Hiredesai: Authentic Desi representation is a work in progress

Annika Hiredesai, Assistant Opinion Editor

I read Ayesha Baig’s column on Desi representation last week and found myself thinking about it for some time after. I identified with much of what she wrote about her experience with South Asian media.

My hometown has a sizable Indian population and I had peers and friends who shared my background. There were several Indian restaurants in town, yearly functions and community organizations. Despite this sizable presence, I grew up with little to no interest in connecting with my Indian heritage. After all, it was my parents who were Indian; I was American. 

It wasn’t until I arrived at Northwestern that I began to find meaning in being South Asian. As I became close to other Indian Americans, I developed a new appreciation for how my heritage, despite my earlier denials, has shaped who I am today. Desi media representation has to follow suit.

I agree with Baig that what little Desi representation currently exists is almost always limited to a given set of characters and tropes, the kind of one-dimensional writing that is palatable to American audiences. Hollywood is incapable of portraying one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. To be South Asian is to be some combination of hundreds of different subcultures arising from an array of faiths, languages, dialects, cuisines and cultural behaviors. However, I disagree with Baig’s point that Desi representation shouldn’t even be attempted if it would fall short of authenticity. 

One of the few pieces of American media I have found that portrays a South Asian character with nuance is Fox’s “The Resident,” a medical drama that follows idealistic intern Dr. Devon Pravesh as he confronts the messy realities of practicing medicine. Pravesh’s character is one that allows the audience to hear about facets of the Desi-American experience that go unnoticed by general audiences. As a first-generation American myself, I identify with his character’s intense drive to honor his parents’ sacrifices and struggle to balance acclimation with the traditions he grew up with. I can’t imagine that this kind of representation didn’t arise in part because of the glaring vacuum of South Asian representation on shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” especially given the prevalence of Desi physicians in this country.

We deserve more of this kind of representation in all kinds of media, but sitting on our hands and expecting perfection is unrealistic. Karan Brar, the first South Asian person to have a recurring role on a Disney show, recently came to campus for a Q&A hosted by the South Asian Students Alliance. While his character Ravi was a milestone in representation, Brar described the role as “three steps forward at the time, two steps backward in hindsight.” He now selects roles and projects with the goal of showcasing South Asians as multifaceted, ranging from comedies to action films and everything in between. 

We should expect to see more mediocrity on our way to ideal representation, because progress comes in increments, not wholesale reform. However, in no way should we accept lower-quality representation moving forward. In the face of abject failures, we need to vocalize how things could be improved, to build upon viable, existing frameworks to tell nuanced stories that make us feel seen. A large part of that is having more South Asian writers, actors, directors and producers involved in the creation of these works. With these renewed expectations, I believe authentic representation of the Desi experience can be done justice. 

Annika Hiredesai is a Weinburg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.