The first time I can remember seeing an Indian woman on my television in something other than the Bollywood movies I watched with my cousin was when I was 10-years-old and my family rented Bend It Like Beckham from Blockbuster. Then, a few years later, there were the Patil twins in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. Around that same time, Mindy Kaling’s Kelly Kapoor became the first Indian woman I watched regularly on television. I’ve watched a lot of television through the years, but I can easily rattle off the names of every South Asian character on every show I’ve ever watched—especially the women—because, let’s face it, they’re few and far between. From Kelly to Greek’s Rebecca Logan to The Good Wife’s Kalinda Sharma, I hold a lot of these characters close to my heart.
“Indians On TV” opens with a telling and superbly edited montage of Indian stereotypes from film and television. Young Dev watches these, soaking them up. The few examples he has of Indian men on television don’t necessarily reflect his own experiences. The examples of Indian characters from my own childhood are comparatively better and less offensive, though not perfect in every instance. Hollywood has made some progress, though not much, as “Indians On TV” makes clear. Master Of None wastes no time in establishing just how much power media has over the way we think about ourselves. Ravi and Anush’s whole worlds are shaken up when Dev reveals the truth about Ben Jhaveri in Short Circuit 2 (a revelation Aziz Ansari went through himself in college).
Seeing yourself reflected on television is something that’s easy for white people to take for granted. Hollywood goes over and above to cater to white viewers. Quantico is a messy show with often terrible dialogue, but I can’t bring myself to stop watching, because the empowerment I feel from seeing Priyanka Chopra play a badass action hero is too great. Dev’s frustration with Hollywood’s limited range of roles for Indians comes across in his initial refusal to do an accent in his audition. Why can’t he, for once, just play a character who has one of the random jobs Bradley Cooper characters have? His frustration becomes outrage when he’s accidentally forwarded an email conversation between network executives full of racism.
“Indians On TV” doesn’t get lost in its commentary on the industry. Master Of None, in fact, overall hasn’t really slipped into any kind of Hollywood navel-gazing yet despite the fact that its protagonist works in the industry. “Indians On TV” roots its larger critique in the more specific and personal stories of Dev and his friend Ravi (Ravi Patel of Meet The Patels). Dev’s decision to not do Indian accents reflects Ansari’s own experiences. And you can really see the character working through complicated feelings throughout the episode as he tries to figure out what to do. It isn’t the racist joke that bothers Dev so much as the notion that Three Buddies can’t have two Indian characters in it. That hurts him on a deeply personal level.
“Indians On TV” doesn’t just identify a problem; it actively works against it. Plenty of shows can self-reflexively comment on Hollywood’s systemic diversity and race problems, but Master Of None does so within an episode that simultaneously practices exactly what it’s preaching, which gives the show legitimacy. As Dev and Ravi are talking about the unspoken rule that there can’t be more than one Indian in a television show without it suddenly becoming labeled as an “Indian show” that’s “not for the mainstream” (“mainstream” is Hollywood’s favorite euphemism for “white people”), the show in which they exist is actively breaking that rule. Not only are there more than one, but there are three Indian men in the room, and all of them are distinct, fleshed-out characters who don’t embody a single one of Hollywood’s lazy stereotypes about desis. Gerrard Lobo’s Anush is an especially interesting character: On the surface level, his obsession with working out is funny, but the character also subtly works against the dominant narrative in Hollywood that South Asian men are weak, desexualized science guys. Ravi, Dev, and Anush each can’t be summed up in a single sentence full of coded language like all of the casting notices Dev and Ravi come across in their acting careers. They aren’t set decorations. They’re the central characters, with real emotions and points of view that drive the episode’s story beats.
And no one would classify Master Of None as an “Indian show,” although I agree with Dev that the term doesn’t really make sense in any context and only reinforces the stark whiteness of Hollywood. Master Of None isn’t a show about race. It’s a show about Dev. Race does play a role in the show, but that’s because it plays a role in Dev’s life. Even in “Indians On TV,” the story is still largely about Dev and his emotional journey brought on by the email thread instead of just about the issue it’s tackling. Ansari and Alan Yang pen a masterful script that’s emotional, incisive, and funny. Even though “Indians On TV” has a very clear message, the show holds onto its voice and doesn’t let that message overpower everything else that it does well, including the comedy. Dev works through his feelings about the racist email chain with Busta Rhymes over sashimi in the VIP lounge at a Knicks game. It’s so weird and full of funny bits, proving that Master Of None can be both very serious and very fun at the same time. There’s a lot more to the episode that works other than just its critique of Hollywood, including a wonderful performance from Danielle Brooks as Dev’s agent who just wants that Friends money. Again, the character is fun and hilarious on her own, but then she also adds to the conversation at the heart of the episode, pointing out to Dev that if she exposed every racist email she has ever come across, she’d be working alone. “Indians On TV” is unambiguous in its targeting of Hollywood’s race problem, but it also plays with nuances within the issue, especially when it comes to everyone’s different opinions about how to confront it.
But most importantly, Master Of None acknowledges that “diversity” shouldn’t just mean throwing one Indian guy into a show and calling it a day. What Dev, and the show, are asking for are richer, more varying representations of Indians on TV that aren’t rooted in racial stereotypes or assumptions about what Indian people should look like, speak like, or do. Master Of None does so effortlessly. The rest of Hollywood needs to catch up.
I really like when Master Of None meanders down strange tangents with scenes that don’t necessarily comment on the episode’s larger themes or storylines but just provide nice little character moments that are funny, weird, and realistic. The best example from Master Of None is the courtside nacho thief Dev encounters.
“Is Mindy Kaling real?”
“I don’t think you should play the race card. Charge it to the race card.”
Patel steals every scene he’s in. Everything he says made me laugh.