HomeEntertainmentA Look at South Asian Interracial Relationships on American TV

A Look at South Asian Interracial Relationships on American TV

When we talk about interracial relationships on TV, we often overlook those that involve South Asian characters. Earlier, there weren’t many South Asians on TV to begin with, let alone giving them a sustainable, loving relationship. Only in the last few years has that been changing.

On the FOX comedy “New Girl,” Schmidt and Cecelia set quite the benchmark for portraying a wholesome and wonderful interracial relationship. Hannah Simone’s Cece Parikh, an Indian-American model, may have been introduced as the best friend of the leading lady but over the last six seasons, she’s developed into an inspiring, hilarious, strong character. Her romance with Schmidt, a slightly douchey but kind-hearted Jewish man is probably one the most endearing parts of the show.

Cece and Schmidt feel relatable as a couple, which is why they work. They started in season 1 as a fling when he tries to impress her by talking about his love for all kinds of chutney. In season 5, they got engaged and because Cece’s mother doesn’t approve of him and refuses to attend the wedding, he tries everything to win her over. From dancing to a Bollywood song to calling her every week. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s know how much desi parents love being called regularly. The comedy will begin its seventh and final season in April, flash forwarding 4 years from last season’s finale when Cece found out she is pregnant and will feature their 3-year-old daughter Ruth. It’s been quite a run.

On the other hand, premiering in 1989, the now long-running “The Simpsons” gave us the first major Indian-character in Apu Nahasapeemapetillon, voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. Apu is overall a stereotypical Indian, pandering to how American audiences perceive brown folks to be. This was confirmed even more when he went through with an arranged marriage with Manjula, also voiced by three different white actresses. Later, she gives birth to octuplets.

The entire narrative feels gimmicky, playing into what the creators thought we wanted Apu and Manjula’s marriage to look like. Arranged marriages are still common in the desi community but unfortunately, that’s the side of us most people remember. Kunal Nayyar’s “The Big Bang Theory” character Rajesh Koothrapalli almost agrees to an arranged marriage multiple times over the course of the show, mainly because he couldn’t even talk to women without being drunk for the first six seasons. This is another long-running show with high viewership, now in its eleventh season. That comes with a certain responsibility of how you feature people of color. Raj, however, is quite a caricature. I mean, for a while there he actually thought iPhone’s Siri was his girlfriend. His longest relationship on the show was with the horror-obsessed dermatologist Emily (Laura Spencer).

It’s not all bad, though. The depiction of South Asian interracial relationships has been admirable in several shows because they avoid the clichĂ©s. Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Indian-American Mira Berenson (Sarita Choudhury) on “Homeland” its first few seasons, Archie Punjabi’s Indian immigrant Kalinda Sharma, a leather-jacket wearing badass investigator on “The Good Wife.” Kalinda was bisexual and had a whole will-they-won’t-they dynamic with Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry). During the second season “Revenge,” Dilshad Vadsaria played Padma Lahari, the love interest for prime hacker Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann). Medical drama “ER” saw Dr. Neela Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra) in relationships with African-American Michael Gallant (Sharif Atkins), Tony Gates (John Stamos), Simon Brenner (David Lyons), and Ray Barnett (Shane West). Most recently, Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra’s FBI agent Alex Parrish on “Quantico” was engaged to fellow agent Ryan Booth (Jake McLaughlin).

There is much to appreciate in how these relationships have evolved on-screen because they break the barriers of what we assume happens when South Asians date or have sex. It breaks us out of a box we’ve been in for a long time because of stereotypes and misrepresentation. This has come more in the spotlight in the recent years majorly because of Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari’s work.

Kaling’s iconic character on “The Office,” fan-favorite Kelly Kapoor, was the ditzy, pop-culture obsessed head of the customer service department at the paper company Dunder Mifflin. Her hilariously complicated relationship with her coworker Ryan (BJ Novak) was always central to her story. She fell for him hard and he kept trying and failing to keep her at a distance. Kelly left in season 8 after a final fall-out with him so she could be with Ravi, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy, a doctor her parents chose for her.

Kaling then went on to create “The Mindy Project,” which ended in November 2017 after six seasons. She was the first South Asian woman to lead her own show on broadcast TV. She morphed into a more mature version of Kelly Kapoor, playing OB-GYN Mindy Lahiri. On the show, she dates several men (mostly white) but her primary relationship is with fellow doctor, Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), with whom she has a son named Leo.

She was often criticized for not dating more desi men on the show, especially because she was also the writer and producer, which meant she had more control of the story. However, I am certain that if she had dated mostly South Asians, people would point that out as a negative thing, too. Mindy and Danny became that classic rom-com couple, the one whom you always root for. In this way, she gave all the American audiences a major interracial relationship to cheer for that was interracial.

Ansari has been facing allegations of sexual assault, the details of which were published on Babe. However, in his many years as an actor, he gave us two hallmarks of famous Indian-American characters; Tom Haverford on “Parks and Recreation” and Dev Shah on “Master of None.” Tom was never defined by his ethnicity. In fact, he was the opposite of the typical portrayal we saw of an Indian-American on TV. He’s funny but also narcissistic, lazy, and full of vanity. For the first two years of the show, Tom was in a green card marriage so that his “wife” Wendy (Jama Williamson) could become a citizen. Even this was flipping the script because usually, its the desi person who is in urgent need of a visa or a citizenship.

Dev, on the other hand, is always figuring out how to deal with his dual identity as a second-generation immigrant. Dev’s two major relationships, in season 1 with Rachel (Noel Wells) and in season 2 with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) are central in forming his personality. Especially through “Master of None,” Ansari brought South Asian-American immigrant stories to the forefront of mainstream television. Ansari was also criticized for only dating mostly white women on the show and featuring desi women as potential partners in a minimal capacity.

While it’s a critically acclaimed, award-winning comedy, we don’t know if Netflix will bring it back for a season 3 following the allegations against him.

With current shows that are woke, witty, and well-written we can now cite more examples of good South Asian interracial relationships than the bad. On “The Good Place,� Jameela Jamil plays Pakistani-British philanthropist Tahani, who dates Jason Mendoza, played by Filipino actor Manny Jacinto. Jasmine Kaur plays Aparna on “Insecure,� who is in a relationship with Jay Ellis’s Lawrence. Noted actor Kal Penn, who plays Press Secretary Sean Wright on the political drama “Designated Survivor� is paired opposite Italia Ricci’s Emily Rhodes. The CW’s zombie drama, aptly titled “iZombie,� sees Rahul Kohli’s character, medical examiner Ravi Chakrabarti, deeply in love with Aly Michalka’s Peyton Charles.

It may read this is just a long list of couple names but a) it’s a good thing that there are so many shows that we can now cite and b) most importantly, none of these interracial relationships are actually defined by the character’s race. They are just customary on-screen couples whose ups and downs everyone watching can relate to, no matter what the color of their skin is. Isn’t that kind of the beauty of TV?

Plus, luckily for us, we hopefully won’t have much shortage of all-out, well-depicted South Asian relationships either. There are plenty of shows in development that will feature South Asian-Americans in the lead and in other important roles. It is definitely a dire necessity at this point in terms of representation, especially with the success of comedies like “Fresh off the Boat,� and “Blackish.� My praising interracial relationships doesn’t take away from that at all. It’s just my way of appreciating the many pioneers for revolutionizing something that should have also been common in the first place.



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