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Model minority: NRIs in US pushing the brown envelope

columns Updated: Oct 03, 2015 00:55 IST
Hindustan Times
The Martian

Priyanka Chopra in the TV show Quantico.

This week’s major Hollywood release is The Martian, about an astronaut abandoned on Mars and his attempt to survive on the lonely planet.

Not surprisingly, since this is a Nasa mission, and its Martian endeavours have many Indian-Americans involved, there’s a connect, though it’s not Mangalyaan marching in to the rescue. That comes in the form of Vince Kapoor, driving the ground operations in Houston targeted at getting the inadvertent Martian of human origin back. Curiously, Kapoor is played by African-American actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, the sort of casting that sneers at stereotypes.

More than 90% of Indian-Americans wed within the tiny community. Of the remainder, the vast majority marry Caucasians, but, as in the case of California’s rising politician Kamala Harris, there’s some blending going on.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in his second community reception in the United States, the choice of Silicon Valley may have fed into the perception of Indian-Americans as the new tech tycoons, given the meetings with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and his Microsoft counterpart Satya Nadella, not to mention the grinning Google, Facebook or Tesla employees in group photos. It’s nice to know that nearly a sixth of all new companies in Northern California have a person of Indian origin as a founder.

Modi’s interactions were obviously not so plain vanilla. After all, he met with a delegation of Sikhs, many of whom have successfully cultivated careers for themselves in the fertile parts of California like Yuba City. And there were, certainly, the Gujaratis, who have cornered the market in convenience stores and motels.

The diaspora has dished up CEOs, doctors and even many members of the Obama administration, as it displays its 50 shades of grey matter. There’s a growing sense of mainstreaming that’s certainly an improvement over the cabbie caricature or even the Apu cartoon in The Simpsons.

But there remains a Bollywood version of the uber-eligible NRI, one that is reinforced by the ranks that file into events like that in San Jose or even into cubicles in Santa Clara and similar suburbs of San Francisco. That presents an aversion to the reality that this ‘model minority’ has its warts. The community has managed to burst through the plain brown envelope of stereotype within North America, though it may still be somewhat pigeonholed at its native place. There is an idealised, if not idolised, conception of the Indian abroad.

If there were the thousands cheering Modi at San Jose’s SAP Center, there were also the cheesed off academics writing letters protesting the reception being provided to him. Many may have shattered glass ceilings on Wall Street, but even that phenomenon isn’t monochrome, as the spate of arrests for insider trading, headlined by Rajat Gupta, has shown.

There are even the gangs that operate in the Canadian city of Vancouver, that form the basis for Deepa Mehta’s Beeba Boys. This lavishly colourful movie shows that matters aren’t quite as black and white.

Or even, strangely enough, in that other Modi, Kal Penn’s latest role, as a celeb photographer from Los Angeles, who is as likeable as a rash. In The Girl in the Photographs, a slasher flick that features horrormeister Wes Craven as its executive producer (his first appearance in the credits since he died this year), Penn is Peter Hemmings, with roots in a small town in South Dakota. Why Peter Hemmings? No back story, no explanation, it’s a fact of life like Kim Kardashian being a celebrity.

Before we make a hue and cry over North America going colour-blind, we ought to tune into Quantico, the new TV thriller about a rogue FBI recruit, played by Priyanka Chopra. That character happens to be Alex Parrish, who is half-Indian, and half-white, who, perhaps, gets a bad rap. That’s a Bollywood breakthrough, but the minuscule community may get its leading role with Eat Pray Thug, a proposed network show on Heems, the frontman for Das Racist, the Queens, New York-based hip hop trio. The underground may finally be surfacing.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

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