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Priyanka Chopra in Quantico fights the scourge of western popular culture, writes VIRAT NEHRU
The American television network ABC began its autumn schedule programming on 27 September with a show called Quantico.
This fact doesn’t seem to be of any great significance, until you look at the show’s cast. Quantico has Bollywood darling Priyanka Chopra as one of the main protagonists.
Sure, this sounds like another one of those successful international “crossover” stories for an actor of Indian origin. However, it is nothing like that.
We haven’t realised it yet, but the casting of Chopra as a lead for a show on mainstream American network television has much broader cultural impact and significance than we can imagine.
Historically, characters of Indian origin represented in western popular culture have only served to re-enforce harmful and negative stereotypes about India.
Think back to some of the most iconic portrayals by Indian actors in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and it leaves you with a sour after-taste.
Amrish Puri – one of the most versatile actors of Indian cinema -was reduced to a savage brute in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was up to Jones, the beacon of all that is righteous and civilised, to save the people from the barbaric mess that was meant to represent ‘India’ in that film.
Similarly, Kabir Bedi didn’t fare too well in the James Bond film Octopussy either. I’m not suggesting that the Bond and Indiana Jones franchises are meant to be culturally sensitive. Viewing either would show that most characters in those films are stereotypical caricatures.
Amrish Puri in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
And I don’t intend to devalue the contributions of Puri and Bedi, among others, in showcasing the mettle of Indian actors in western popular culture. My point is that India, its people and its culture, haven’t fared well in their various imperial film incarnations.
India was seen as the land of savages that was meant to be civilised – a very colonial mindset – for the purposes of western popular culture.
Looking closely, we see that this mindset has not really changed over the years. It has just evolved into a more digestible commodity as audiences around the world have become more culturally diverse and aware.
The Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire showed the poverty stricken, social evil ridden side of India that westerners are all too familiar with.
That’s the side of India that western popular culture instantly recognises and re-affirms: a kind of commodification of poverty on a massive scale.
Milder forms of tainting and distortion include viewing India as some kind spiritual destination. Films such as Eat, Pray, Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel indulge in this kind of fantasy.
Insidiously here, India itself becomes an artefact that can be marketed in forms that promote reductive notions such as “exotic”, “spiritual” or even worse, “mystical”.
Contemporary Hollywood loves to promote how it’s turned a new leaf and become culturally diverse. However, it is but an open secret that this so-called ‘diversity’ is rather tokenistic.
Irrfan Khan has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for any roles that have a South Asian origin. Meanwhile, the roles that really matter still elude Indian actors who have made the successful international transition.
To add insult to injury, in the upcoming film The Man Who Knew Infinity – rumoured to be the biopic of Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan – the role of Ramanujan will be played by Dev Patel, a British-Indian who ostensibly adopts a horrible rendition of the generic Indian accent when he plays characters of Indian origin.
In this volatile cultural climate, enter Priyanka Chopra. From the very first episode of Quantico, you know things will be different.
This is not another tokenistic portrayal. Not only is Chopra’s part a lead role, the way the character is written and portrayed completely turns the western popular culture assumptions about India on its head.
Chopra is not actually playing an Indian character. She is playing Alex Parrish, an FBI recruit who is framed for a blast at Grand Central Station. Yes, Parrish has Indian heritage, but nothing in Chopra’s portrayal so far betrays any insinuation that viewers may subconsciously connect with Indian stereotypes.
Chopra completed her schooling in the United States and has always been comfortable with her cosmopolitan English accent. She doesn’t put on the highly irritating and condescendingly generic Indian accent that has become popular in Hollywood films in order to connect with western audiences.
This choice is a rather bold and commendable move. Contrast this with the portrayal of Rajesh Koothrappali – as played by British-Indian Kunal Nayyar – who deliberately puts on the generic Indian accent, often for comedic effect, in the television show The Big Bang Theory.
More interestingly, we see Chopra’s Parrish engage in casual sex in the first few minutes of the first episode, and she doesn’t try to hide it either – a very ‘un-Indian’ thing to do if you are a stereotypical Indian character on television.
Again, the character of Koothrappali offers a nice contrast. In the first few seasons of The Big Bang Theory, he is even unable to talk in front of or to women without the help of alcohol or another relaxant, let alone make a conscious choice of engaging in a sexual encounter.
It is clear that Chopra, through Parrish, is subtly and cleverly dismantling long-held negative and harmful stereotypes about India and its cultural dynamic that have never really left the consciousness of many western viewers.
It is impossible to fathom the enormity of the task at hand. This is not going to be easy. Chopra’s efforts are key to changing attitudes around how Indian actors and characters are seen and portrayed in mainstream popular culture.
Can India be more than a punchline to a historically cruel and imperial joke? We have to wait to find out.