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In 2009, I sat in front of a reality TV development executive and pitched him an idea for a show centered on a traditional Indian matchmaker and her modern-minded clients in America. The show would explore the culture clash between old-school ideas about marriage and the modern world of dating. It would dive deep into the universal search for love and desire for belonging. And, perhaps most importantly, it would be entertaining as hell.
“But, would there be Americans in it?” the executive asked at the end of my 10-minute pitch.
“Americans?” I asked, genuinely confused by the question. “You know …” he said, trailing off because he probably knew better than to finish his sentence.
And then it dawned on me what he meant. He meant white people.
This was one of many instances where I was forced to confront that people of my background, no matter how “Westernized” our accents and our names, or how many ham sandwiches we eat for lunch, would never be considered American. How could we, when the representations of us in the media are almost exclusively through and for the white gaze? For decades, the most famous South Asian in the U.S. was Apu from The Simpsons — a caricature voiced by a white man.
It took another decade, but I eventually got to make the show I wanted thanks to the vision of an executive at Netflix named Bela Bajaria, who also happens to be Indian American.
When that show, Indian Matchmaking, was released last year, it was a watershed moment for South Asian representation, especially in the blindingly white world of dating shows. My mission for the show, and for everything that I create, was to force “us” into the mainstream. Not by erasing our culture or mocking it for entertainment value, but by showing that our lives, our dreams and our conflicts are every bit as universal as a white person’s. I was proud to see the tweets and text messages pouring in after the show first aired from people sharing how much they related to the participants and felt connected to the issues the show raised — and these messages were not just from my fellow Indians but from people of many different backgrounds. But with that praise came some criticism about the uglier aspects of Indian culture that were depicted in the show: colorism, sexism and casteism, to name a few. Some felt that the show didn’t do enough to interrogate these ideas. Indian Matchmaking set family WhatsApp groups ablaze with debate: mothers and sons, aunties and cousins, grandparents and uncles were arguing about whether Indian Matchmaking was an accurate mirror that reflected the reality of our society or a gross celebration of its worst aspects. Watching this unfold, I first felt panic — and then saw an opportunity. I fought the instinct to log off social media and ignore the conversation. What both fans and critics of the show were telling me is that the mere fact of representation is no longer enough. We need to demand more from the content that purports to speak for us. Having grown up in an era where we felt we had to be grateful for Apu, I was excited to see that the bar had been raised, even if I was the one being told I didn’t necessarily clear it.
Of course, when there is such a dearth of content representing the global majority, the few things that puncture the mainstream bubble will never be able to get it completely right. No single show can represent the diverse identities and ideologies of 1.3 billion people, and — by design — the ones that break through tend to be from the perspective of the most privileged. Those of us on the inside, fighting to get some version of representation on our screens, may sometimes fall short. But if we can learn to embrace the conversation our content sparks, we can use it to push the powers that be — and ourselves — to continue to do better. And that’s a win.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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