Towards the end of the 2020 fall semester, while studying for finals, I passed through the living room of my childhood home to find a rare occurrence. My parents were streaming something that was not Hindi-language reality television. They were watching Mismatched, a show about college students in a summer coding class in India. Trust me, it was a lot more entertaining than I made it sound. I sat down to eat lunch and then became engrossed.
Color me surprised when I looked up Mismatched’s Wikipedia page and found that it was based on When Dimple Met Rishi, a young adult novel by Sandhya Menon.
I have vivid memories of reading When Dimple Met Rishi. It was the first novel I had ever found that related to my experience as an Indian-American. It was even hyper-specific to my life. Almost all of the novel was set not only in San Francisco, near where I grew up, but also at my sister’s alma mater—San Francisco State University.
Even so, I was disappointed to find that Mismatched had taken a narrative by an Indian-American author about Indian-American characters, with a unique premise about growing up American yet being submersed in Indian culture, and had set it entirely in India.
Growing up Indian-American was not an experience atypical to that of many other immigrant kids. My family watched “foreign-language” media, like Hindi-language television and Bollywood, almost obsessively, and I was heavily surrounded by Indian culture. But I was always aware of a disconnect between me and my parents, even between me and my older sister, who’d had the luxury of being born in India and thus spoke more fluent Hindi. My Hindi was badly mangled and badly accented.
I only became aware of the lack of people with my skin color on screen when I was ten. By this age, I was not unaware of the jokes, of how Indians and other South Asians were stereotyped on television—exaggerated accents, smelling of curry, unlucky in love, serving as tech support, etc. Notably, Rajesh Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory, Baljeet from Phineas and Ferb, and Apu from The Simpsons served to enforce these stereotypes. Apu was not even voiced by an actual actor of South Asian origin.
My family finally got Disney Channel right around the time the show Jessie began airing, and my first exposure to Indian-American representation in media was through the character Ravi Ross, who almost embodied all these South Asian stereotypes. Ravi had a heavy Indian accent—despite actor Kevin Brar sounding just as American as me—liked smelly foods like curry, had a pet lizard, and was just generally awkward. But I kept watching because he was the only kid on television who I saw like me. At ten, all I had was Ravi Ross and Baljeet.
By the time I was thirteen, I had verged into genre television and had begun to watch shows like Once Upon A Time and Agents of SHIELD. If I’d thought representation was bad before, the scarcity of South Asian characters in science fiction and fantasy television was even worse.
In 2016, Agents of SHIELD, a show I watched devotedly from 2013 until its end summer of 2020, cast two South Asian actors as guest stars. One character was Indian-American United States Senator Ellen Nadeer, whose inclusion would have made me ecstatic had she not been very firmly the antagonist to the beloved heroes. The other was the senator’s brother, Vijay Nadeer, a character who suddenly developed superhuman abilities, much to my excitement. I was very much ready to see my first Indian-American superhero in Marvel. However, in the conclusion of his only appearance, Vijay was murdered by minions of his sister. Several episodes later, Senator Nadeer was killed off as well, and my hopes to see a South Asian superhero would not be fulfilled for several more years.
Still, this hope was not entirely futile. Over the years, I have had the fortune of seeing better South Asian characters. Tahani Al-Jamil, from The Good Place, is shown to perplex over morality in life after death. Kala Dandekar, from Sense8, contends with her engagement while being suddenly psychically linked to seven strangers. Other characters include Ravi Chakrabati, a morgue doctor who discovers his ME medical examiner assistant to be a zombie, from iZombie, and Yasmin “Yaz” Khan, the latest in a long line of companions in Doctor Who.
Those are the types of roles I never thought I would see South Asian actors play, the types of shows I never thought I would see South Asian characters in.
Comparatively, around this same time I started watching genre television, Mindy Kaling, a veteran of The Office, had begun producing and starring in The Mindy Project, a half-hour sitcom whose mere existence—an Indian-American woman as its face—was groundbreaking. Even four years later, I don’t think I’ve seen another show headlined by a South Asian actor or character as the protagonist. Yet, at my age during the sitcom’s airing, shows like The Mindy Project did not necessarily appeal to me, nor was I as aware of the lack of media representation.
The growth in South Asian representation in popular culture is not just limited to television shows either. Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani recently beefed up to play Kingo Sunen for Marvel’s The Eternals, and up until recently, Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj had his own show on Netflix—Patriot Act.
Actors and personalities like Kumail, Hasan, and Mindy Kaling, coupled with characters like Tahani, Kala, Ravi, and Yaz, are vast improvements over Ravi Ross and Baljeet; they slide in neatly to my life and made me proud of being Indian, being South Asian. My culture and childhood felt validated. I felt as if I finally had someone to relate to.
After years of struggling with being Indian—butchering my Hindi, feeling out of place during every summer visit to India, grappling with my American identity and not understanding pop culture references my classmates would make—I’d finally found some kind of balance between my two identities. Yet this relatable representation came late in my life. I was nearly sixteen. Indian-Americans older than me, like my twenty-four-year-old sister, had a scarcity of representation in comparison.
Of course, any discussion on South Asian representation in media would be amiss without bringing up Never Have I Ever, a coming-of-age story centered on an Indian-American teenager growing up in Southern California, created by Mindy Kaling. Never Have I Ever has been lauded for breaking long-held South Asian stereotypes and presenting so many common features of the Indian/South Asian culture.
When the show first aired in May 2020, my two close friends and I, all of Indian-American background, watched every episode together. We cracked jokes and oohed and aahed over how we could see our families reflected in protagonist Devi Vishwakumar’s family. I cried at the beautifully written season finale, partly because of how moving it was and also partly because it was over.
It felt like I had shared a unique and uniting experience with my friends—and, when I reflect back on it, how disappointing is that? There are so few South Asian characters in Western media, so few shows that reflect the Indian-American experience, that we took the one South Asian character we were given and bonded over it.
As much as I adored that experience, I would rather have the opposite. I would rather have a plethora of South Asian characters in media, so that I don’t have to feel guilty about not being partial to a certain character or show, and so that other Indian-Americans like me can see themselves reflected in all their facets—their individual South Asian cultures, their religion, their gender or sexuality, and their body shape.
Yet being angry over lack of representation is not entirely productive. I’m Indian-American, but I’m also a writer. If more established creators will not help give me and other Indian-Americans the representation we crave, then until our representation becomes commonplace, I’ll help write it.
And in the meantime, the tide is slowly changing. Kumail Nanjiani will be the first South Asian-American superhero. Marvel is producing a television series on iconic superhero Kamala Khan. Disney Junior is currently airing the animated children’s show Mira, Royal Detective. Never Have I Ever has been renewed for a second season. There’s so many other South Asian creators out there working on telling their own stories.
Hopefully, the next generation of Indian-American kids will grow up seeing themselves reflected on-screen a lot earlier than I did.