Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Heroic Indian Accent?

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.

10 comments:

R2K said...

: )

Pooja said...

Another way to find pop culture heroes who look like your sons is to look to South Asia for good role models. Have you checked out Virgin Comics', whose mission is "to create original stories and characters that tap into the vast library of mythology and reinvent the rich... narratives of India"?

The new comic line launched three imprints this summer—Shakti, Director's Cut, and Voices. Most interesting for you might be Shakti, which focuses on re-imagining myths from the Indian Subcontinent.

Mitali Perkins said...

Thanks, Pooja. I'll check that out! I guess if I were to be extremely picky I'd want a few Indian American heroes who look AND sound like them. Hope all is well with the upcoming launch of Mama's Saris.

Christy Lenzi said...

Mitali, I, too loved reading the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid--later I was struck by the way Lewis uses what readers might see as Asian or "Eastern" images for the enemies. Especially in The Horse and His Boy. Even the mc, who we think is a foreigner, turns out to be a "good" Narnian.

I'm not sure, but were the "bad" dwarves called the dark dwarves?

Well, I'm not sure what to think, but it did bother me when I read The Hose and His Boy as an adult. I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

Christy Lenzi said...

Oops, lot's of typos in that last comment--sorry!

Christy Lenzi said...

"lot's"?! Geez! I'm losing it....

literary safari said...

On a similar note, I heard a great piece on NPR a couple of weeks ago about two filmmakers who are trying to shatter Arab stereotypes in Hollywood. Here's the link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6064305

Mitali Perkins said...

Great link, Literary Safari. Thanks.

And Christy, I'm glad you brought up "The Horse and His Boy." I loved that book as a child -- it was my favorite Chronicle -- and didn't consciously notice any of the "fair Northerner" and "dark-skinned Calormen" references. For me, it was the story of Aravis, a feisty dark-skinned girl who escapes the constraints of her situation with courage and determination. Lewis wrote her character with great respect -- she's intelligent, innovative, and a brilliant storyteller.

Of course now, as an adult, I see the stereotypes in the stories, and yet I can't throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. The "baby" is a timeless story with memorable characters; Lewis' "bathwater" was a declining British Empire. What is my bathwater, I wonder? What am I not seeing in the books I write that might make my grandchildren cringe? Is my "baby" sweet and true enough to satisfy story-hungry hearts anyway?

I've even offered my services to Walden Media as a "cultural specialist" in the making of the movies, but alas, have received no reply. Here are my qualifications: I have read the Chronicles so many times that I know the stories almost by heart. I love Lewis' baby deeply, and would treat it with the utmost care and respect. But as someone who is also proud to be a dark-skinned garlic-eating Calormene, I could help them de-tox Lewis' bathwater. Have your people call my people, Walden Media.

Christy Lenzi said...

I think that's a good way to look at it. My eight-year-old is reading through the series now. Any suggestions on how to approach and handle these subjects when I discuss the books with him? (Perhaps you can be my personal "Cultural Specialist" on the matter :) )

Mitali Perkins said...

That's a tough one as boys of that age see things as good or evil, so they're unable to glean the good and enjoy the story even while discerning the cultural/historical/social biases of the author. I'll have to give that some thought and get back to you. It's interesting that the folks over at Oyate.org recommend doing away with the reading of Little House books altogether because of Wilder's portrayal of the Indians. I can't go that route with the Narnia books, and yet in this post-9/11 world, we must grapple with Lewis' use of Arab/Middle Eastern/South Asian stereotypes to describe the Calormenes. Let me get back to you in a blog post called "Narnia Through Calormene eyes: Guiding Post-9/11 Kids Safely Through Lewis' Chronicles." In the meatime, let your son enjoy the story, and maybe ask HIM, "How do you think a Muslim kid would feel about the Calormenes?" I'd love to hear his answer.

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