On India, Indian Men and the Plight of Brown-Washing
Disclaimer : This is a very shallow piece.
I have been planning to do a thoughtful India centric story, dealing with and busting some of the mind-boggling stereotypes that seem to follow us despite the fact that this is 21st Century and a plain Google search is enough to inform you that we in India, do not, in fact use elephants as a regular mode of transport. And that as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, we are allowed to take offence when someone deems snake-charming as the preferred profession of the majority of this country.
Also, we are not all good at Maths or computers, much as we would like. And while our nerds maybe as nerdy as yours, if not more (which in itself is a problematic generalization, but more on it later); our non-nerds are about as numerous, diverse and multi-faceted as you would hope to have in a country with a population of about 1.5 billion.
So, of course, a thoughtful piece was in order. But then, I came across this. And the thoughtful piece went right out of the window.
Oh the good old Apu! The Simpsons is an undeniable personal favorite, but frankly, Apu is an existential blot that is hard to shake for Indians abroad. The Simpsons is a pop culture force that worked in the opposite direction for us, saddling our men with a stereotypical image that was unimaginative, dull and just plain stupid (the image, not the men).
Our men have had it bad. Really. I mean stereotyping India is obviously a thing in the West; along with a couple of hundred other nationalities/races/anything that doesn’t fit their limited perceived homogenized understanding of a human being; but Indian men seem to have been struck with the short, blunt, ugly end of the stick.
Because while Indian women are stereotyped too, at least one of those stereotypes is ‘exotic’ which is really a backhanded compliment and round about way of saying ‘I don’t understand what you are but damn you are pretty!”
Not that it makes the whole stereotyping thing okay. Not by a long shot.
But with Priyanka Chopra making in roads in Hollywood (with an acquired American accent) along with Deepika Padukone (with no artificial accent, and no ‘Hindi’ is not an accent), not to mention Nimrat Kaur and Mindy Kaling among others, Indian women seem to have gained a marginally better representation in the mainstream Western media. Marginally being the operative word.
To be fair, there have been notable exceptions in this regard in case of men as well. Like Kal Penn, Kunal Nayyar, Dev Patel, Aziz Ansari and Irrfan, to name a few. But as Kal Penn pointed out in his tweets, it wasn’t without a battle with the prevalent stereotyping norms.
The bottom line is, Indian men continue to suffer the brutalities of being regularly brown-washed. (As do women, even though the manifestations differ. But for the purposes of this piece, we are choosing to focus on men)
But seriously, how?
A recent, fairly random online poll ranked Hrithik Roshan, an Indian movie superstar, third on a list of sexiest men alive. He beat Hugh Jackman, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt in the process. The poll was random, but please, go Google Hrithik Roshan. You will see that the randomness of the poll is no reflection on its accuracy.
And while you are at it, you can Google Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, John Abraham, Kabir Bedi(all Indian movie stars) or Vikas Khanna (a Michelin starred chef) or Shashi Tharoor , Madhav Rao Scindia or Sachin Pilot (all Indian politicians).
At this point, I am tempted to turn this piece into a photo essay. Which I totally can, since I spent the past couple of hours ogling at the photos of ‘handsome Indian men’ (which is one of the less dubious of the many, many search queries that currently riddle my history)
You know, for science.
Men (and women) in India are as diverse as they come. From the predominant oriental features of the north east to the tall, dark, handsome version of the south to the turbaned, bearded glory of Punjab to the rough and rugged North India to the porcelain skinned, blue eyed Jammu and Kashmir to the rustic, sturdy Rajasthan to the old fashioned erudition of Bengal — India is a platter you can choose from. And I mean it in a totally appreciative, non-objectifying sense of the word.
I can also direct you to a list of men, including Shashi Tharoor whose lilting voice is known to have ovaries explode; and Amitabh Bachchan , whose baritone is the one of the finest baritones that this planet has ever been blessed with; who will rest your doubts about our ‘accent’ once and for all. (Shashi Tharoor incidentally also happens to be one of the smartest, most erudite man you’d ever come across, as is Amitabh Bachchan, who also happens to be a damn fine actor; but we are deliberately not talking about it in the interest of paying an homage to patriarchal shallowness)
Of course, we don’t have an American or a British accent. And yes, English is our second language. But, ‘Hindi’ is still not an accent and we are way past the era of Apu’s Indian-English generalizations. As to whether or not we speak English, 10% of us do; which in numbers amounts to approximately 125 million. That is more than double the entire population of Australia for you; and in numbers, second only to the U.S, or so Google tells me. So hell yeah, we speak English. Along with two or three or more of the 22 official languages of India, dialects and foreign languages not included.
To reduce our men into prototypes of Apu is sacrilege, not just because it is reductive, offensive and pretty stupid; it is also a great loss for the consumers of the western mainstream popular culture. By reducing our men into a predefined set of features, linguistics and hell, even professions, you are losing out on the beauty that lies hidden across this diverse, blessed segment of humanity. And I mean that metaphorically as much as I mean it literally.
I am not sorry.
I had already told you this is a shallow piece. This is also a piece that seeks to balance out the scales of a creative space riddled by creations that celebrate men’s gaze on women; and for once, reverse the trend. It is not objectification. Or maybe it is. I don’t know how to defend it either way. There is no real precedent of a valid defense. Except that it was not intentional and is merely an artistic expression of appreciation.
I am still not sorry.
Here is the deal. There are probably a billion serious concerns that need to be addressed when it comes to brown-washing. As relevant and problematic as the issue of stereotyping is in the present times, this is a facet of stereotyping in popular culture that has been addressed, but never enough.
It deserves a well researched thought piece. This, however, is not that piece.
This is a piece that is urging the Western popular culture en masse to stop being an idiot. And appreciate our men. As we do theirs. God knows if I were to get a dime for every hour I spent staring at Jensen Ackles on my laptop/phone/TV screen, I would have been a billionaire last year. My love for him is only rivaled by my love for Shah Rukh Khan, another Indian movie megastar who has been my crush since I was five.
The two men could not have been more unlike each other. And it is just another proof that just like goodness and humanity; good looks, attraction and crushes are not bound by petty boundaries of nationality, race and ethnicity.
Anyway, I mentioned Jensen Ackles to make a point. The point that the 10% English speaking population of this country had moved beyond the obvious Western male icons like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise a decade ago.
The West, however, continues to be stuck on Raj Koothrapalli. I love Raj (and Kunal Nayyar, who is a brilliant actor), but out beyond those Western stereotypes, there is a world of Indian men.
And it is not waiting to be explored.
Frankly, that world pretty much does not care. It has its own 1.5 billion people to please and be pleased with. But in times like ours; scarred by strife, mistrust, discrimination, intolerance and divisive forces; appreciation of beauty in our diversity, served with a side of hot, may just be what the doctor ordered. It maybe no cure, but it is a beautiful, even if only a temporary solace. And who knows, it might also offer some perspectives about our shared humanity as a bonus.
And even minus the nobility of the motive, this is just to say,
Guys, you are missing out. Hope you catch up. Good luck!