In Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series, Master of None — he co-created and stars in the show, which premiered on the platform last Friday — there’s an entire episode dedicated to examining how people of Asian descent are portrayed on television. “Indians on TV” opens with a montage of incidents of brownface, going all the way up to Ashton Kutcher’s now-infamous Pop Chips commercial. Later in the episode, Ansari’s character Dev learns that one of his favorite Indian characters of all time, Benjamin Jarhvi, the Indian scientist in the 1988 movie Short Circuit 2, was played by Fisher Stevens: A white actor in brownface. (One of Dev’s Indian friends, upon hearing this, is at a loss. “Is Mindy Kaling real?”)
In real life, Ansari actually called up Stevens to talk about the role, a conversation Ansari describes in a piece published in the New York Times on Tuesday. As Ansari tells it, Short Circuit 2 was the first American movie in which he saw an Indian character, an experience that “had a powerful effect” on him, particularly as he got older and “realized what an anomaly it was. I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker literally servicing white characters who were off to more interesting adventures.”
But in college, Ansari turned to IMDB to discover that the Indian character was a white guy in brownface.
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Ansari’s Times essay is very generous toward Stevens, describing him as someone who was “a well-intentioned if slightly misguided young actor who needed a job during a more culturally insensitive time” when he took the role. “Toward the end of the conversation,” Ansari writes, “it seemed to fully hit him how insensitive his casting may have been, and he said several times that he believed the role should have been played by an Indian and that he would never take it today.”
Ansari goes on to describe the state of Indian characters in modern pop culture. It’s… not great. Brownface abounds — Ansari cites The Social Network and The Martian as recent offenders; he auditioned for the former and passed on reading for the latter, but even though that proves these filmmakers attempted to cast an Indian actor in Indian roles, there’s no way to know “how hard” they tried.
Why should they have to try so hard? As Ansari put it:
I had to cast an Asian actor for Master of None, and it was hard. When you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: “You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!” But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options, and with each of them, something was off. Some had the right look but didn’t have comedy chops. Others were too young or old. We even debated changing the character to an Asian woman, but a week before shooting began, Kelvin Yu, an actor from Los Angeles, sent in an audition over YouTube and got the part.
Last year, Vulture published “An In-Depth Cultural Analysis of Asian Male TV Characters Getting Some Action,” an investigation into the absence of Asian romantic male leads on television. The article broke down these characters into six different types, including “The Color-Blinds” wherein race is ignored to the point of “ignoring specificities,” and “The Stealth Asians,” in which actors the audience probably has no idea are Asian get to play leading men (like Dean Cain in Lois & Clark and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in Saved by the Bell.)
That depressing roundup got a little less depressing in 2015, with the addition of shows like Master, Fresh Off the Boat, and Quantico (if we’re counting female leads, too). But as Ansari writes in the Times, “as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season. And whatever progress toward diversity we are making, the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low.”