I recently saw “The Big Sick” because quite honestly I will show up for anything featuring South Asian person. There’s been a lot of controversy, and what I think is really valid criticism, but it also got me thinking.
We don’t have many portrayals of South Asian people in Hollywood. The strong contenders that come to mind are Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari. While I love both of them dearly, I can’t help but notice that the only South Asian narrative portrayed is the desi who is secular and entirely assimilated.
In the Big Sick, Nanjiani yells at his girlfriend that he is battling a 1400 year old tradition. In the Mindy Project, her cultural background is only brought up a handful of times, and it’s not really portrayed as much of a factor in Mindy’s identity. Ansari dedicates an entire episode to talking about being a lapsed Muslim, even taking his younger (and by the way super cute) cousin to a BBQ festival. And of course, we have the recycled and repetitive story of the brown dude dating the white woman and the obstacles they face. (There’s a great article here on brown men and their pursuit of white women.)
As a child of the diaspora, I understand the internal tug of war intimately. Growing up, I tried so hard to assimilate, to be like my white friends. It’s the experience of so many of fellow diaspora kids. But the only ending to the story ever told is the one where we finally fit in. We’ve completely adopted this country and its ways as our own and never looked back at the country our families left behind.
Sometimes it feels like Hollywood thinks the only narrative worth sharing is the one where we’re just like them.
The stories we see on the screen are the ones where our cultures are shown as things to be grown out of. They’re regressive, ungainly, backward things weighing us down. I will admit, desi culture has its problems (though majority of the issues can be traced back to colonialism and western influence). You can critique a heritage while celebrating all the things that are so wonderful about it.
For South Asian Americans assimilating is seen as a mandatory rite of passage. It’s almost like a prerequisite for our voices to be heard. And while the stories of those who far more American than they are Indian or Pakistani or Sri Lankan are important our compatriots who have refused to give up or modify any parts of themselves deserve to be represented as well.
I want a story where the white significant other learns Hindi or Urdu or Punjabi to be able to talk to their partner’s family. I want a story where a devout, pray 5 times a day, hijab wearing Pakistani girl falls in love with a non-Muslim and doesn’t give up her faith and culture. I want a story where the child of immigrants doesn’t grow up and shed their culture along with their braces and training bras. I want a story where BOTH the romantic leads are brown because god forbid we don’t fall in love with a white person.
Representation does not mean telling the easy stories, it means telling the difficult ones too.