Op-Ed

Op-Ed By Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri: “You Know That’s Saag Paneer, Dude”

By / September 24, 2010 - 9:59 am

Better known as Heems and lesser known as Young Cocoa Butter all over two witty, multiple pop-cultural referencing mixtapes Shut Up, Dude and the recently released Sit Down, Man, Himanshu Suri is Indian-American, a writer of a blog called Nehru Jackets, and a writer of raps in a band called Das Racist. And so it came to be that we invited him to review last night’s premiere of NBC’s new half-hour situational-comedy Outsourced, set in a call center in India. You can watch the pilot episode here.

I’ve always thought the real way to catch a racist, which is also the name of a television show I’ve been pitching, is to tell a funny race joke and see who the last white person to stop laughing is. It’s always the dude laughing five seconds too long you have to worry about. From that initial thought sprung a whole way of thinking about race and humor in the same breath. That and also this one time in high school I had a teacher who was supposed to teach us about how racism is bad but instead handed out pages of hilarious race jokes me and my like-minded also-colored friends would repeat for the rest of our lives. It’s a delicate thing, walking the tight rope of humor and racial sensitivity. I went into NBC’s Outsourced thinking it would be one seemingly Russel Peters-penned accent joke after another. Although rather than being offended on the grounds of racial insensitivity, I was more offended by how unfunny the show was. I almost hoped it would get progressively more offensive solely so I could have a laugh. I think it’s safe to say I was asking for too much when the writers had to name a central character Manmeet just to get a good old fashioned American cock joke in. Besides, Hardik is such a better Indian name for that joke anyway.

Outsourced is NBC’s new sit-com based on 2006’s film of the same name. The big lesson you’ll learn from the movie, apparently, is that India’s not so bad. Thanks! The TV show is based around Todd Dempsey, a 20-something American who returns to his job at Mid-American Novelties to find out his entire staff has been laid off and their responsibilities shipped off to a call center in Mumbai. The fact that most foreign call centers in India exist in Gurgaon, outside the capital of Delhi, hella far away, doesn’t matter as much because the show is clearly filmed on set in California. I would Gawker-write my way through a witty-ish-but-not-quite recap but it’s super boring so I’ll save us both the time. The gist of things is this dude has to train all these Indians who appear to be bad at their job. Surprisingly, in just ONE day everyone at the call center figured out how to sell these novelty items to Americans. Even the super quiet, docile, kind of hot Indian girl, not to be confused with the super hot Indian girl that’s clearly British, was able to make a sale. There’s also a potential love interest in the Australian lady that heads up another call center. (Sidebar: are all Indian call centers run by white people? Maybe it’s below the pay grade of the thousands of Indians that come here on H-1 Visas to run IT teams at investment banks and software companies for six and seven figure salaries.) Maybe he’ll think he likes the Australian lady, but then realize he really loves the hot Indian (British) lady and that love is bigger than cultural differences! In a way the show can trick you into thinking it’s post-race (which is already a trick), fitting in cultural observations on Americans (we eat hamburgers! we waste money!) and Indians (we don’t eat cows! we want American jobs!) in one 30-minute episode. If you’re confused between the “we”s, welcome to my life or that of any American of _________ descent. No that’s a joke, because you’ll never really understand.

A week ago I was interviewed by an Indian blog and I spoke about the increased visibility of South Asians in American pop culture citing Jay Sean and NBC’s Thursday comedy line-up specifically. Prior to tonight’s airing of Outsourced, the only South Asians NBC’s Thursday lineup included were Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Danny Pudi, and Maulik Pancholy. That was enough. We were happy. We were content with these four actors we could laugh with and not at. None of these characters were the punchlines of racially insensitive humor. Maulik Pancholy, better known as whatever Jack Donaghy’s assistant’s name is on the show, was kind of an easy target for jokes but none of them had to do with his race. For me, increased visibility meant less talentless tools can progress in the arts solely by virtue of American racism (read: their being Indian, different, exotic) and that people were beginning to see us for more than our food and labor. Literally three days later Outsourced, a show about work that’s 30% Indian food jokes, airs and we’re back at square one. Besides, what 20-something, college-educated American professional who would head to India before looking for a new job hasn’t ever had Indian food? At one point the main character identifies a dish as “yellow and green stuff”. You know that’s Saag Paneer dude.

I have to wonder if NBC would risk walking the delicate tight rope of race and humor had Slumdog Millionaire not been so popular. It’s the same thinking behind Universal Records linking up with Desihits.com, a website promoting the type of Indian-American music that makes me vomit, to start Desi Hits Universal!, a label that plans to follow in the successful footsteps of songs like “JAI HO” off the Slumdog soundtrack (the type of Indian-American music that makes me vomit). Label execs had no hesitation to talk about the Latin explosion while talking about this recent label launch. (Source: New York Times.) (I have to say, I’m worried about how we’ll compare to Latinos. They’ve been in this country for ages. Though it’s the only gem their explosion left us with, how can my people come up with anything close to as good as Enrique Iglesias’ pop classic “Escape.” It’s impossible. Plus Spanish is at least a romance language).

While Outsourced is great in that it puts more Indian actors on TV, the question of cost has to be asked. I defer to African-Americans on issues of minstrel in this country and whether it’s worth it or not. Oh, nah? It’s not. Okay. What the fuck!!! While part of me wants this show to succeed because I know Panjabi MC only has one successful song and they’re going to look towards other artists to throw sync money at, I still hope this show tanks and a bunch of suits realize we (Indian people) just became visible on television and in film in this country so there’s no need to jump the gun? Jump the shark? (That one joke about Indians being bad at American expressions was a good one in retrospect). Besides, there’s a funny way to do racial humor and office jokes and Outsourced is not it. This is:

For more from Heems, there’s @heems, @DasRacist, Nehru Jackets, these two mixtapes, and these impressive moves at the ‘Gum Bowl.