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Indian-American profile up, from politics to film

Jai Ho! The years-long wave of immigration from India is creating a rising tide of visibility for Indian-Americans in the United States.

india Updated: Mar 01, 2009 13:06 IST
AP
Hindustantimes

Jai Ho! The years-long wave of immigration from India is creating a rising tide of visibility for Indian-Americans in the United States.

The past few weeks have underscored their increasingly high profile: Louisiana Gov Bobby Jindal gave the Republican response on Tuesday night to President Barack Obama's speech to Congress, while Dr Sanjay Gupta is under consideration to be Obama's surgeon general.

Model and cooking author Padma Lakshmi finished another "Top Chef" TV season, then became the celebrity face for a new Procter & Gamble Co Pantene shampoo line as well as a Hardee's hamburger promotion.

Anoop Desai, dubbed Noop Dogg, drew fans with his singing on this year's American Idol, and Aziz Ansari was in TV's medical comedy Scrubs before moving to a regular role in the upcoming comedy series Parks and Recreation.

Meanwhile, Americans have embraced Slumdog Millionaire and the cast of the India ghetto-to-glory movie that won eight Oscars, including for Best Picture and the song Jai Ho ("Be Victorious"), and dominated last week's entertainment talk shows. "It's just been amazing," Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor and dean of student affairs for Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York, said of the soaring profile of Indian-Americans. "And it's only going to grow. The more visible you get, the more acceptance you get. It's a chicken-and-egg thing."

Indian-Americans have been one of the fastest-growing and most successful immigrant groups, though Sreenivasan and other Indian-Americans are quick to point out that some Indians continue to struggle economically and socially in the United States. US Census estimates two years ago showed some 2.6 million people of Indian ancestry, including immigrants and US-born, a jump of nearly 1 million from 2000.

For years, they have proliferated in the United States in the fields of health care, information technology and engineering, with higher education levels and incomes than national averages. And recent years have brought more Indian heads of major US companies _ PepsiCo Inc's Indra Nooyi is among about a dozen current CEOs. They also are making their presence felt in journalism. Gupta, a neurosurgeon and medical correspondent, and Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, have their own weekend shows on CNN, for example.

And Gupta and Jindal demonstrate a deepening role in US politics and government.

While Jindal's potential as a 2012 presidential candidate may have been set back by his widely criticized and even ridiculed TV rebuttal to Obama, Louisiana demographer and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher said the governor has good support among Republican Party leaders and conservatives.

Stonecipher thinks Jindal, only 37, is being pushed too quickly by Republicans, such as some in the South who see him as a bridge over the historically troubled waters of white-black division _ particularly in a state where David Duke, a former leader of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, was still a political force in the 1990s.

"Conservatives are pleased to find an ethnic group that is politically correct in America behind which they can gather," Stonecipher said, adding that Indian-Americans are respected for a reputation for dedication to family, work and education. Cleveland attorney and former prosecutor Subodh Chandra ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for attorney general of Ohio in 2006, but said he was well-received even in rural areas with no Indian population or even anyone who knew how to pronounce his name (It's Soo-BOHD CHUN-druh).

"With some people, that might be an initial obstacle, but you can very quickly demonstrate that you share their Ohio values, their American values - hard work, education," said Chandra, 41, who remembers anti-Indian backlash as a youth but says there has been increasing acceptance and understanding.

Fellow Indian-American Democrat Jay Goyal was elected to Ohio's Legislature in 2006 at age 26 and, in his second term, has already risen to become the House's majority whip. In Maryland, Democrat Kumbar Barve is the House majority leader.

Actor Kal Penn was a campaign surrogate for Obama across the country last year and floor manager for the Virginia delegation at the Democratic national convention. Besides movies, including the "Harold & Kumar" comedies, he's a regular in the TV medical drama House.

And Americans will be seeing more of Lakshmi, in promotions for the new Pantene Nature Fusion products, for a Hardee's burger, and in the upcoming launch of her own jewelry line, before she returns to Bravo's "Top Chef."

"Even in the last decade, I have seen a great shift towards embracing people of color or multiethnic people, just in mainstream life," she said. "For what I do, it doesn't matter what ethnicity I am ... We are all co-mingled in each other's lives. I think it makes for a more well-rounded and interesting society."