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The Contra Costa Times
Published on May 23, 1999

A Move to Break Hollywood Clichés

By Vera H-C Chan
TIMES STAFF WRITER


MIKE MYERS' temporary religious "conversion" was a blessing and a curse to Indian-Americans.

The Canadian comedic actor dressed up like a Hindu god for a Vanity Fair spread on Hollywood. On one palm were the words "Call my agent," while his other hand clutched a Palm Pilot with the word "Om." Myers later called it a parody of Madonna's South Asian fashion affectations.

Parody or not, the two-page spread provoked some debate at an informal discussion group of the South Asian Journalists Association. "Somebody saw (it) and got very worked up," explains SAJA co-founder and Columbia University assistant professor Sreenath Sreenivasan. When he posted the images on the association's Web site, server traffic shot up 900 percent.

What astonished Sreenivasan was that David LaChapelle, the celebrity photographer who took the Vanity Fair photos, called to apologize for any hurt feelings.

"I didn't even solicit it," says Sreenivasan.

A chance to talk

The apology was an unexpected bonus to what Sreenivasan considers the incident's true blessing -- it offered another opportunity for South Asian-Americans to talk publicly about their own culture and its portrayal in the mainstream U.S. media.

American mainstream pop culture has long borrowed and reworked South Asian images without much input from South Asians themselves. Now the South Asian-American community is starting to speak out.

In recent times, Myers, Madonna, the producers of the TV show "Xena: Warrior Princess," and the rock group Aerosmith have all drawn fire for using religious and cultural images in ways that South-Asians found offensive. And the Gap got into hot holy water with its latest fragrance "Om -- the sixth scent."

"We don't have to sit here and take it," says Debasish Mishra, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based India Abroad Center for Political Awareness. "If we feel badly about it, we can do something."

Why the celebrity/pop culture fascination with all things South Asian? "It's all part of the attempt to capture a sort of spirituality that's missing in one's life," says Rajini Srikanth, a University of Massachusetts assistant English professor and co-editor of "South Asian Apart, Yet a Part: South Asians in Asian America" (Temple University Press, $22.95). "The East in some way has connoted a kind of exotic spiritualism. And then these become easy ways of signaling that you are somehow balancing your material prosperity with a spiritual awareness."

While South Asia's influence on and portrayal in Western culture has a long, varied history, South Asian-Americans have only just begun to make a blip in pop culture. A Screen Actors Guild report, "Casting the American Scene," counts 15 Asian Indians out of 8,239 television characters from 1995-'98 -- rounded off, the percentage would be closer to zero than 1.

And the South Asian characters invented for television and movies haven't been very flattering. Indus, a UC-Berkeley student group, has pointed to the socially awkward, English-butchering engineer in "Short Circuit II" and the snake-eating villains in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" -- in general, not a very prepossessing bunch.

"It's a pretty sad statement that the most well-known Indian character in popular culture is Apu from 'The Simpsons,'" IACPC executive director Mishra says.

Well-known character

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is both a beleaguered and beloved icon. "Our (organization's) view is as mixed as the community's," Mishra says. "If you were to watch Apu just for one show, you know it's a stereotype. Anyone who watches it regularly, it's a very developed character."

Perceptions about South Asian-Americans (primarily Indian-Americans) usually revolve around occupational clichés. In the South, Srikanth says, they're all hotel owners. In urban centers, they drive cabs and run 7-11 stores. In New England and California they are engineers, restaurant owners or doctors.

IACPA, the only professionally staffed organization working to get South Asians involved in the democratic process nationwide, extended its civil rights efforts to educating networks like NBC about why an episode "Caroline in the City" -- in which a woman doesn't want to see a doctor who wears a turban -- might be offensive. Among the nonprofit's successes is the Chicago Tribune's apology for an article that included a "horrible caricature of an Indian cab driver," Mishra says.

"Slowly but surely," Mishra says, "a few organizations like ours have shown how to create change."

Sreenivasan takes a pragmatic view of the current South Asian vogue. "You shouldn't get upset (after) complaining for years there has been no representation for Asia," he says. "Now you finally have the representation, you're going to get the good and the bad."

Meanwhile, says CNN producer Senain Kheshgi, the community needs to support its upcoming generation of artists more fully, since they are the most likely to change stereotypes.

"There are many people doing the work and trying to get themselves represented," says Kheshgi, who is working on an independent documentary about South Asians in Hollywood. While many South Asian parents don't want their sons and daughters gadding about in theater or film, "what we need to do is support young filmmakers and actors and writers."


sree's lowercase world | stuff | contra costa times on hollywood clichés