Friday, March 31, 2000

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New York's South Asians do the talking on new TV show 

It is a television show that lets South Asians tell their own stories of life in this city. And Americans, it seems, are all ears.

The documentary, Desi: South Asians in New York, was launched by Channel 13 here, which, the station's president Bill Baker said, would be a "tribute to the more than 200,000 South Asians living in New York City". After a big drive to whip up membership for the channel, on the first day of the show, Baker said it was up to the audience to call to subscribe. Within a few minutes of the launch, the on-air hosts, beaming, announced that all phone lines were ringing.

Guest after guest-Preeta Bansal, solicitor general of New York; Gita Bajaj of Eye on Asia; Columbia University professor Srinath Srinivasan; stand-up comedian Aladdin Ullah-urged the public to pick up the phone and call.

Srinivasan said the community always complained of being neglected by the media, but now, since the show was all about South Asians, it was imperative to support the effort.

Gita Bajaj said America had been good to the community and it was time to give back. Ullah spoke of problems in growing up with stereotyping by classmates in school and this show was a real story told by real people. Such an honest effort, he said, needed a supportive response. Amd people seemed to be listening, as by the end of the show, the station had received 1,476 calls.

The on-air hosts, overwhelmed, announced that Santana: Live in Mexico, which was scheduled to be aired next, was being postponed to Friday and Desi: South Asians in New York would be aired again, a rare happening on the station. The second run received 412 calls to bring the total to 1,888-the magic number.

The documentary produced by Thirteen is made up of personal stories told by people themselves. It deals with issues important to the community, including unity in diversity of South Asian cultures and religions, stereotyping by fellow Americans and resolving personal identity. The film was made possible partly with support from The New York Times and Air-India, and India Abroad extended promotional support.

Producer Allen Glazen, who is commissioned by Thirteen to do the entire ethnic American series, said the show had witnessed tremendous viewer support. "Obviously people are interested in knowing more about South Asians." He estimates that almost half the audience was mainstream and "that is what the whole idea is".

Americans have come to realise that "this group (South Asians) appear to come from a vastly different culture" and it does not take long "to realise that we know nothing about them. I am Jewish, grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood, never met any Indians."

In view of the extraordinary response would they do more shows? Thirteen already has that on the agenda for the series, which is scheduled to run through 2001. After the series, the station wants to continue with specific select topics about each community. For example, Glazen said, "We could look at what it is to be a Sikh or take a closer look at Bollywood or Bhangra.""It would be foolish to think you can tell such a complicated story in one hour. We only touched the surface. There is much more to be told," he said.

On how the concept of doing all of South Asia together came about, he said, "We started out doing an Indian show and their (people interviewed) recommendation was to do the region." So this made us start on an "enormously complicated topic". But as you go along, he said, you realise that it is not so complicated after all; most ethnic groups have similarities and New York brings them all together.

"If you have a Dominican living next to a Sikh, they will be friends. With the series we are really celebrating New York." The production was completed in six months.

Copyright 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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