Episode 4 of Master of None, “Indians on TV,” starts with a young version of Dev (Aziz Ansari’s character) watching clips of Indian characters in the media. This montage includes cringe-inducing moments, from monkey brain eating in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Ashton Kutcher in brownface makeup for a Popchips commercial. The medley of harmful stereotypes function as a springboard for an episode that explores the complex issue of finding work as an ethnic actor.
Dev and his actor friend, Ravi (Ravi Patel, Meet the Patels), are auditioning for the role of “unnamed cab driver.” If you pay close attention to the background of the audition room, you can see that the role of “deli owner” has been cast as Indian as well. Already the audience knows that these people are casting Indians for stereotypical peripheral roles. When Dev is asked to do an Indian accent in his audition (because Ben Kingsley did one in Gandhi and won an Oscar), he refuses. Dev argues that (1) Kingsley didn’t win an Oscar for Best Indian Accent and (2) it wouldn’t seem right for Gandhi to be accent-less. The casting director replies that the cab driver role warrants an Indian accent too, which reflects her limited perception of Indians in America. It is frustrating to Dev (and hopefully everyone watching) that Indian identities are often reduced to caricatures in the media.
After the audition, Dev and Ravi meet up for coffee and discuss the roles they typically get auditions for. Both are frustrated with the limited range of roles: cab driver, scientist, and IT guy. These roles are often minor characters or “set decorations,” who lack depth and speak with an Indian accent. While these Indian characters may exist in the real world, there are all kinds of careers and personalities that Indians could portray. Dev is adamant about not doing an Indian accent, but Ravi admits he’s willing to do it because he needs the job. This episode brings up the question: How does one navigate the murky waters of ethical racial representation as an ethnic actor? Sure, you want to look out for yourself and your career, but should you take the role if it perpetuates negative stereotypes about race? Dev and Ravi plan to audition for an open-ethnicity sitcom named Three Buddies.
Dev is with his friends Denise (Lena Waithe) and Brian (Kelvin Yu) when he realizes he was accidentally included in an e-mail chain that he wasn’t supposed to see. In the chain, it is revealed that the showrunner thinks Dev and Ravi are perfect for Three Buddies. But an executive says “there can’t be two… Let’s see which one can curry our favor,” suggesting that there can’t be two Indian leads on one show. This sends Dev and his friends into a conversation about the public’s selective recognition of discrimination, whereby black and LGBTQ+ communities are more staunchly defended than Indian or Asian minorities.
Dev meets with his agent, played by Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black), who is intent on getting “that Friends money.” She doesn’t want Dev to leak the e-mail for the sake of his career. She says that she has read a lot of racist and sexist stuff herself, but that she would be working alone if she had complained.
Jerry Danvers, the man who made the “curry our favor” comment, apologizes to Dev in person. He gives Dev some spiel about how he’s not racist, telling Dev that he just needs to get to know him. Jerry treats Dev to a Knicks game. At the game, Jerry brings Dev to a VIP lounge and introduces him to Busta Rhymes, as if to say look I have a black friend, and I can’t be racist if I have a black friend! Without Jerry, Dev approaches Busta because he’s worried that he might be getting into business with someone who practices private racism. Busta responds, “I don’t think you should play the race card. Charge it to the race card.” Busta’s argument is that “playing the race card” doesn’t provide a long-term solution. Dev might receive a phony apology, but no real change will materialize. Instead, Dev can “charge it to the race card” by advocating for two Indian leads, a move that would challenge Jerry’s There Can’t Be Two rule and subvert Caucasian-centric norms.
During the car ride home, Dev confronts Jerry about his “there can’t be two” comment. Jerry tells Dev that casting two Indians will make Three Buddies look like an Indian show, which isn’t relatable to a mainstream audience. Dev is frustrated because “every show has two white people” and they aren’t considered white shows. Jerry makes him an offer, “Let’s just put you in the show, make a hundred episodes, get a huge syndication deal, and you make 50 to 75 million dollars.” Dev is faced with a dilemma: does he keep pushing for a show with two Indian leads or does he concede in order to progress his own career?
Back at Dev’s apartment, the episode becomes a shining example of how to portray Indians on TV. Ravi brings his friend Anush (Gerrard Lobo) over to Dev’s place. Here are three Indian characters on a mainstream show. None of them are cab drivers or deli owners. They aren’t limited to Indian accents and they aren’t foreigners who are the butt of the joke. This is a moment that defies the Indian caricature commonly seen in mainstream media. Anush’s character is the antithesis of stereotypical Indian role; he’s a tall, muscular fitness buff obsessed with working out, a far cry from the desexualized Indian that is usually presented.
Dev tells Ravi that Three Buddies only wants one of them, that there can’t be two Indian leads, that society just isn’t ready for it. Basically, he’s regurgitating everything that Jerry has said to him. Dev reasons that if either of them played a well-rounded Indian character who has depth, it would be a huge step forward for Indian representation. Then, Dev’s agent calls and tells him the lead went to a different Indian actor. Now that Dev’s out and there’s no personal motivation for Dev to defend Jerry’s beliefs, he’s ready to leak the e-mail with Ravi.
Before they put Jerry on blast, Dev’s agent calls to tell him Jerry passed away from a heart attack. She urges him not to leak the e-mail. The new head, Joan, wants to meet with Dev because she wants to make a different show with both Dev and Ravi. This would break the There Can’t Be Two rule. Her “progressive” idea is a reboot of Perfect Strangers, where one role is an assimilated Indian American and the other is his foreign cousin from India. Turns out, there can be two Indians, but there can’t be two Indian Americans. She wants Dev to play the cousin from India and asks him to do an Indian accent.
In Dev’s apartment, Dev and Ravi cycle back to their debate on whether or not to do an Indian accent. Dev wants Ravi to do the accent, even though he wouldn’t do it himself. While they’re arguing, Anush learns that the actor in Short Circuit 2 wasn’t actually Indian, but a white actor in brownface. “They got a real robot and a fake Indian!” Fearing that all Indian representation is a lie, Anush quips my favourite line, “Is Mindy Kaling real?” Fear not, Anush: though Mindy does seem too good to be true, she is very real. Like this episode, Mindy is a legitimate powerhouse for normalized Indian representation.
Master of None is available on Netflix and everyone needs to watch it.