Hindi Language Blog

Part 3: Indians in Popular American T.V. and Movies Posted by on Oct 24, 2016 in Hindi Language, Uncategorized

In this third and final installment in a series on Indians in America (the first and second parts explore Indian immigration to America and the many “Little Indias” to be found here), I wanted to talk about the contributions Indian-Americans have made to popular American television and movies.

Mindy Kaling

Also known by her original name, Vera Mindy Chokalingam, the actress (अभिनेत्री/abhinetri, fem. noun), writer (लेखक/lekhak, masc. and fem. noun) and comedian Mindy Kaling has helped represent the modern (आधुनिक/aadhunik) Indian-American experience (अनुभव/anubhav, masc. noun) in groundbreaking ways. She made a major debut in the world of television with her work on The Office, for which she served occasionally as executive producer, writer and director (निर्देशक/nirdeshak, masc and fem. noun). Although The Mindy Project, the show for which she is now the producer, writer and star, has been critiqued for insufficiently dealing with Kaling’s “difference” as an Indian-American actress, in one episode of the series (which aired in May 2016) Kaling tackles this issue by investigating her Indian roots. As a side note, Kaling named her character in this series Dr. Mindy Lahiri after one of her favorite authors, Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri.

In the above-mentioned episode, Mindy goes on a date with an Indian-American man; she confesses to him that she knows very little about the place from which her parents (immigrants from India) originally came. Unlike Mindy, her date holds up his Indian identity as a point of pride while still being staunchly American; he condemns Mindy’s attitude toward her culture and calls her a “coconut” or a person who outwardly appears Indian but has inwardly assimilated to the dominant, white American culture.

After this encounter, Mindy reflects on a heritage that she had previously taken for granted and decides to arrange a “mundan” (मुंडन/mundan, masc. noun) ceremony for her young son as a way of reconnecting with Indian culture. This ceremony is one of the Hindu samskaras (संस्कार/samskaar, masc. noun) or sacraments in which a child, usually between the ages of one and three, is given his or her first haircut; because the hair present at birth is connected with unwanted characteristics of past lives, shaving the hair of the child connotes a release from any negative karma accrued in these past lives. Notably, in the show Mindy’s parents express surprise at her desire to be more “Indian” as they tried to raise her to be as American as possible; her parents thought that being American necessarily meant that their child would lose her Indian identity, which they assumed she would not be interested in anyway.

Through this show, Kaling represents a South Asian character on a major television show (which is, sadly, still rare) and thereby makes her viewers (दर्शक/darshak, masc. and fem. noun) think about issues that we are not often asked to ponder, such as those of race, identity (पहचान/pehchaan, fem. noun) and how to negotiate and balance two, at times divergent, cultures simultaneously. In fact, one of Kaling’s primary inspirations (प्रेरणा/prerna, fem. noun) for this show and her work in general are her own feelings of being left out and discriminated against, especially in terms of representation in popular culture. These emotions led to her need and desire to depict a new type of character and family that was sorely lacking from television. Thus, Kaling created the character of Dr. Lahiri to depict the conflicted experiences, some of which mirror her own, of many latter-generation children of immigrants: despite Dr. Lahiri’s ardent desire to assimilate into mainstream, American culture, she is on a path toward accepting and celebrating her Indian heritage, suggesting that there are many ways of being American.

Aziz Ansari  

Another actor (अभिनेता/abhinetaa, masc. noun) who is redefining the Indian-American experience on television is Aziz Ansari, who created, wrote and starred in the Netflix series Master of None. A son of Tamil Muslim immigrants, Ansari plays the character Dev Shah, a struggling actor, in this witty and engaging series that also tackles questions of race, (hyphenated) identity and negotiating different cultures at once. As a celebrated American actor and comedian who previously played the character Tom Haverford on the show Parks and Recreation, Ansari has recently also become a vocal advocate for greater diversity (विविधता/vividhataa, fem. noun) in American T.V. and film. He states in an interview his frustration growing up that he “rarely saw any Indians on T.V. or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker,” which were roles that served only to emphasize ethnicity-driven stereotypes. He adds that, even in movies and T.V. shows in which there is supposed to be an Indian character, the role would often be played by a white person made-up to look Indian (a phenomenon called “whitewashing”), as in Master of None’s reference to white actor Fisher Steven’s playing an Indian character in the movie Short Circuit 2.

Not only does the show address racism in Hollywood and American television, it also deals with the immigrant experience and the cultural gap that often forms between immigrants and their children and grandchildren. In one episode, Ansari explores his parents’ experiences in India, their desire for a better life and drive to move to America and his resultant privileges that make it difficult for him to appreciate his parents’ struggles. Overall, Master of None is a must-watch show that is at once funny, light-hearted and filled with interesting issues particular to the modern age as well as universal; at its heart, this series challenges viewers to ponder questions to which they are rarely exposed and, in the process, defies our notions of what is considered “typical” and a one-size-fits-all definition of what it means to be an “American.”

In addition to the talented people mentioned above, there are numerous other Indian and Indian-American actors, actresses, comedians and directors who have indelibly enriched American cinema and T.V. A stellar example is Priyanka Chopra, an Indian actress known for her roles in Bollywood, who became a pioneering figure when she took the lead role of “Alex Parrish” on the ABC thriller show “Quantico.” Although several Bollywood actors and actresses have attempted to cross-over into Hollywood cinema and American television, few have succeeded in the way that Chopra has. She states that one of her major motivations to take this role was to break down American stereotypes about Indians and, especially, Indian women that attempt to dictate a person’s personality, aspirations and cultural milieu. Chopra defies all of these stereotypes with her role as a fierce FBI agent. Other notable personalities include the Canadian-born comedian Russell Peters, who is of Anglo-Indian descent and has become famous for poking fun at his own culture and people in a way that challenges audience members to confront their own biases and stereotypes. Further, Indian-American actor Kal Penn is notable for his moving performance in the film based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake (directed by the celebrated Indian-American director Mira Nair), and Kunal Nayyar became famous for his portrayal of Rajesh Koothrappali on the acclaimed sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

These are just a few of the countless Indian and Indian-American creative personalities who have touched the lives of the average viewer through their craft. Comment below if you have a favorite Indian-American actor, actress, comedian and/or director whom I did not mention and you believe deserves to be recognized!

शब्दावली की सूची

Shabdaavali ki Suuchi (Vocabulary List):

  1. अभिनेत्री/abhinetri and अभिनेता/abhinetaa: actress and actor, respectively (formal Hindi)
  2. लेखक/lekhak: writer (can refer to most types of writers)
  3. आधुनिक/aadhunik: modern
  4. अनुभाव/anubhav (masc. noun): experience
  5. निर्देशक/nirdeshak: director (formal Hindi, can refer to many types of directors)
  6. मुंडन/mundan (masc. noun): a Hindu ceremony in which a child has his or her first haircut.
  7. संस्कार/samskaar (masc. noun): a Hindu sacrament, which occur throughout a person’s lifetime marking key events.
  8. दर्शक/darshak: viewer (formal Hindi, can refer to many types of viewers)
  9. पहचान/pehchaan (fem. noun): identity (informal Hindi)
  10. प्रेरणा/prernaa (fem. noun): inspiration (formal Hindi)
  11. विविधता/vividhataa (fem. noun): diversity or variety (formal Hindi)
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About the Author: Rachael

नमस्ते, मेरा नाम रेचल है/السلام علیکم، میرا نام ریچل ہے۔ Hello, my name is Rachael, but I also on occasion go by Richa––an interesting story for another time :) My two great loves are Hindi and Urdu. I first traveled to India (Jaipur, Rajasthan) in college on a Hindi study abroad program. A little over a year later, I returned to the same city to study Hindi in a yearlong program. I've also spent a summer in Kolkata, West Bengal learning Bengali, and I studied Urdu at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a graduate student in South Asian Studies. I hope to share with you the fascinating world of Hindi and Urdu literature, society, culture and film through my blogs!


  1. Sat:

    Part 3: Indians in Popular American T.V. and Movies

    It seems like you are very keen in helping learnser like myself learn Hindi. Knowing the meaning of wrods alone cannot do it or does not help soemone who has to place these words into sentences.

    Hence, I do not know if you could acccomdate this request:

    Can you start a series of posts in which you create sentences, some short, some long and some of intermediate lenght and explain the formation of the setences based on the words used, gender, number and other inflections and the Hindi grammar as whole?

    This can be the most usefull practice for learners when they can see every thing put together in a functional manner and have the opportunity at the same time to let someone like you explain the sentences for them in the grammaticla context. This , to me, is the crux of learning any language the right way.

    Thank you.