypical depiction that’s the problem, but the sum total that creates an inaccurate and offensive image in the minds of the indifferent majority. No one person is at fault for the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry; it’s a larger system that operates on casual prejudice and exclusion in exchange for higher profit margins.

Hollywood’s diversity problem isn’t my favorite topic to discuss, much to the confusion of people who assume my skin color demands a strong opinion on the issue. But my feelings about racial representation in pop culture are as complex and conflicted as my relationship with my own race. There’s an obvious lack of proper representation for all minorities across the board, including Indian Americans, that absolutely needs to be rectified, but I don’t love feeling the burden to celebrate every time a member of my race is cast in a TV show. Moreover, I find it vaguely insulting that people assume I will somehow relate more or less closely to a fictional character based on their race, as if skin color inherently guarantees a deep connection. But mainly I believe the bar for a “victory” when it comes to representation has been set too low. It’s not enough for me just to have an Indian American actor on TV. I want an Indian American actor to play their version of Tony Soprano or Don Draper. That would be a victory. (Of course, these opinions always make me feel guilty for a variety
of unspecified reasons that I’m sure every first-generation American will probably recognize.)

“Indians on TV” is a great episode of television precisely because it doesn’t shy away from the inherent thorniness of representation. It assumes the anxiety, refusing to offer neat answers to difficult questions in favor of opening up a legitimate dialogue about the issue. It doesn’t set out to finger-wag at easy targets nor preach platitudes to an outraged base. All it does is just depict how difficult it is for minorities to navigate a world that insouciantly marginalizes their existence. Ansari and Yang don’t go after any one figurehead, but rather set their sights on a capitalist system that facilitates the normalization of social ills. Without adopting a shrill, unforgiving tone, Ansari and Yang manage to damn the game and chastise the players, all the while expressing sympathy for those caught within a culture of indifference.

In the episode, Dev and his actor friend Ravi (Ravi Patel) both go out for the part of “Unnamed Cab Driver” on a TV crime show. They later discuss their feelings about stereotypical casting, especially adopting an accent for auditions. Ravi doesn’t mind, because he needs work and oftentimes the bit roles he goes out for, like cab driver or a convenience store owner, might well have accents in real life. Besides, as he points out, he can spend the money he receives from those roles on bettering his own situation or donating it to charity. But Dev feels uncomfortable perpetuating tired stereotypes well into the 21st century, believing it limits future opportunities for different roles. He asks, “Why can’t there be a Pradeep just once who’s, like, an architect, or he design mittens, or does one of the jobs Bradley
Cooper’s characters do in movies?”

But Ansari and Yang almost immediately complicate both Dev and Ravi’s principles by throwing them in a situation that forces them to compromise the greater good for their own self-interest. When the two of them go out for parts in a new sitcom called “Three Buddies,” Dev gets accidentally forwarded an email chain that features network executive Jerry Danvers (Adam Grupper) saying “there can be only one” Indian in the show and suggesting they should see which of them could “curry their favor.” Though Dev’s friends encourage him to leak the racist email, his agent Shannon (Danielle Brooks) implores him to use it for leverage, claiming that if she leaked all of the offensive emails she has read, she’d be the only employee at her agency. Later, when Danvers takes Dev to a Knicks game as an apology, rapper Busta Rhymes, also in business with Danvers, pushes him in the same direction: “Don’t play the race card; charge it to the race card.” It’s telling that while Dev’s friends are thirsty for revenge, both Shannon and Busta, two minorities who also worked their way up the show business ladder, urge Dev not to waste his rare opportunity to make a great leap forward, even if it’s by way of an executive’s private racism.

Ansari and Young establish an all-too familiar situation in which well-meaning principles clash against the ugly realities of the entertainment industrial complex. It bothers Dev that Danvers insists there can’t be two Indians in the same network show, more so than his racist joke, but he also wants that “David Schwimmer money” that will inevitably come with staying silent and taking a role in a guaranteed hit. When Dev tries to convince Ravi why they shouldn’t leak the email, he makes mealy-mouthed excuses about how Indians aren’t at “there can be two” status yet, and wouldn’t it be great if there was one well-rounded Indian character on TV, effectively accepting society’s low representational bar. These are the knotty issues inherent in racial representation: On one hand, it’s nice to be an agent for social progress in popular culture, but it’s also essential to make a living, which inevitably means swallowing systemic prejudice in the hope that more opportunities will open up down the line. 

But when Danvers screws Dev over by casting another Indian actor in the role, Dev suddenly wants to leak the email, assuming the principles he so quickly abandoned when it was financially expedient to do so. It’s important to note that Ansari and Yang don’t harshly criticize Dev for his actions, no matter how flighty and hypocritical, because they are the actions of a minority forced to compromise their integrity for practical purposes. Dev has been dealt bad hands every time he goes out for roles that would rather conform to stereotypes than challenge them, and thus has to maneuver an intricate bureaucracy that has no interest in personally serving him. It’s funny, but understandable that Dev’s position keeps shifting with more and more information. Besides, what’s Dev’s recourse after being betrayed by Danvers? He can get a bunch of Indians to tweet mean stuff at him. No substantial solutions or long-term remedies.

Even when an ostensibly good opportunity comes along for a minority actor, like when Danvers suddenly dies of a heart attack and a young progressive network exec (Samantha Cote) becomes interested in Dev, they are often co-opted by capitalist interests beyond any one person’s control. The young exec wants to feature Dev and Ravi on a “fresh, innovative” new series. Her idea? A reboot of “Perfect Strangers,” with an assimilated Indian American and his fresh-off-the-boat cousin replacing Larry and Balki, which, of course, demands either Dev or Ravi to adopt an Indian accent for the role, something neither of them want to do. Ansari and Yang demonstrate that even the most outwardly progressive people in power are still beholden to a system that dictates old idea be privileged over new ones.

Under the best of circumstances, it’s not easy to write an episode about diversity without preaching to the choir. Ansari and Yang get around this with “Indians on TV” by not condemning Dev, Ravi, or even Danvers for their actions, focusing on how the Hollywood machine forces everyone from actors to studio executives to make the small compromises that allow a world with such a dearth of diverse minority roles to exist. All it takes is for one person in power to stand up and take a risk, but why do that when leaning on guaranteed success can make everyone rich? “What if we tried [the show] with me and Ravi and see what happens?” Dev asks Danvers, but he quickly goes back on that stance when Danvers brings up the money he’s posed to make. Ravi has no problems playing a host of stereotypical roles, but when Dev is set to take a role that could go for him, he calls Dev an “Uncle Taj.” The young network executive calls Danvers’ “Three Buddies” idea too conservative and traditional, but her “original” idea is yet another reboot. Ansari and Yang portray how a culture apathetic to real progressive change drives minorities to reject their beliefs, turn against each other, and to accept less than what they deserve. In lieu of offering a solution to this problem, they instead illustrate how difficult it is to live with this problem, making the episode that much more comedically and emotionally potent.

But Ansari and Yang don’t simply rest on the laurels of irony to get across their criticisms of Hollywood. Instead, they use the ten episodes of “Master of None” as an extended argument for how diversity can facilitate fresh ideas by simply placing a minority in the standard “everyman” role. At one point in “Indians on TV,” Dev tells Ravi that Indians are still “set decoration,” never the center of focus. That’s decidedly not the case with “Master of None,” where Ansari plays a character who gets to experience the same storylines — the difficulties of babysitting kids, dalliances with married woman, the trials and tribulations of a long-term relationship — white characters have for years. “Master of None” is casually groundbreaking in the way it repositions traditional storylines with a different perspective. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen three Indian Americans on screen at the same time speak without accents, let alone an Indian American character have sex with a white character on TV. But most importantly, Ansari and Yang achieve this without a hint of self-congratulation. It’s decidedly not a big deal, just a natural part of the series.

However, the series’ progressive modus operandi doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality. Despite its rave reviews right out the gate, the first season of “Master of None” is far from perfect. It’s a little rough around the edges in terms of acting and direction, especially in the first half of the season, the comedic rhythms can be distractingly off-kilter, and sometimes you can feel Ansari and Yang strain for significance. But it does what a good first season is supposed to do: It establishes a distinct point of view that can later evolve over time. The back-half of the season operates on a more relaxed register, especially in the “Nashville” and “Mornings” episodes, and adopts different tones that point the way to a potentially stellar second season. But overall, I find myself impressed with Ansari’s ambition in “Master of None.” As a fan of his since the fantastic MTV sketch series “Human Giant,” it’s interesting to chart Ansari’s career from the mid-00s majority-white alt comedy scene in New York to his own racially-diverse, culturally-enlightened series. Ansari is still too young to call “Master of None” a culmination of his career, but it’s easy to see it as a snapshot of a curious, open-minded perspective. Though he has shied away from the comparison for understandable reasons, it’s pretty great that Ansari has created and starred in his own version of “Louie.” Now, that’s
a victory I can get behind.

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