Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s fourth episode of critically acclaimed Netflix TV series Master of None (2015–) begins with a brief scene from 1986 robot comedy Short Circuit wherein Fisher Stevens has been “browned up” to play the role of an Indian guy. As Dev (Aziz Ansari) notes, that film was about a “real robot and fake Indian.” Ansari’s brief montage sequence of clips from films and TV shows depicting obvious racial jokes captures decades of racial tensions present in the U.S in just seconds, from white people’s eyes popping out of their head by seeing Indian kings eating “chilled monkey brains,” to white Americans imitating the Indian accent, to video games mocking the Indian culture “Yoga Fire, Yoga Fire.”
The screen fades to black, and the episode’s name “Indians on TV” shows up flashing, changing colors from orange to white to green (India’s flag). The rest of the show deals with Indians’ racial traumas in the film industry, their frustration with the limited availability of roles and the stereotypical nature of the roles that are available.
Episode 4 begins with Dev walking into an audition. The waiting room is filled with mildly anxious faces prepping for the role of an Indian taxi driver in an upcoming blockbuster Unnamed Cab Driver, the story of a suspicious cab driver and a kidnapped girl whose body has been found in the magazine section of Barnes and Noble. The funniest and yet most critical dialogue of the episode is when Dev refuses to do an Indian accent during his audition because he just “feels weird about it.”
Casting agent: “Ben Kingsley did an accent in Gandhi, and he won the Oscar for it, so…”
Dev: “But he didn’t win the Oscar just for doing the accent… I mean it wasn’t an Oscar for ‘Best Indian Accent’… also, might be strange to play Gandhi and talk like I’m talking now (with an American accent).”
But racism is not limited to this one agent. An email chain from The Three Buddies’ show creator Jerry Danvers is accidentally forwarded to Dev, claiming that there can’t be two Indian actors in one American show and that he would like to meet with the actors in person to decide which one can “curry their favour.”
When Dev decides to leak the email and “charge it to the race card” instead of playing the race card, another notable issue pops up. It seems that everyone is aware of racism in the country. But once the private racism becomes public and hits the newspaper headlines, life gets harder for those “motherfucker racists.”
“But seriously, why can’t there be two Indian people in an American show?” Dev wonders throughout the episode.
“If an American show with two Indian guys on the poster hit the theatres, everyone’s going to think it’s an Indian show, and thus not relatable to a large mainstream audience,” Danvers responds. But Dev’s recurring question raises significant points about what is regarded as “mainstream” for the majority, as he wonders when the white guys became the mainstream’s favourite race. The answer is simple: cultural colonialism.
The ugly truth? Hollywood still isn’t confident enough (and does not want) to cast real Indians and other minorities (see for example the recent whitewashing controversy around Ghost in the Shell Movie) to do some of “the jobs that Bradley Cooper’s characters do in movies,” you know? Like an Indian sniper, an Asian financial wizard, or maybe a brown millionaire con-man? At best, they play roles of the Indian guy who runs a convenience store, the guy in the crowd with an Indian accent, or the cab driver. Now there is nothing wrong with those roles; someone has to fulfil those duties both on screen and off. The important point, however, is the fact that Hollywood remains reluctant to let people of colour take over important social roles. On-screen issues reflect America’s off-screen fears.
What was most enjoyable was the episode’s realist perspective on the fact that people of colour, such as Indians or Asians, may still be the “set decorations” in shows. As Danvers says, audiences and producers “are just not at that point yet.” There was a time when blacks and gays had a lot fewer opportunities to grow and shine in Western societies than they have today. They’ve suffered from major and minor racial traumas, have been humiliated and made fun of for decades. But look, today the most important man on earth, the president of the United States of the America, is an African-American. U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin and many amazing talented TV personas, from Ellen DeGeneres to Neil Patrick Harris, are openly queer. Black people and LGBTQ+ people are just getting there (to some extent); now it’s time for all the other kinds and colours.
Every day, we encounter so many articles, documentaries and films about the ongoing issue of racism in every corner of the world. What makes Ansari’s episode stand out, apart from the very different issues each episode engages with, are the subtle references to other social issues present in the world in general and the U.S in particular. Even though racism towards Indians occupies the main theme, Ansari has not forgotten about other hot topics: Ravi’s endorsement of the “all natural, non-GMO, fully organic, Desi-owned, chickpea-based pea protein” called Mumbai Muscle, which later turns out to be ordinary milk and causes his friend to lactate, is a direct critique of capitalism and consumer culture.
And one final point: Dev seems especially bothered because Indian guys are “not fucking the girls and all that stuff on TV,” like the white guys. But hey, didn’t the very first episode of Master of None begin with a rather long scene of Ansari having a one night stand with a white girl? Audiences are ready; Hollywood just needs to catch up.