Cultural In-Betweenness and Being Indian on ‘Master of None’

In her Emmy speech, Viola Davis had said, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” The same can be said for stories. They can’t be told without platforms that aren’t there which is why I am glad that Master of None has one because it has a lot to say. Created by comedian Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, this Netflix original series is an episodic vignette of various slices of life. Ansari plays Dev Shah, a 30 year old actor, trying to weave between dating and establishing a career in New York City, figuring it out as he goes along.

The title in itself is quite apt, since Master of None cannot simply be pinned down as anything, instead choosing to dabble in a bit of everything, like someone dipping his or her toes in the pool yet executed with a great deal of skill. What it does manage to master is telling the story of being a millennial, featuring sporadic references to social media (which are not annoying but rather realistic), an interrupted conversation about the singularity and the habit of flaking on people last minute, which I can assure you most of us are guilty of. Not only does it do a good job of capturing the life of the meme generation but it seamlessly assimilates racial and ethnic diversity without drawing attention to the fact and that’s what appealed to me the most.

With each episode acting as a comedic social commentary on various issues, my favourites were the Indian themed ones because they truly resonated with me.

The episode ‘Parents’ focuses on the stories of Dev and his friend Brian’s parents, how they came to America and made a life for themselves so far from home. Ansari even cast his own parents for the roles and the series is genuine in portraying the reality of first generation immigrants. The take away from this episode is that ABCD’s (American Born Confused Desi’s) and other second generation immigrants don’t know all that much about their roots. I think it’s an important point to highlight because with America being a bit of a mixing pot of cultures it’s easy to merge with the dominant one and you see Indian kids being raised there who have no connection or idea about their own culture. Recently an American university student of Indian origin came to our class and as part of her introduction she said she was excited to experience Indian culture which, if I’m being honest, made me cringe at how contrived it sounded. YOU’RE INDIAN.

In Indians on TV, Dev points out to his friend the Indian in Short Circuit 2 is actually a white man with a brown face, saying, “They got a real robot and a fake Indian.” That one line sums up Hollywood’s whitewashing that’s been seen in the case of The Social Network and more recently in The Martian where Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Dr. Vincent Kapoor when the character in the book was actually was written as Dr. Venkat Kapoor.

The simple matter of the fact is that Hollywood rarely ever gets Indians right and it needs to be called out. Either they whitewash Indian roles or they portray ridiculous stereotypes. Just look at Raj from The Big Bang Theory. I’ll never forget his ludicrous joke about the McDonald’s in India serving curry sauce as the special sauce. I can assure they do not. Master of None even points out the racist connotation of the overdone curry jibe when Dev accidentally receives an email referring to him with the racist joke. When his friend, Denise suggests leaking it he launches into an all-too-true rant pointing out the reality of it, saying “People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like the only way to start a brouhaha is if you say something about black people or gay people…” I couldn’t agree more.

This series has given me a lot to think about that I probably wouldn’t have. It’s the little things you deal with so often you forget they’re even an issue.

As an Indian kid born and raised in Canada for half my life and in India for the other half, I can easily relate to the neither-here-nor-there box you’re in when you’re accultured.  On moving to India, I studied in an international school with other NRI’s and OCI’s and it was like a little glass you’re swimming around in  which I’d taken for granted until graduating and going to college where I felt like a bit of a fish out of water.  Even if I looked like I belonged, I certainly didn’t sound like it and my accent had warranted ridicule. I’ve got people asking me why my accent isn’t more ‘Indian’ even after having lived here for 10 years. What does that even mean? I don’t hear anyone asking my Korean friends that though they’ve stayed here just as long. Accents don’t permanently change, people. And not to mention how ridiculous it is for me to have been called a ‘firang’ which is a derogatory term for a caucasian person in Hindi.

So I guess the struggles of cultural in-betweenness don’t just apply to children of immigrants as it does in the show but also to those of us who move back to the homeland. I’ve never spoken much about this except to a friend of mine from New Jersey. He faces the same issue and we’ve turned it into a huge joke ( a mutual defense mechanism of sorts) but is it really as hilarious as we’ve made it out to be? Maybe. Or maybe not.

That’s some food for thought right there and I’m still chewing on it. If you’re interested in taking a bite, go binge-watch Master of None.

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2 thoughts on “Cultural In-Betweenness and Being Indian on ‘Master of None’”

  1. This sounds like an interesting series, definitely want to check it out!
    The ‘in-betweenness’, is something I can relate to in some ways, I have actually been working on a post along similar lines 🙂

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