Thursday, March 22, 2007

Save the cheerleader ... ignore the credibility

(Or, another stunning derivation into India as portrayed by American pop culture.)

So one of my favorite guilty pleasures is Heroes, mostly because it's airing nearly in real time with the U.S. -- meaning I can visit all sorts of obnoxious time-wasting Web sites where people discuss the relative hotness of Milo Ventimiglia et al.

HOWEVER -- and this is a big however -- I'm really annoyed by the depiction of Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), who is the narrator and is following up on the work of his father, who discovered what are essentially genetic mutants and was subsequently killed for reasons unknown but presumably connected to his work. Anyhow, the plot doesn't matter too much, but what DOES matter is that Mohinder is supposed to be from Chennai. And...umm...every time he comes on the screen, S starts shrieking, "There is just no way any Tamil would name their kid Mohinder! The names don't go together! This is a travesty! Blargh!"

OK, maybe that's quibbling, and it does rest on a neatly smoothed bed of assumptions (that because he's from Chennai he's Tamil, etc.). There's room for error there. Perhaps more disturbing is his absolutely absurd accent, which, while sexy, is certainly not one I've ever heard in the subconty. As one Web poster notes, "I thought he was definitely cute, but the accent gave me the heaves. Being Indian myself and having extended family that fits both the 'Indian raised in India with English medium schools' as well as those 'raised/educated in Britain' profile, I can say that his accent is nowhere near either of these categories, if that indeed is what his character is supposed to be." Another rants, "Mohinder must be trying for a call centre job here in India with that pseudo-British accent he's doing. Producers, please do some basic research. If a guy is supposed to be from Madras, please get him to practise a South-Indian accent. And don't give him a completely North-Indian name like "Mohinder"."

And then the show follows Mohinder (gah!) back to Chennai when he has a crisis of conscience.

Seriously, it's like the producers/writers just gave up. One, it's clearly set on a sound stage in California; havelis, though lovely, do not make the depiction of the city more credible. (Note the accompanying picture, which is allegedly Kanyakumari; the characteristic Kumariamman temple is TOTALLY Photoshopped in there.)

Two, unlike in Japan, where everyone is speaking Japanese and they give them subtitles (even one staple character, Hiro, primarily speaks Japanese and gets that treatment), in Chennai, everyone is speaking English in a variety of accents. Granted, many people in India speak English, but in bazaars, in normal middle class life, most lapse into the vernacular -- Tamil or Marathi or Gujrati or Hindi or Malayalam, whatever. These small inconsistencies? Chipping away my soul. My tortured, tortured soul.

Americans are uninformed enough about other cultures. When I tell (American) people I've lived in India for about two years, the most common questions I get are about bride burning and tantric yoga. I may be making a mountain out of a molehill -- after all, it is just TV, and who said the media is obligated to depict the world as it exists? -- but wouldn't it be nice if someone acknowledged that, just as there is no one "America," there is no one "India"? That trying to generalize one billion people and as many opinions, hearts, and minds, into one Funjabi, masala-fied mess is kind of insulting -- to both the culture and to Americans who are deemed incapable of understanding that the subconty is anything beyond chicken tikka masala?

(For your reading pleasure, a nice chat on cultural hegemony; I'm currently hopped up on painkillers because my ear feels like an alien is going to burst out of it, and thus am incapable of making prescient observations about issues of culture and domination and media, but I really feel what this woman is saying.)


Deirdré Straughan said...

Thanks for the link! I, too, love Heroes. I thought Mohinder sounded a little weird for a south Indian, but on the other hand I am pleased that anything even slightly authentically Indian is getting in front of mainstream Americans. We've come a long way since Alec Guiness played a Brahmin (though I still think Peter Sellers is funny in The Party). Also, I fussed that the actor playing Mohinder's father didn't look Indian, but in fact he is! (They don't look related at all, but, pazienza...)

I'm glad to have found your blog and will be reading it regularly.

ggop said...

Well I haven't seen the show so I'm hazarding a guess - perhaps the only accent that American TV audiences can understand is Apu's.