[dance1]Saffron yellow and brilliant orange mangoes, dripping with sweet juice. Burning hot curries, carefully flavored with a symphony of spices. Vibrant crimson Tandoori chicken, sizzling, marinated, slow-roasted in a thick sauce and served with buttery, flaky naan on the side. For years, most Americans knew more about the cuisine of India than the people who inhabited the country: their acknowledgment of an entire continent came to an end when they pushed their chairs away from the dining table. Now, as South Asians emerge at the forefront of many different types of media and become an important part of many peoples’ leisure time, popular conceptions of Indian life are beginning to shift.
According to the 2005 United States Census, there are just two million Indians living in the United States. Despite this small number, the ethnic group as a whole has managed to have a large effect on the U.S. A concentration on a select number of “respectable” fields, however, meant many believed Indians were limited to a finite number of careers. “Indians are always seen as being smart,” interdisciplinary health studies senior Radhika Bhavsar said. “It’s assumed that we’ll be a doctor, an engineer, a computer scientist.” Finance sophomore Priya Ahluwalia agrees with this common perception of Indians. “South Asians are still portrayed as being really smart and mostly doctors. This stereotype is still vaguely true to an extent.” Not for long, however. As the population of Indians in the United States continues to increase, many second- and third-generation immigrants are beginning to branch out into the field of entertainment as a career.
[indian12]Over the past decade, dozens of novels by South Asian authors have been released and received popular reviews and critical acclaim. This explosion of Asian viewpoints is a pleasant change from the 1950s and 1960s, when a dearth of literature on the topic meant the ethnic group was solely underrepresented. Bengali author Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of nine short stories dealing with the lives of Indians and Indian-Americans, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her 2003 follow-up, The Namesake, mined similar experiences, as it followed the life of Gogol Ganguli, a Bengali-American struggling to make sense of both his Bengali and American culture. It was selected as the best book of the year by The New York Times and was later adapted into a 2007 film many South Asians identified with. “I have read [the novel] and have seen the movie,” Ahluwalia said. “The movie showed the type of Indians who try to keep themselves away from Indian culture and many people are definitely like that. Often, it occurs when the parents are too strict and force culture upon their kids.”
Actor Kal Penn, perhaps best known for his role in 2004’s film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and his recurring stint on FOX’s House, is just one example of a South Asian actor being featured prominently in film. “Slowly more and more Indians are showing up in movies and TV shows, which is a great thing. They are still underrepresented, but things are certainly getting better,” Ahluwalia said. Parminder Nagra, the star of the 2003 British film Bend It Like Beckham and a character on hospital drama ER, is another example of a successful Asian actor who plays untypical Asian roles in more than one medium. Likewise, actress Mindy Kaling also does double duty, playing the charmingly scatterbrained character of Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s The Office as well as serving as a writer for the show. “I don’t think there are a lot of times when Asians on television get to play total idiots, so it’s really freeing,” Kaling stated in an interview with Radar magazine. One recent storyline on the show involved an office celebration of Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. “Things are starting to change,” Bhavsar said. “Dr. Sanjay Gupta has a show on CNN, Kal Penn is in all these movies. People are becoming more accepting.”
[dance2]India also is becoming more popular as a setting for novels and movies. Author Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel Eat, Pray, Love, which reached number one on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction list, is set partially in India, when the author travels to an ashram (a community formed to help people obtain spiritual enlightenment) and lives there for six months. Similarly, director Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Darjeeling Limited, follows three brothers as they journey across India on a train. “In the end, India is really the subject matter of the movie as much as anything else is,” Anderson said, in an October 2007 interview with The A.V. Club. Many people applaud this change and hope that it continues. “Indians should be more represented [in popular culture] just because their culture is so beautiful and unique,” pre-med freshman Theresa Kowalski said.
This heightened acceptance of Indian culture and willingness to alter common conceptions about South Asians also is visible in the numerous MSU organizations dedicated to preserving and maintaining Indian culture. “I am actually on the executive board of the Coalition of Indian Undergrad Students and I would definitely have to say that organizations help a lot. These sorts of organizations are created to help people bond with others dealing with the whole Indian-American identity issue,” Ahluwalia said. “I, for one, believe that I have done a really good job maintaining both. I was quite anti-Indian growing up, but in high school I began to get more and more into Indian culture.”
[theresa2]Bhavsar also believes her involvement in cultural activities helps forge her own personal relationship with Indian culture. “I participate in [Satrang, the annual cultural show sponsored by the Coalition of Indian Undergraduate Students] every single year. I get to dance my heart out and show off my culture to people who haven’t seen it. It helps me stay connected.” Even non-Indians learn from and enjoy cultural displays such as Satrang. “I love the rhythmic moves and the flowing colors of the costumes [in Indian dance]. I really like it when they incorporate hip-hop beats into traditional Indian music. It makes me want to get up and dance!” Kowalski said.
But why is the role of Indians in popular culture changing? Bhavsar thinks it is because each new generation is putting their own twist on the idea of what it is to be Indian. “The mentality of our parents is more accepting than previous generations,” she said. “They’ve transcended into American culture.” On a personal level, she plans to stay away from the commonly accepted Indian career path. According to the 2000 United States Census, Indian-Americans have both the highest median income and amount of education of any minority group. Traditionally, Indian immigrants gravitate towards professions that will provide a stable income for their family and allow for prosperity in the years to come. Some young adults, however, have different plans. “There are so many things to do in this world. I don’t want to be that typical doctor,” she said. “I am doing medicine, but I want to go into telecommunications and have my own talk show while using my medical degree.”
Ahluwalia and Kowalski find a broader reason for this change in thought. “I think it’s because we’re becoming more and more prominent in the fields of science, business, engineering and music, which has, in turn, made people more aware of Indians as a whole,” Ahluwalia said. Kowalski thinks attempts to be more inclusive are finally becoming successful. “I guess the United States is becoming more of a visibly diverse country and is trying harder to integrate all different types of culture in the community, especially through mass media,” Kowalski said.
For years, Indian food was praised for its unique flavor and exotic, unusual contribution to the dining world. These same qualities are also visible in the worlds of film, television and literature. As Indian culture jumps off the dining table and integrates itself into other parts of life, the United States finds itself to be richer with these experiences.

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