In the recent episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” Kunal Nayyar’s on-screen persona Rajesh Koothrappali faced the biggest challenge yet: how to be himself. For the 11 seasons it’s been on, the CBS sitcom has turned Raj into a caricature of sorts. He latches on to his best friend Howard (Simon Helberg), and while those two have shared lots of hilarious scenes, the latter has broken out of their friendship shell while Raj’s storyline has had minor progress. Whether it’s his romantic relationships, career trajectory, or just overall growth as a person, it’s been stalled, mostly in favor of using him as a cesspool of Indian-stereotypical jokes.
With this episode, called “The Confidence Erosion,” he finally got a well-deserved break from being this stereotyped caricature. Raj, who is an astrophysicist at Caltech, is interviewing for an exciting side gig at the Griffith Observatory. While all his friends encourage him, Howard takes this opportunity to joke about his prospects. Raj dismisses it as Howard’s usual goofing around but later, he recounts that when he moved to California from India over a decade ago, he was a different man. He laments that he was way more confident but somewhere along the way, that confidence vanished.
While conversing with his father after the Observatory interview, he sounds unsure of how well he did. His father, Dr. V. M. Koothrappali (Brian George), points out that Howard’s constant mockery may be responsible for Raj’s shaken self-assurance because what true friend would consistently make fun of anyone so much?
Raj seems doubtful at first, but after talking about it with friends and gaining a deeper understanding, he realizes he doesn’t want to be disrespected anymore. The next day, Raj explains this to Howard and breaks off his bromance with him, who responds with this unnecessary retort, “while we’re on a break, can I see other needy Indian men?”
This sudden change in his life gives Raj newfound confidence, which gets him the job he wanted. Beyond that, he’s not a limpy Indian dude anymore. His stretchy Indian accent has dropped a little, his style has dramatically improved, he doesn’t flatten his hair anymore (the inspiration of which was Howard) and he rocks his natural curls.
He’s serious about being this improved version of himself and doesn’t even want to joke or talk about his ex-best friend for now.
It’s been a long time coming for Raj. As much as I admire Nayyar for breaking the mould and being the desi lead in this sitcom, I’ve pretty much grown to loathe Rajesh Koothrappali. “The Big Bang Theory” is the most-viewed comedy each year, with 14.4 million viewers for this recent episode. It’s reaching such a vast audience, you would assume it shoulders the responsibility of accurate depictions of minorities.
They didn’t just make Raj a stereotypical desi on the show but freely used his ethnicity as a basis for tons of jokes. Howard has, on multiple occasions, mimicked Raj’s Indian accent in very unflattering ways. It was satisfying as a viewer, especially an Indian-American viewer, to see him finally stand up for himself to this.
For the first six seasons, the dude couldn’t even talk to women unless he was drunk. Since then, his relationships have always been rocky because of how awkward they’ve made him as a character. At one point, he thinks Siri is his girlfriend.
In the season 5 premiere, Raj and his friend Penny (Kaley Cuoco) have a drunken night and assume they slept together. Penny is horrified at the thought so their friend Amy (Mayim Bialik), as a way of consoling her, compares a rompy night with Raj to beastiality. His interests in feminine things and his extreme devotion to his dog have led his friends to joke about his sexuality.
I understand that Raj being Indian is an obvious pool of jokes for an American sitcom. Naturally, they’d use the fodder they’ve been handed. But to rinse and repeat the same theme of humor for him gets tiresome and problematic if it’s done for 10 plus years.
This doesn’t apply just to Raj. “The Big Bang Theory” hasn’t shied away from one-dimensional portrayals of pretty much all of their characters. The central four friends: Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), Leonard Hoftstader (Johnny Galecki), Howard and Raj have from the beginning termed as boring geeks. When the show began, they were all consumed by their love for science, mathematics, video games, and comic books. They all had difficulty in wooing women (interestingly, only Raj suffered from selective mutism). They wore mismatched, boy-like clothes despite being grown men. Their work encompassed their whole lives, which automatically meant they had no lives.
However, as the seasons developed, so did the characters. Somewhere, Raj got left behind.
Sheldon achieved significant success in his career, is engaged to his girlfriend Amy, and is an overall better person than when the show began. Leonard finally married the love of his life, Penny. Howard went to space, also married the love of his life Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), and they are now having their second baby. Their significant others got the same treatment. Amy started as a silent, stiff neuroscientist with no friends. Penny moved on from a failing acting career to a well-paid sales job. Bernie is an affluent microbiologist.
With Raj, it never seemed to work out. His semi-serious relationships were big failures, his parent’s cut him off financially because he’s a spoilt brat, despite his burgeoning career he can’t afford an apartment so he sponges on his friends. There is no character development. This doesn’t even include the India-themed jokes they crack ever so often, including Raj himself. Nayyar recently defended himself and the show when faced with this criticism for a recent scene. In it, Raj is at a bar watching Cricket and explaining the sport to Howard, who shows no interest. The writing came under attack for being gibberish so the actor spoke up.
I’m confused. How is this lazy writing? And how is this stereotypical? Have you watched the whole scene? I wrote most of it. And I’m a cricket fanatic.
— Kunal Nayyar (@kunalnayyar) November 12, 2017
It’s all finally starting to pick up with “The Confidence Erosion.” It proves that Raj doesn’t have to be the typecasted version of an intelligent Indian man. It may have worked 11 years ago but today, South Asian-Americans are churning up valuable material. It’s time “The Big Bang Theory” catches up. Maybe that’s why they’ve finally improved Raj after all this time, to cater to the recent surge of brown folks taking over. There isn’t a need to pander to the viewers who loved Apu because we now have finer representation.
Hopefully, this progress in his storyline gives him and the makers of the showroom to expand on Rajesh Koothrappali and really make his character less pitiful and more enjoyable, more realistic. I realize that the show will make things better between him and Howard soon enough but that doesn’t mean they get rid of the headway they’ve made with Raj’s character. Especially now that we know Nayyar can ace any version of him.