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Why do we only see upper caste South Asian characters?

It is not an accident; an intelligible pattern exists.


The trailer of Bridgerton season 2 just dropped and Indian-South Asians, especially in the diaspora, are ecstatic about having a brown girl in the lead. However, this buzz around Bridgerton’s Kate Sharma, played by Simone Ashley, as the main character has given us all a chance to re-evaluate a few key ideas and imaginations of what it means to be us. In the sea of “representation matters”, it is imperative to ask why the Indians taking up diversity-spaces in western and west-targeted media are all so insistently upper caste and often always North Indian?


The research for this piece started with a mid-2000’s Bollywood film called Salaam Namaste (2006). Set in its entirety in Melbourne, Salaam Namaste has problematic ingredients aplenty - it has a ripped-off plot from Nine Months (1995) that revolves around an anti-choice, not pro-life, sentiment, and it uses its female characters as a collection of idiosyncratic traits that need to be negotiated with by the male characters on their journey to coming-of-age. However, by far the most overlooked portrayal in Salaam Namaste is that of its only Bahujan character - Jaggu Yadav - played by Jaaved Jaffrey. Jaggu Yadav, an OBC man from Bihar, is written and depicted as a mono-dimensional freeloader, juxtaposed against the film’s two central characters - Ambar Malhotra and Nikhil Arora. Both are written and portrayed as multi-layered and multi-talented conflict-ridden characters exploring diverse careers, while Jaggu is a bum who goes from lolling around at home in Bihar to winning a lottery to gain wealth and privilege in Australia.


While Nikhil Arora straddles architecture as a qualification and culinary excellence as a profession through the sheer force of upper-caste ambition, Ambar Malhotra is shown to be both a doctor in training and an accomplished radio host - in a fever-dream of upper-caste feminist independence. Jaggu Yadav, on the other hand, is played by an upper-caste actor and becomes a parody of adopted Australian white trashy-ness.

 

Culturally ruined by chanced-upon wealth. 


Thus, while Ambar and Nikhil get subtle critical plaudits throughout the film for holding on to their Indian-ness, Jaggu and every other character, not North Indian, upper caste, and Hindu, get ghettoised in stereotypes of all cringey shades and hues. Debonair, the Nair Malayali South Indian character, and Ambar’s boss gets black-faced to play an offensively stereotypical South Indian man with an unflattering accent and the works. Aslam Dheka, the Bengali-Bangladeshi Muslim character and Nikhil’s boss, gets stereotyped as a bumbling idiot who, again, gets rich through sheer luck - an unfortunate accident and a scam lawsuit. That covers the east of the subcontinent in cringe-value. And the west is covered by Ambar’s best friend, Gujarati boy Jignesh. Who, again, is not in Australia on account of his “merit”. He apparently copies assignments from Ambar all the time at Uni.


There is an intelligible pattern to this. Especially in the portrayal of Indians in western media - by writer-directors of both Indian and non-Indian origin. Diaspora writer-directors not from North India are complicit in this misrepresentation too.

 


Tamil-Bengali writer and show-creator Mindy Kaling cast herself as an upper-caste North-Indian - Kelly Kapoor - in The Office, likely because Kapoor got thought of as more Indian on the writing-table then. Malayali filmmaker Mira Nair’s (and writer Sabrina Dhawan’s) Aditi in Monsoon Wedding was written as North Indian and upper-caste Aditi Verma. Deepa Mehta’s Rahul and Sunita in Bollywood/Hollywood were written as North-Indian upper-caste Rahul Seth and Sunita Singh. Gurinder Chadha’s Jess from Bend it Like Beckham was more upper-caste North-Indian than she was Sikh as Jess Bhamra. Except for maybe her dad’s turban being employed as an obvious Sikh prop, all of his personality attributes were written out of being a North “Indian” more than anything else. Gurinder Chadha’s character Lalita Bakshi too was upper caste and North Indian in Bride & Prejudice. We can keep on going with this; the list is endless. It is thus important to understand how little of India is actually demographically North Indian and upper caste, or just upper caste for that matter.


The last completed Indian census (2011) estimated* the Indian upper caste population between 12.5% to 16.5%. Thus, this over-representation of theirs in the diaspora and a careful branding as the default Indian is possibly the best illustration of what Equality Labs rightfully calls a caste apartheid. The largely upper-caste origin of the Indian diaspora, and its faux “multiculturalism” abroad, is not an accident, and it is an apartheid that doesn’t know the other 85% even exists.


It also reflects in Devi Vishwakumar from Never Have I Ever, representing the upper castes as the default Indians in all their apartheid glory. In Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, representing the ideal minority upper-caste Ob-Gyn Mindy Lahiri. In the Mehras, the Chaterjis and the Kapoors of A Suitable Boy, all upper castes, very Vikram Seth-i in their lived reality. 


Arundhati Roy’s Rahel in the God of Small Things represents the inter-faith double-whammy of multicultural upper-caste-ness. However, in God of Small Things, Roy’s Dalit characters aren’t afforded the same dignity as Rahel. The Dalit character Velutha is portrayed using a gratuitously sexualised lens. The violence perpetrated on him is equally gratuitous, commodifying his trauma. Also, this violence is shown to have no structural perpetrator. The perpetrator is individualised, headless, formless - in the ether. It is the trauma that matters, nothing much else.

 


That is, however, one extreme of the upper caste Indian idealism in western or west-targeted culture, media and art. The other extreme is the chimera that comes out of the pipeline of Western commercial music, film & TV. Featuring an Indian that the white audience wants to see. The Indian we want them to see us as:

 

  • The Kate Sharma of the post-racism nonsense that is Bridgerton.
  • The Australian-Indian Brahmin singer, Dhee, of Enjoy Enjami, collaborating as lead artist with DJ Snake on a remix of a song about Dalit resistance by Dalit artist Arivu.
  • The Rajesh Koothrappali of The Big Bang Theory - Brahmin-PhD misogynist next-door.
  • And the Jack Malik of Yesterday.

All upper castes.


It is essential, though, to correctly identify what we are trying to say here. Archiving data on written fiction, film, TV and music, and raising awareness around it, is easy. Textual analysis based on the sort of data presented earlier here, though, will only harp on the age-old argument of diversity. And we are not making that argument here. We are done raising awareness. This piece isn’t a question of whether these characters are representative enough; or who these characters are supposed to represent. It is about asserting how a Jaggu gets portrayed cannot be cheapened to reductive ideas like minorities within minorities. It is to tell us, the white-adjecents, that Jaggu’s dehumanisation in Salaam Namaste is not an accident, and the buck of culpability, for this dehumanisation, stops with us - the upper castes.


We can have a hundred more Bridgerton-s and a few more scores of God-s of Small (and big) Things. All of these shows and works of fiction, by and for us upper castes, will continue to invisibilise or exploit Bahujan characters as props to discredit their Indian-ness to centre-stage ours.

 

We can try all we want, though. The dehumanised and seemingly assimilated Crocodile Dundee bogan, Jaggu, is still more “Indian” than all of us caste apartheid enablers will ever be.

 

*This is a complex but quite accurate estimation made using 3 different data sources - The Indian census report of 2011, the Indian Backward Classes Commission report of 1979-80, and the Renke Commission report of 2008.

About the author

Mudit Vyas is a graduate researcher at Monash University. He is a critical-cultural-studies scholar and specialises in the anthropology of creative industries. Mudit can be reached on his Instagram handle here.


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