Since starting Harvard, I feel as though being from the Bay Area has become an annoyingly significant part of my personality. Whether they ask or not, I feel compelled to divulge this fact to almost every new individual I meet, as if I’m explaining and justifying my strange reaction to my surroundings.
As I’ve come to realize from interacting with so many diverse people at Harvard, the Bay Area is an insulated cultural bubble. Statistically, almost 70% of my high school class was Asian, with the majority of that group being specifically South Asian. Silicon Valley has historically been a haven for Asian immigrants trying to forge their American Dream through various tech-related industries, which has allowed this unique brand of hybrid Asian-ness to flourish.
Although I was deeply aware of the conspicuous lack of South Asian representation in Western media, it never really bothered me viscerally. Seeing my culture, specifically my hyphenated South Asian-Americanness, reflected in faces all around me comforted me in a way I hadn’t yet realized. I hadn’t needed the media to reflect my experiences because I was constantly surrounded by familiar echoes of it in the people of my community. I had felt genuinely comfortable in my brown skin, probably because I wasn’t constantly confronted with the fact of its uniqueness in America. It was just a natural fact of life; I was brown, my friends were brown, and so no one was ever out of place.
Until starting college recently, I was habitually used to thinking of America in terms of “they,” not “we” or “us.” Though I definitely consider myself civically and politically engaged, culturally, I still feel like I’m grasping at American traditions that will never become instincts. Baseball games, barbeques, Thanksgiving dinner: I don’t really get it.
Moving to Cambridge was a culture shock. I didn’t realize how unusual my upbringing was before I was confronted with the cold fact that I am statistically a cultural minority in America. This fact in itself shouldn’t demand sympathy, but it did make me realize how important media representation is for people who don’t have the luxury of a cultural bubble. Talking to other South Asian students at Harvard, I’ve heard about how constantly being surrounded by people who don’t look like you can be such a culturally dissonant experience. When we grow up without our stories being reflected in our community or the media, we feel isolated, like an untethered individual. Although American media representation doesn’t necessarily need to center around ethnically specific experiences, it should certainly include them — and that is deeply lacking today.
Admittedly, there have been strides in South Asian media representation: Mindy Kaling’s shows “The Mindy Project” and, more recently, “Never Have I Ever,” make bold attempts to represent real Indian women. A smattering of other projects — I’ve heard “Master of None” is good — also come to mind, but the list is very limited.
The fact that there are hardly any representative media works gives the few that exist a disproportionately high burden to accurately encompass all the varied South Asian experiences that have until then existed in the dark. Part of the problem is that I’m not sure what audience these shows are intended for in the first place. In being broadly marketable to the statistical majority — white American viewers — they take a basic, explanatory approach to South Asian culture, alienating the South Asian viewers the shows purport to represent. Representative media faces a constant tussle between genuine cultural specificity and a semblance of authenticity for white viewers. Consequently, South Asian representation in American media is necessarily an uphill, painstaking battle, often resulting in critical backlash when it’s not perfect.
This perpetual representation struggle is why I’ve come to be so grateful for Bollywood, as the predominant Indian film industry is affectionately called. In Western minds, Bollywood is nowhere near real “cinema.” It’s often silly, extravagant, inexplicably musical, and riddled with absurdism. Certainly, beyond often lacking developed storylines, Bollywood has its own share of serious framework issues, such as misogyny, casteism, and colorism, which should be persistently addressed to create a more inclusive environment. Nevertheless, I’m truly so glad for the existence of this media space; it feels safe.
South Asian representation in Western media tends to focus on the mystical “minority experience,” always centering around the culture in relation to mainstream American culture: a sort of comparative framework. For example, “Never Have I Ever,” which was relatable for me in so many ways, specifically explored the complexities of growing up Indian-American in non-Indian America. But this constant exploration, while undoubtedly important, can be exhausting at times. Sometimes I want to see myself represented not as a “minority” whose identity must be inspected but as a regular person — something Bollywood offers me.
By centering around South Asians, albeit predominantly Indians, Bollywood can establish this identity as a baseline and simply build stories from there; being South Asian is just a natural fact of existence. For instance, “3 Idiots,” one of my favorite Bollywood movies, is a poignant look into India’s quintessential college experience. It’s not meticulously explaining broad Indian culture to an omnipresent white viewer but rather telling a story that evokes some of its deep subtleties.
It’s so important to see aesthetically pleasing representations of South Asian culture, not only the gritty representations in Western media because while those are important, they do not provide the full picture. It would be draining to keep watching “Slumdog Millionaire,” for example, and being told that’s your slice of “representation.” It feels nice to know that Bollywood exists for me as a space where South Asian-ness is not beautiful relationally but intrinsically. Watching (usually silly) Bollywood music videos growing up made me feel like being brown wasn’t weird or condescendingly “interesting,” but maybe kind of cool, and for that, I’m truly thankful.
Bollywood certainly isn’t a permanent antidote for a lack of South Asian representation in American media. As someone who didn’t grow up in India, I know that even it can’t fully encapsulate my hybrid, emphatically hyphenated, Bay Area-Harvard life experiences. But while we continually push for more for South Asians in American media, perhaps a critical lesson should be drawn from Bollywood in the process: sometimes, just sometimes, we don’t want to be ambushed with the fact of our cultural difference, but simply imagined as full people living life.