In an attempt to avoid racism, a new American television show set in Mumbai stops short of saying anything new or funny, says Priyanka Joseph
AS SITCOM viewers, we hold some truths to be self-evident. For instance, most American sitcoms are made for easy caricature, with the rare exception focussed on social commentary — M*A*S*H changed the lives of everyone who plugged into the Star TV episode re-runs in the early 1990s. Corollary to this truth: American sitcoms made for easy caricature either provide a generation with popular catch-phrases, or catch flak from the same generation for hackneyed writing.
American television channel NBC’s Outsourced, which premiered on 23 September, has been rousing mixed reactions from just such a key demographic: 20-30 something American viewers, including Indian Americans and Indians currently residing in the US. Most have sounded off on their dislike of the show’s lack of timeliness, and its casting decisions. Others have commented on the refreshing presence of Indians and Indian themes, however dated, playing a main role in an American prime time show.
The movie this series is based — 2006’s Outsourced — captured a certain piece of the Indian/American reality in our recent history with sweet detail. In 2006, call centres was as far as American pop culture got with Indian references, apart from quaint films like The Guru. 2010 is a very different time. No selfrespecting pop culture pulse checker has mentioned call centres in three years.
Quick overview of the Outsourced series plot: An American novelties company outsources its sales to an artistic postcard representation of “Mumbai”, together with a young, snotty white American manager named Todd Dempsey (Ben Rappaport). Cue the Mumbai employee list: Rajiv, the Machiavellian manager, one beautiful young thing in love with her traditions (Rebecca Hazlewood’s complicated British accent attempting an Indian accent attempting an American accent), one sexually repressed bumpkin (Anisha Nagarajan), one Romeo with a heart of gold (Sacha Dhawan), one socially inept outcast (Parvesh Cheena, who plays his part brilliantly and together with Nagarajan, is responsible for some of the show’s only nuanced characterisation). Todd is quick to realise he needs to pick up on Indian cultural realities: from understanding gender roles to realising there is no such holiday as ‘Jolly Vindaloo Day’.
Still awake? The high yawn quotient of this tired, done-to-death plot is to an extent because Todd Dempsey is unlikeable from the get-go, portrayed as he is, as a close-minded white boy terrified of losing his job. But the show’s major flaws lie less in racism and more in lazy writing. Outsourced’s pilot took hesitant, baby steps, as if the cast were looking over their shoulders to make sure they hadn’t stepped on several million brown toes. Can this be put down to all the backlash that followed Joel Stein’s unintentionally incendiary piece for Time? Or do we place the script in the context of reactions Mr Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning production garnered for itself?
Things did mildly improve with the first few episodes. The writers didn’t descend to spontaneous Bollywood dance numbers and arranged marriage references only began in episode three. But Outsourced continued to live in a Mumbai that only exists in their imagination: there are no “decent burgers” to be had, no one has ever heard of Halloween (yet everyone seems to take to Halloween costuming in episode six like kitty party aunties to an Avon demonstration) and Rajiv is terrified of a tiger. As Madhuri Shekar, a graduate student at the University of Southern California wrote online, “… it’s set in an India that is unrecognisable. The thing that most offends me is that they’re trying so hard not to offend. It’s just not funny and there’s nothing edgy, raw or chaotic about a sitcom that’s set in India. You’d have to really work hard to sanitise India.”
Do we blame the inability of an American creative team to engage with the at-times-sordid and wholly hilarious realities in India? Or do we blame ourselves for having portrayed to the world that as a nation, Indians can’t take jokes? Can we laugh at ourselves as we are now, or can we only laugh at the happy twodimensional clichés we agreed to endorse over a decade ago? Where are the jokes about recreational drug use, alcohol binges, relationship hypocrisies, adult boredom, economic woes and general twisted humour, or do we pretend none of this exists at home?
Let it be said there is some fun in the Outsourced scripts. Some winning touches include the A-team call centre workers who return to India after gaining US degrees to work BPO gigs for Apple and Microsoft, who have mastered American cult slang phrases and use them against the American manager or the Americans dancing in an Indian disco for the first time and the Indian manager Rajiv’s passive aggressive comebacks are all LOLworthy. The writers are beginning to push the envelope, using characters that don’t excuse themselves, their awkward situations or their dystopian behaviour.
Can we laugh at ourselves as we are now, or can we only laugh at the two-dimensional clichés we agreed to endorse a decade ago?
What is particularly upsetting about Outsourced is that it could have been brilliant. It could have been a moment for keen social commentary on all us everyday people, both in the US and in India — us-still-living-with-our-parents people, us saving-money-on-rent-by-living-with-strangers people, us refusingto- get-into-the-family business people, us still-repaying-student-loans people, us still single because “seriously, are you kidding?” people.
Outsourced could have been a moment for writers and audience to have the guts to look at Indians for the first time not through the lens of stereotypes but to be honest with Indian idiosyncrasies. It could have been that big crossover moment, where we all acknowledge that with torrents, travel between both countries, cable television and the Internet in general, the distance between America and India has moved on beyond Delhi belly and tech support. Perhaps authentic storytelling can only happen when writers in India participate in the production of such shows. Perhaps it is finally time for stories about contemporary India that are told internationally to be produced and invested in locally. There is a market — we are all already here.