Ever since I started watching more British television, I’ve noticed the comparative lack of Brown—specifically Indian and Pakistani—performers in American entertainment. It’s a gap in on–screen representation that has left me wanting more as both an Indian American and a lover of film and television.
One of the most appealing things about British television are the number of Indian and Pakistani faces that span both comedic and dramatic shows. This bare minimum of representation shouldn't be impressive, but the disparity between American and British media is evident in so many different modes of entertainment that's hard not to celebrate.
On television, especially in the world of comedy, there are a number of Brown entertainers—far more than in American entertainment. When you go through casual British programming, like panel shows and reality television, there are a myriad of British Indian and British Pakistani comedians. Romesh Ranganathan, Nish Kumar, Paul Chowdhry, and more are scattered across popular series like Taskmaster, Mock the Week, and The Chase. All of these comedians have their own entertainment style, but all of them are flourishing in the world of comedy.
American equivalents—namely Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari—have generally received acclaim for their political or dramatic work, even if they're comedians first. Though both are icons among the Indian and Pakistani American communities, much of their ouevre is about their respective ethnic and racial identities. Yes, this is important, necessary. However, it also indicates that American stand–up isn’t an environment that casually supports Indian and Pakistani performers in the same way that the British comedy scene does.
The same can be said about television. Of course, there are stand–out actors like Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani and The Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar. Yet, when it comes to British dramedies like Sex Education, Brown actors and characters are cast against stereotypes, which makes it appear far easier to find those substantive, career–making roles across the pond. It's comparatively rare to see Brown characters in American media whose stories aren't solely about their ethnicity—or plagued by racial stereotypes.
Priyanka Chopra is one of the few Indian actresses who successfully crossed over from Bollywood to Hollywood, but I’m flabbergasted by the number of people who see her as a Hollywood wannabe and not a Bollywood superstar moving down the entertainment ladder. Every Indian American person I know watches Bollywood, and therefore Priyanka Chopra, extensively. This isn't just because our parents love it and introduced us to it; it serves as one of the few places we can see ourselves on screen.
Even western films made about India are overwhelmingly made in Britain. For instance, think of Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or Bend it Like Beckham, and how they allowed actors like Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, and Parminder Nagra to take center stage. When I think of similar Hollywood productions, I think about how the live–action Aladdin had half–Indian actress Naomi Scott play Jasmine instead of a full–Indian or Pakistani actress, or how few people know that actor Ben Kingsley has Indian roots. And though both of these actors work heavily in Hollywood, they’re both English, not American. Even when Indian representation is present, it isn't clear and textual.
This discrepancy is even visible on stage. Though Broadway is the most famous site of American theater, it's exceedingly rare for it to feature South Asian performers. In comparison, my favorite adaptation of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" is the Shakespeare Globe’s 2016 production, where half the cast wasn't white.
There’s definitely a historical aspect to this difference. Britain has a closer relationship to India and Pakistan due to its colonialist ties to both countries, with both nations remaining under British rule until the mid–1900s. However, that doesn’t mean Hollywood doesn’t need to step up—there are plenty of South Asian American immigrants with dreams of working in the entertainment industry who should be given a chance.
It’s so rare to see brown representation in American media that finding intersectional characters—Brown characters who are also biracial, disabled, queer, etc.—is basically impossible. We need to do better and demand better on all levels of entertainment, from creators to actors to writers. While American entertainers like Mindy Kaling, Rahul Kohli, and Jameela Jamil—an English actress who starred in The Good Place—are paving the way forward, there’s still a long way to go.