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Fools, ghouls or oh-so-cool

Fools, ghouls or oh-so-cool
The BBC has a new comedy, Citizen Khan, about an Asian Muslim family living in Birmingham. A few episodes old, it has already generated over 700 complaints about the show’s ‘stereotyping’. On its first two nights out, it was also trending on Twitter.

While most dismiss it as unfunny and anachronistic, it has also been condemned in stronger terms as islamophobic and incendiary. They warn that it could lead to the kind of attacks on mosques and hijab
-wearing women that have become commonplace.

With its dated humour, bad acting and stereotypical characterisation, this show is almost everything its detractors say it is but it is also so lightweight, it could not possibly cause offence, much less provoke attacks.

Most of all, contrary to the vitriolic it has attracted, it’s not bad news for the Asian community. Alongside all the other Asian characters that now grace the small screen in the UK and US, it is very good news indeed.

We have become so used to seeing the likes of New Girl’s beautiful Cece and The Big Bang Theory’s loveable geek Raj Koothrappali, we’ve forgotten how few pivotal Asian characters have made it to primetime British and American TV in the last three decades. Most Asian characters are still stereotypes, but there’s, finally, a handful who aren’t. The sexy, independent Cece who doesn’t want romantic complications in
New Girl
is not your average Asian woman on a Western show.

Then, there are the steadily multiplying Asian families on Britain’s favourite soaps Eastenders and Coronation Street. In 2003, Dalip Tahil’s stint on Eastenders was short-lived despite his full-blooded performance. After Tahil was deported for contravening visa rules and his character written out of the show, storylines for his predictable family of taxi drivers, pimps and wimps dwindled, till they were all axed from the soap in one fell swoop.

In marked contrast, the show’s new Asian family [with Nitin Ganatra of Bride and Prejudice and Nina Wadia of Goodness Gracious Me as the conflicted parents] have lasted five whole years. In that time, they have challenged perceptions by introducing the first gay Asian Muslim character into British soaps and allowing him a happy ending.

So what has changed? Have the writers seen the light or are Western broadcasters ready to acknowledge the growing prominence [in numbers as well as economic clout] of the Asian community on both sides of the pond?

Undoubtedly the latter, as the fate of Asian television characters reflect the socio-economic rise and fall of their real counterparts in the Western world.

The first to make an appearance on Western TV was the Asian fool, and Apu from The Simpsons was the first of his kind to be embraced by the West. Apu may be a cartoon [literally], voiced by American actor Hank Azaria, but he isn’t that different from the real life Asians on TV in the 70s and 80s. Buffoons like Ranjeet Singh and Ali Nadeem of
Mind Your Language,
were equally one-dimensional, farfetched and farcical. Like Apu, they were rarely played by Asian actors.

In the 90s, New Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ policies ushered in the first wave of almost cool Asians on British TV. At a time when the Anglo-Asian band Cornershop’s Brimful of Asha – a paean to Asha Bhonsle – ruled the air waves, and
chicken tikka masala
became the national dish, the new British Indian comedies like Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No.42 challenged the stereotypes with intelligent, gentle, almost indulgent mockery. These shows about Indians, written by Indians, ended up appealing to everyone, not just Indians. Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar became stars and Britain learned to laugh with Asians, not just at them.

The Noughties in the US saw the first Asian protagonists on TV, Bend it like Beckham’s Parminder Nagra enjoyed a long, fruitful stint on ER, while the dashing Sendhil Ramamurthy helped save the world in Heroes. They represented a radical change from the head-waggling Asian simpletons that had preceded them.

Suddenly, it was possible to like and even identify with Asians on the small screen, but this was about to change… again.

And so began the era of the Asian, particularly the Asian Muslim, as the Bloodthirsty Ghoul. As the Noughties progressed, cross-cultural cohesion touched a new nadir. In response to the devastation wrought by Islamic terrorists on 9/11, the US and UK invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, while clamping down on Asian immigration. If Asians weren’t wanted in these countries, they certainly weren’t welcome on primetime TV, and Asian actors found a new calling as standard issue villains in blockbusters like
Iron Man
and James Bond.  

Fortunately, the world moves on, and the success of Asian economies and Asian expat communities, have created a boom in Asian characters on US and UK TV. As we approach the end of 2012, Asians, particularly Indians are ‘oh-so-cool’ again, and Karen Narasaki of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition has a theory about this. She believes that America’s growing fascination with Bollywood is opening doors for Indian actors. When film and TV executives want a diverse show, the allure of Bollywood – and the recent runaway success of
Slumdog Millionaire
– make Indians a more attractive prospect than other Asian groups. Ironically, the East West tensions spawned by 9/11 and subsequent events have helped make Indian characters more marketable. Indian Hindu characters are ‘Diet Asians’, less of a risk on primetime TV than their ‘full-fat’ Muslim opposites.

Ghouls, fools, or simply cool, Asians are bagging more screen time in the West than ever before, and every once in a while, a whole show comes along that’s just about us. It could be a ground-breaking comedy like Goodness Gracious Me or a shoddy little number like Citizen Khan, but when it’s thirteen episodes or more devoted to our real [or even perceived] idiosyncrasies, who can complain?

Shreya Sen-Handley is a writer and illustrator. She now writes for The Guradian and other UK newspapers.
Shreya Sen-Handley

Shreya Sen-Handley

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