And just like that, we’re having the wrong conversation about South Asian diversity in Hollywood

Quality over quantity.
Quality over quantity.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard, Caitlin Ochs, Chris Pizzello
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The uproar around Carrie Bradshaw’s sarilehenga mixup has taken a life of its own on the internet. Some are mad she didn’t know the difference between the two Indian garments. Others were perplexed by her floral mohawk. The episode’s exchange about cultural appropriation and arranged marriage talk only added to the noise, but many people are unimpressed by what they see as lazy writing and an oversimplification of desi culture.

It’s not as though white people in Hollywood, some infamously tone deaf on race and culture, are entirely responsible either. One of four writers on the episode was a South Asian woman, Rachna Fruchbom of Fresh off the Boat fame.

But the show about four straight, white, privileged women—which has often been on the wrong side of diversity and is shabbily trying to recover from it—was never going to get this right.

Sex and the City is not a diversity champion

Sex and the City has been a great example of camp tonality and, all of a sudden, to place these expectations of authenticity and almost ethnographic storytelling felt like a mismatch between audience expectations and actual storytelling,” Rajiv Menon, a Los Angeles-based writer and producer, told Quartz. “My biggest concern is that representation has become an amorphous buzz word that’s more of a marker of presence or absence of South Asian people on screen, as opposed to a more qualitative understanding of them.”

Sure, it would’ve been nice if Carrie called a lehenga a lehenga and didn’t have to be taught about Diwali in her 50s (after living and working as a writer in a city that has multiple grand Diwali events every year) but it wouldn’t have fixed the problem of tokenism. What Hollywood needs is fleshed-out characters and stories, and varied perspectives about the lived South Asian experience—not just the outfits and festivals.

Fortunately, those stories are coming. Unfortunately, they’re not nearly as diverse as they should be.

The doors Mindy Kaling opened

South Asian stories have become more commonplace and The Office‘s Mindy Kaling has had a huge hand in that. As bimbo Kelly Kapoor in the sitcom, she was nothing like the usual ambitious, nerdy characters featuring South Asian women. Her shows have created a window into the life of a broad range of Indian Americans, who used to be entirely absent from American screens.

Law student Priyadarshini Das, 27, a second-generation immigrant raised in California, caught glimpses of herself in Kaling’s Never Have I Ever—“The way she prays to god in the first episode is honestly exactly how I pray if and when I do…and the auntie dynamic was very accurate,” Das says—and The Sex Life of College Girls.

In the latter, Indian American parents find out their daughter is secretly pursuing comedy, and while the dad is disappointed, the mom is supportive. “It’s a refreshing take because that’s how I feel many Indian parents really are like here in the US rather than the crazy strict doctor-only mentality,” she says, referring to the stereotype that South Asian parents force their kids into med school.

Some viewers were turned off by the tired ethnic stereotypes and bad Indian accents across her shows, but that doesn’t make them untrue. “I do think Mindy Kaling purposefully writes Indian characters as a bit cringe because frankly growing up in two cultures and going through puberty at a time when ‘turmeric lattes and hair oils’ were not cool was, in fact, often cringe,” Das adds.

But perhaps it is no longer necessary to perpetuate a singular, dated, and oft-caricatured experience of the second largest immigrant group in the US. Kaling, who admits to putting a lot of herself in Never Have I Ever protagonist Devi, sets the show in 2020, which is decades after she grew up. And some things are overkill, even for TV. No Ganesh Puja, an auspicious Hindu festival, is kicked off with a Bollywood song-and-dance sequence.

Kaling doesn’t have to be “the United Nations of shows” but she has the power to do more. “When you have that platform, you can show a breadth of experiences but she chooses one throughout her work,” says Neeraj Jain, cinematographer and producer. For South Asians to be “normalized, accepted and understood, you have to capture a breadth of stories.”

Of course, the burden doesn’t fall on one woman. Studios and networks must make more of “an active effort into cultivating the pipeline of talent,” says LA-based actor Sharayu Mahale. “It’s one thing to hope another juggernaut like Mindy Kaling finds her way, and another to actively put money into a pipeline that cultivates this talent and finances these ideas.”

Who’s getting South Asian storytelling right? (Spoiler alert: Riz Ahmed)

“Culture cannot be treated as static,” explains Menon, who has a PhD in South Asian media and entertainment from New York University. “It moves very fast, and being able to show changes is often at odds with the quest for authenticity. When we look for ‘authentic representation,’ we’re often excavating something from the past.”

In addition to becoming more contemporary, there is a pressing need to stop treating south Asian characters as ethnographic subjects or pure representatives of their culture, versus the layered richness that is assumed often of white characters. “No one is sitting around really evaluating white characters and how they’re representing the white community,” Menon adds. “They’re seen as universal humans and we need to extend that grace to our community as well.”

To make that happen, diversity must go beyond the numbers game.

“It’s not enough to have 10 South Asian writers. It’s important to have 10 South Asian people with different experiences in the US,” Jain says. Without the nuanced conversation, Jain worries that we’ll have people taking advantage of this movement towards diversity and representation by “trying to tell stories that are not their own, that they don’t already have an understanding of, or that they’ve not done enough to understand.”

Both Jain and Menon pointed to British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed as a sound example of someone who often gets it right. “He is thinking about what the diaspora looks like, not only in terms of the literal story, but also in terms of form and aesthetic,” says Menon. The two make a similar point: Ahmed trusts his 21st century audience.

For instance, in Ahmed’s 2020 film Mogul Mowgli, there is a “certain level of intelligence” assumed when the characters switch seamlessly between Urdu and English, and a lota is referenced matter-of-factly, Jain says. “They have a lot of culture elements that are absolutely not explained but it’s not about a lota. It’s about the storytelling and emotion, and anyone can understand that.”

“A lot of spelling out is happening for a Western audience so it comes down to sprinkling in what’s exotic or cool or different,” says Jain. “But how much of the Western world do we spell out for international audiences?”