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Pari Mathur Headshot

Who I Was and Who I Want to Be -- Indian Americans in Media

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When I went to college back in 2002 -- the Paleozoic period of the Internet -- YouTube and Facebook weren't born yet. And the fact remained the same: you didn't see many minorities, especially Indian-Americans, in movies or TV. Thus, many of us, myself included, were still trying to figure out who we were as Indians living in America.

So when my friend Harvin and I saw Russell Peters' comedy routine for the first time on Comedy Now!, which went viral in 2004, we fell out of our chairs. Here was a guy who was Indian, on stage in front of the world, talking about our people -- and it was hilarious.

My parents DO sound like that!
That IS how my parents act!
My parents ARE so traditional!

He gave us an identity. And so, Harvin and I followed. We started creating our own comedy. We put on mustaches, gave ourselves accents, and started acting like Indian Uncles: Uncle Vijay and Uncle Ramesh. People loved it. We started putting on skits for our friends. People loved it even more. We started making little videos called Uncle Chat where people could ask us questions and we'd respond as Indian Uncles. People wanted more.

Uncle Vijay and Uncle Ramesh found themselves on stage on college campuses around the country, which sparked a national tour. We were on stage in LA, got flown out to New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and more. We were asked by VH1 to be guest comedians on Forbes Celebrity 100. And then we made a video, which tipped: Crank Dat Curry Sauce -- a music video parody that garnished more than 20 million views worldwide.

We were now giving people an identity.

As the Internet formed, so did this voice. More Indian-Americans were resonating with this concept: traditional vs. modern. Movies with similar themes were being produced. TV shows with Indian characters were developed. A new wave of Indian-Americans in media sprung forth. It was wonderful. We became the next up-and-coming minority. And Hollywood wanted more.

Then a funny thing happened. I graduated college and went to film school. The mustache came off and Uncle Ramesh slowly retired. I started watching TV, film, and web content in a different light, observing now from a story and character perspective. As I watched this massive catalog of new Indian-American humor, which was filled with accents and stereotypes, I stopped laughing.

My parents do sound like that -- but not like that.
That is how my parents act -- but not like that.
My parents are so traditional -- but not like that.
We are NOT like that.

The concept, which was originally laughable, new, and innocent quickly became theatrical, radical, and stereotyped. I became angry and bored. Every single Indian-American character or theme dealt with these same scenarios: traditional vs. modern, parents vs. the kids, or how it was in India and how different it is growing up in America. Our community is bigger and better, so why are we still talking about this? My friends, who were actors, were putting on fake accents at auditions. Why are we acting like this? Is there nothing else? What's next?

The truth is, I'm frustrated. In media, we are portrayed as the self conscious and awkward best friend, tech-support, or the group of people with accents. The reality is, we're not. Growing up and living here in the heart of the Silicon Valley, Indian-Americans run the show. We're CEOs, leaders, and visionaries. But we're not portrayed that way at all.

And what do a majority of Americans think about Indian-Americans? Unfortunately, their entire perception of our community is formulated and created through mainstream media. So forget running a billion dollar hedge fund, Mr. Indian-American. To most, you're just a dude who bobbles his head with a mustache, because that's what they've seen on TV.

The fact is, we are going back in time and oppressing ourselves. My good friend, comedian and actor, Hasan Minhaj, who is a front-runner for this change, talks about an incident that happened recently with Pop Chips and Ashton Kutcher. If you're Indian-American, ask yourself, how does this make you feel?

This change needs to come from within our community first. We need to show the real, unified Indian-American cultural society. Forget accents, forget stereotypes, and forget Hollywood trying to depict us from the outside.

We need to unite and tell the world who the real Indian-American community is otherwise we will always be portrayed in this laughable and negative ecosystem, and won't be able to grow as one of the largest minority groups in America.