By Priya Chhaya
Here’s a truth about me. I love television.
Another truth? I am one of those Indians that loves seeing Indians on television. I’ll often give a show a chance (or keep watching) for that reason alone. Case in point: When ER was in its later years, I kept watching primarily because Parminder Nagra joined the cast.
On Tuesday nights you’ll probably find me tear-streaked and laughing over a storyline on FOX’s New Girl and The Mindy Project. Both shows have an amazing comic sensibility, and they feature Cece Parekh (played by Hannah Simone) and Mindy Lahiri (played by Mindy Kaling).
I’ve followed a few different Indian-American characters on television. Some are like Kal Penn on House – a doctor whose ethnicity rarely comes up. Or Archie Punjabi’s character on The Good Wife, who I have heard has an air of mystery. Others are like Raj on The Big Bang Theory, whose Indianness comes up as a reoccurring joke, complete with the stereotypical accent.
What I like about Cece and Mindy is that they are ethnically diverse characters who are not defined by that ethnicity. Their culture and beliefs come into play when the plot necessitates it, rather than being the defining feature of all their interactions.
One storyline I appreciated seeing was New Girl’s treatment of Cece’s search for a husband. On any other show, the actual process of her going through the arranged marriage process would have been the assumed view of arranged marriage, i.e. parents introduce you, you decide to get married the next day.
But Cece’s storyline explored her experiences going through the process: trying a dating event, meeting her potential husband and his family, and their choice to date before getting engaged. Nothing was instantaneous. As an Indian-American, it was refreshing to see a realistic plotline of how modern arranged marriages occur, including how Cece participated in these customs as a girl who was both Indian and American.
On The Mindy Project, an allusion to Mindy’s ethnicity is even rarer. The writer and creator of the show Mindy Kaling stated in a recent Entertainment Weekly article, that “Most of the time when people want to talk to me about my job it’s about three things: not skinny, multicultural, woman who is female. I don’t want to minimize that it’s a source of inspiration to young people, but I was just born in this skin, so it’s not something I think about when I’m writing.”
That is why both characters work for me. As characters Cece and Mindy are not developed and written to fill a quota, or to be a representation of a particular worldview. Instead they are allowed to be real (tv) people who aren’t all one culture or another.
For more on this topic, check out this great article from last May from Monique Nazareth on Television Worth Watching.