Blazing New Trails: Indian Women On American Television

Posted: April 28, 2015

The new roles for Indian origin women on American television are diverse and original – besides making for enjoyable TV. A look at some famous characters we love. 

It’s not a rare sight to see an Indian woman in an American movie – usually, she has a minimal role in it. However, to find them playing key roles on famous TV shows was rather astonishing for me. Be it Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife or Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, these ladies are trail blazers for other women of Indian (or South Asian) origin, who want to start their careers in American television.

However, there is a certain noticeable pattern as to how these women are portrayed onscreen. Here is an analysis three popular Indian American women’s characters onscreen.




Women who read

In The Big Bang Theory, Raj’s sister, Priya Koothrappali, played by Aarti Mann, is a law graduate from Cambridge University. In various episodes, she has displayed her intelligence, wit and charm effortlessly. The same goes for Mindy Lahiri, played by Mindy Kaling. Mindy Lahiri is an obstetrician onscreen.

In reality, both ladies are graduates from reputed universities. The former graduated with a degree in script writing from Shady Side Academy, while the latter also has the same degree, but from Dartmouth University. Similarly, Kalinda Sharma is an investigator onscreen, and in reality, an alumnus of Brunel University, with a degree in management studies. Indian American women are well read in both dimensions!

Masters of their craft

Kalinda Sharma is an excellent investigator, and has used several clever tactics to get the information she needs. She always gets the job done. The same goes for Mindy and Priya, who frequently demonstrate their expansive knowledge of their field of expertise. So, it is rather obvious that these women are confident about their knowledge. Needless to say, these women are talented actors, and they know their craft.

Open about their sexuality

These women are beautiful, sensuous, and are ready to explore sexually. While Priya has a healthy romantic and sexual relationship with Leonard Hofstader, Kalinda Sharma has flaunted her bisexuality and made use of it. While Priya has had romantic, sexual relationships with other Indian men, Kalinda indulges in flings to elicit information for her cases. On the other hand, Mindy is determined to find a good relationship, and does her best to maintain it. They are not shy, or ashamed to admit who or what they like.

It’s not always about family and ‘sanskaar’

Mindy Lahiri hardly makes any references to her family, and has her own identity. However, Kalinda’s character is designed to be secretive, and has revealed minimal information about her family. Though it is known that her parents legally migrated to the States, the status of her marital relationship is obscure.

Priya is not particularly attached to any of her siblings, and can survive on her own. Due to her parents’ insistence, she stays with her brother while working in Pasadena. She constantly receives video calls from her parents, which she is used to. However, she is aware of how strict they can be when it comes to dating, and initially refrains from exposing her relationship with Leonard, a white man. Eventually she gets her parents in the loop.

All three women are not obsessed with Indian culture and tradition, and accept the American lifestyle. These women rarely mention their traditional Indian roots and backgrounds, representing the new generation of women, who go with the flow, and make their own ideals and principles.

It’s not all about pav bhaji and sarees

All the three women are avid consumers of foreign cuisine. Priya and Mindy have their favourite American dishes and have a healthy appetite. When it comes to clothing, these women wear jeans, suits, T-shirts and short dresses, breaking the stereotyped ‘dress code’ for Indian women.

It’s all about the accolades, and not the zero figure

Despite many criticisms, racial abuse and being the target of jokes, Mindy Kaling and Archie Panjabi have won critically-acclaimed awards over the years for their amazing and unconventional roles.

Mindy is the first Indian-American to be the main lead on prime-time American television, while Archie Panjabi has been bestowed with the title of ‘rising star’. All three women are not tall, skinny or fair, which are the pre-requisites in our movie industry. Their dusky skin, short stature, curvaceous figures and sexy accents earned them positive reviews.

Both Aarti Maan and Archie Punjabi had the paved way for themselves in Hollywood, and have appeared in short films, movies and other TV shows. But neither of them have starred as protagonists in an Indian movie or TV show. In contrast, Mindy Kaling received support from another Indian female media mogul to star and produce her own show. Indian women still have a long way to go, if they dream of being the next Mindy Kaling.

Priyanka Chopra is said to star in an ABC show soon, while Aparna Nancherla has made history by being the first Indian woman to perform stand up on Late Night American television. It truly is refreshing to see such women onscreen.

Composite image of the three actors via promotional stills

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