Is Hollywood Ready for a South Asian American Child Star?
It’s fair to say that Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling and Kal Penn have become household names, paving the way for many South Asian performers — including the cast of the recently-canceled “Outsourced” and younger stars such as Manish Dayal (“90210″) and Dilshad Vadsaria (“Greek”). There was once a time when South Asian actors did little more than play a glorified extra, and more often than not the focal point of their walk-on roles was to score laughs with a funny-sounding Indian accent. Though those days seem long gone, a recent promo for an upcoming Disney Channel show caught my eye and left me pondering a larger issue: Where are the South Asian American child stars?
The show in question is “Jessie” and debuts on Sept. 30, starring Debby Ryan of “The Suite Life on Deck” fame. But my eyes went straight to the little Indian boy featured in the teaser – a young actor by the name of Karan Brar, who also appeared in the feature film “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”. The reason he caught my eye is because his one line showcased him speaking in a faint Indian accent. My Wikipedia search led me to the revelation that Brar will play 10-year-old Ravi Ross, an “Indian adoptee imbued with his Eastern culture, but thrilled with his new life in America“.
Really, Disney? As we are approaching the year 2012, is there no simpler way to write a child of South Asian descent into a show without he or she having to be an ‘adoptee from India’ or fake an accent that the kids of today are probably so far removed from? Now, the show has not begun and perhaps this reaction is slightly assuming of what is to come. It might also be spurred from seeing this commercial after a viewing of the MTV Video Music Awards, where former Disney child stars Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are shining examples of Latina children incorporated into the realm of child stardom without ethnicity playing much of a factor in their roles. Were it not for their names, the majority of their young fans probably wouldn’t have a clue that these young ladies share a Mexican ancestry.
Brar, on the other hand, is left playing a role in which many of the jokes will ultimately be driven by his accent and unfamiliarity with American culture. And while I wish to take nothing away from his chance at starring on a channel that has produced some of the biggest stars the industry has seen, something about making it so blatantly obvious that this child is Indian seems to undo the hard work of the names mentioned at the beginning of this article. Because seldom does race play a role in the plot lines for Tom Haverford (Ansari on “Parks and Recreation”) or Kelly Kapoor (Kaling on “The Office”). At most, there is the occasional reference that is no different from the Indian equivalent of a @whitegrlproblems Twitter account.
Though it remains to be seen how “Jessie” will pan out as a show, one can’t help but await the day when South Asian American children have someone to look up to — a child star with whom they can identify as precisely what they are, South Asian Americans. If we are so integrated into American society and hold seats in some of the most prestigious educational institutions and professions, how difficult is it to depict a desi boy (or girl)-next-door? After all, I cannot say I would look up to Ms. Kaling the same way had she played a Bangalore-import overseeing Dunder Mifflin’s outsourcing department.
Sabrina Siddiqui is the editor-in-chief of Divanee.com.