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What is a talking picture worth?

In the last year, with the canny eye of the native, I have spotted things and faces Indian in the oddest places on my television line-up. Given the jewel-colored raw silk dresses, embroidery and mirror-work accessories on my favorite soap operas, the Indian anchors on BBC and CNN, the Indians who feature as commentators on the financial channels and the Indian actors that appear, more often than before, on mainstream prime-time sitcoms and dramas, it would seem that the nuclear tests and elections that the Indian Government has provided to guarantee our thirty seconds on the small screen were unnecessary. In fact, if you add other South Asians to this tally, we are everywhere. We have stepped out of the cabs and consulting rooms and newspaper kiosks and are set to take over cable and network TV!

Hyperbole apart, what does it mean that South Asian faces and names are now trickling into living rooms in the US?

Increased visibility can be important to a minority community in many ways. First, increased visibility signals the community’s arrival at many levels. In the context of the capitalist media market, it follows first of all from the community’s growing purchasing power. As South Asian-Americans become prominent consumers of certain goods—long-distance services, computers, cars—advertising is targeted at them. Even without belaboring or exaggerating the important link between advertising and program content, the networks and production companies must also take cognizance of young American-born or raised South Asians who are entering this industry in different capacities. Their visibility behind the scenes must surely help onscreen as well. Finally, if we see more South Asians on TV in non-stereotypical roles, then there must be more South Asians than ever on the streets, in the stores, in the schools, in society at large, doing a variety of things, assimilating and remaining distinct, and in general, impossible to overlook.

Such recognition of their arrival benefits the community in two important ways. First, as people who study textbook content or cinema as tools of national integration can attest, visibility is a simple sign of inclusion. I see someone like me on TV and insofar as TV is liberally based on reality, that is a sign that I exist in this societal context. If I do exist here, then I must be entitled to the same things as others on the screen, privy to the same dreams and party to the making of the same myths. Second, as generations of South Asian-Americans grow up in a context substantially different from that of their ethnic origin, like other American children they will seek their role-models on television. On the one hand, seeing people like them on TV gives them a cultural mooring that their immigrant forebears lacked. This facilitates their assimilation. On the other hand, depiction of diversity underlines diversity, so it may further a process underway in community centers everywhere of creating a new South Asian-American cultural hybrid. Translation of one’s original culture as one understands and is able to express and explain it, simplification of its complexities in the interests of that translation, adaptation of one’s customs and practices to local circumstances and adoption of customs and values from others contribute to this hybridization.

For the countries of South Asia, showing up on the radar of the average American television viewer should be half the battle won, particularly as they lobby in Washington. But is it?

Last Wednesday (4-19-00), NBC repeated its broadcast of an episode of ‘West Wing’ in which President Bartlett and his staff deal with the ramifications of an Indian invasion of Pakistan. In the course of the hour, apart from his regular staff, we get to watch a surly and sophisticated Pakistani ambassador, a less surly but markedly more accented and ideological Indian ambassador and an eccentric British scholar who looks impossibly young for having served as British ‘Minister’ to India and Pakistan for thirty years! The tradeoff between having South Asia occupy center-stage on an important drama series for an entire episode and having this happen via a series of characters who are almost caricatures is a tough one. Even ignoring factual issues (where is ‘Azad’ in Kashmir?) as irrelevant in a fictional episode, one must still confront some of the judgments embedded in the drama.

First, there is the whole "… and these guys have nuclear weapons" angle. Far be it from me to say that nuclear weapons are fine and harmless little things, but Indians and Pakistanis are not less intelligent or cautious than anyone else in this matter. This is a theme that resonates outside this drama series in the broader discourse on non-proliferation. President Bartlett has every right to look as grave and parental as he does. No matter which side you are on, when you are the one who has them, having nuclear (or chemical or biological) weapons is not tantamount to using them. Those other people however, are wily and worse still, they are driven to childish madness by their religious passions.

This is my second problem, and this is what the brilliant but drunk and lecherous and of course, British, aristocrat scholar is flown down to the White House at great expense, to pronounce. My dear fellows, you simply don’t understand—it’s all about religion. My students know that there are two things that make me almost break out in hives—one is the branding of all unknown and exotic societies as "corrupt and unstable" and the other is the conflation of everyone else’s problems with religious and traditional passions. Clearly, this scholar has never been in my class! No two states in the present international system deploy large numbers of soldiers or weapons solely on the basis of religious passion. Never mind that the Indian armed forces employ soldiers of different faiths so a religious war against Pakistan would make no sense. But the ‘West Wing’ is a wonderfully written show, and certainly more riveting and convincing than anything we assign in our classes or anything that South Asia experts pronounce totheir peers on talk shows. If Lord John Marbury says religion is the thing, it must be true. Even if he was drunk when he said it!

What is my point here? Simply this: I started out really excited that South Asia was going to be at the center of this episode. I kept my fingers crossed as each scene progressed. I even laughed at the half-fictional attempt to recall recent events (including an embarrassed CIA director admitting to "dropping the ball"). I wondered if some Indian official would protest the story-line (India invades Pakistan, sends in thousands of troops, on grounds that are quite weak: they were sick of the inept, corrupt, unstable, etc. regime in Pakistan and thought it was time to intervene). I decided against it. I really like this show and didn’t want to get angry with it. Well, I am not angry. Just very disappointed.

Is this what increased visibility means? What is better for South Asia, South Asians and South Asian-Americans? I cannot tell.

With our combined size and even without our combined numbers, we are important, in the world and increasingly on this continent. This does not have to be proven over and over again. Therefore, it is only right that we show up on people’s small and large screens and start impinging on their consciousness. This may occasionally mean dubious portrayals but we should speak out if they bother us. We matter, and we should be both seen and heard. On the other hand, in spite of the fact that I can see people who look like me on TV now, I still have to surf a lot of channels to catch them for a few minutes. So when someone puts us at the center of the plot for a substantial period of time, I want it to be done in a manner with which I can live. We are not so desperate for attention, nor so inarticulate, that we cannot say: "Stop! you have this wrong!"

What is a talking picture worth? Just ask the politicians of South India who mastered and deployed the silver and then the small screen to revolutionary effect. In this day and age, in this society, it is worth a thousand classroom lectures and tens of thousands of scholarly and editorial articles and expert discussions. Even as we rejoice that there are more South Asians acting, producing, writing and hosting shows on television, it is time we put that to strategic use. The best way to win the game is to get in on writing the rules, and the best way to sell your political issues is to frame them before anyone else does. I am not even talking about petty national-state agendas here but larger ones: are we rabid, tribal peoples? are we begging and beseeching at every turn? must we sit down and be told how to live by others? do we bring nothing to this table ourselves? If the answer to these questions is in the negative, then it is time we commandeered this medium to our ends.

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Swarna Rajagopalan
East Lansing
April 22, 2000

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