During author visits to middle schools, I share how movies and television influenced the shame I used to feel over my parents' accents. For example, in Disney films where South Asian or Middle Eastern characters are heroes (i.e., Jungle Book, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin), the good guys have "American" accents. Meanwhile people who sound like my parents are either fodder for jokes (i.e., Apu in the Simpsons and his filthy mini-mart, taxi drivers in countless movies, etc.) or bad guys (i.e., Kal Penn in this season's 24 will make an appearance as ... surprise ... a terrorist).
Now that I'm a parent of Indian boys myself, I worry about the kinds of messages they're receiving from pop culture about their ethnicity. I blogged recently about the disconcerting presence of South Asians in movies based on of two my favorite children's books: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (creepy oompah-loompah) and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (evil dwarf). That's why, after I learned from Sepia Mutiny blogger Taz that a young hunk named Sendhil Ramamurthy (see photo above) was starring in the hit show, we taped NBC's new Sci-Fi drama Heroes.
I endured (and fast-forwarded through) scenes of gore, mutilation, and the sexual exploitation of a young mother so that the boys could see a handsome South Asian hero light up the screen. Ramamurthy's accent sounded hideously fake to my ears, and to my amazement I discovered that the actor was born in Illinois. I found myself wondering why they didn't write his character as an Indian-American sans accent OR hire an actor from India for the role. Did they go after an actor with American head and hand movements and other western non-verbals so that viewers would find him more heroic? The show's writers also gave his character two vocations that are both stereotypically Indian: the smart, mystical college professor and of course, the inevitable taxi cab driver. But now I'm being nitpicky. Lighten up, Mitali, I tell myself. At least he's not a scary sidekick. Beggars can't be choosers, especially when it comes to a mother's post-9/11 hunt for pop culture heroes who look like her sons.