The Indian accent, Apu and racist depictions of Desis

Friday, 19 January 2007

I came across a post by the always interesting Manish on Ultrabrown, frothing about the way Indian accents are depicted by whitefellas (in or out of brownface- or brownvoice in some cases), especially Apu in the Simpsons.

He has many problems with the accent used by Apu (as spoken by Hank Azaria): it is ‘crudely done’, ‘a poor imitation’, ‘a travesty’ (of the real Indian accent), ‘crudely pasted’, ‘synthetic’, ‘artificial’ and how ‘gut-level revulsion this churns up’ in him just talking about it. Strong words and fair enough, being his opinion. But he goes on to say in a couple of places including a comment I left, that this caricature of an Indian accent is racist, including this:

It’s not that only desis are allowed to do desi humor. It’s that the version done in the U.S. exists only in the U.S. and Britain and is done only by white people — it’s artificial. It’s badly done partly because the language lacks Hindi phonemes (as you know, Spanish and Hindi have soft consonants missing in English), but also because of a racist lack of interest in doing it well.

Let’s look at this a little closer.

Manish feels that it is racist because it is a poor imitation or ‘synthetic’ version of an Indian accent and because it creates or perpetuates a stereotype of Indians in the USA and UK. But that is just caricature, isn’t it? It can be offensive but most humour is offensive to one party or the other.

If racism is

a belief system or doctrine which states that inherent biological differences between human races determines cultual or individual achievement — with a corollary that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others (Wikipedia)

then doesn’t that rule out cultural differences such as language or accents? Is the way we speak English (and there are so many regional accents for Hinglish) a characteristic that defines us as a race? In that case, if I spoke with a plummy British accent would I then not be part of the Indian ‘race’? What a great way to escape racism!

And which Indian accent is acceptable then? Is is that of the Bengali with the b’s instead of the v’s, is it that of the Maharashtrians with there hard ‘t’s and d’s or the Malayalee english pronounciation with the oily vowels and funny consonants? Well, the accents of UK desis Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal are held out as an example of an Indian accent done well. Oho, so it is the accent of the upper middle class ‘convent’ or ‘public school’ educated upper middle class kids that meets with approval! But that is no more Indian than the faux upper-class stentorian English accent that we used to hear on All India Radio’s news from Surajit Sen and others in the 70’s and 80’s.

And what is the subtext when Sellers- or now Steve Martin- send up the French in the Pink Panther films or how the German accent is stereotyped by Hollywood (ve haff our vays). Is that racist too?

And here’s the nub. All these representations of Indian or other accents are but caricatures. Why should they have be close to the real thing? Whether they were too lazy to do the work to get it right (as Manish and another comment leaver have said) is besides the point! It’s meant to raise a giggle with the target audience! Yes, naina, it was mocking of Indians as is most humour mocking of some person or group. You don’t have to like it but you cannot wheel out the ‘R’ word for someone making fun of your accent! It might be also insulting, revolting, boring and any number of other adjectives, but racist- I don’t think so.

To accuse people of racism seems to be the first resort of the educated Indian whose hypersensitive antennae perceive a slight where none may be intended.

As the thoughtful comment by musical points out

Hindi movies take the cake when it comes to racial and linguistic stereotyping. Even desis mock each others accents! What about all the South Indians saying Ayyo Rama, all the Bengalis saying Uri baba, all the Punjus saying Balle Balle, all the Sindhis saying Vadi Saayin-all bad stereotypes, all perpetuated by us, the desis.

These are all examples of one social class making fun of another social class for general amusement. It really has nothing to do with race. Given time the stereotype of the Indian in the West will change from the mindless depictions of Sellers, to that of the current call centre agent stereotype to something that more accurately represents the Indians that people in the mainstream meet.

No, girls and guys, un-knot your chaddis, relax the sphincter, unwind yourself (as Kaa the snake said to Mowgli in The Jungle Book) and put a smile on your face. Then go and make some more jokes about Mumbaiyya Hindi, Malayalee English or Punjabis with American accents (heard venture capital guru Vinod Khosla talk?).

In short, get a sense of humour.

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9 Responses to “The Indian accent, Apu and racist depictions of Desis”

  1. Simran Says:

    your analysis is pretty weak…it’s pretty simplistic to say, “don’t be offended, get a sense of humor!” just because something doesn’t offend you. i think the point these people were trying to get across was that in many cases, people employ the indian accent to impart the notion that indians are weird/stupid/savage and that they talk like bumbling idiots as opposed to the clean-cut, civilized american. yeah, everyone does accents, but not everyone controls the media. arguments like yours are…tired (SNORE).

  2. Desi Says:

    Thanks for your comment (seriously); there’s always room for disagreement. I’m glad the post stimulated you enough to wake you up and write in….

  3. […] post: The Indian accent, Apu and racist depictions of Desis Posted by Desi Filed in Desi Cringe, Desi […]

  4. remainsofthedesi Says:

    it is fairly difficult to crack a funny joke without resorting to stereotyping of some kind. As far as the simpsons being racist…I think I could go along with that argument if we also agreed that it was racist against stupid wasp hicks who drink too much beer and eat doughnuts all day in nuclear power plants. I mean what does everyone expect from a satire? Can you point me in the direction of one character in the simpsons who isn’t being stereotyped and ridiculed? In any case I thought part of the point of the abu character was not to laugh at him…but to laugh at the hegemonic stereotype OF him…when I laugh I am laughing at how bad the accent is…and that is the accent that most idiot wasps use to immitate indians. And if some people aren’t getting the reflexivity…well then I guess the simpsons is like shakespeare…it appeals to people on whatever level they get it…unless they are looking for a way to kill a joke…(by failing to identify irony)

    so if some loser starts immitating an abu accent in an attempt to ridicule someone…the joke is on them…they were too stupid to understand that “apu” was expecting them to be unable to identify that his character makes fun of middle americans who put on such accents. I mean its the same as “Borat” convincing half of the world that he was actually a representative of Kazakhstan because folks are too ignorant to know the difference. Obviously, unable to understand that the joke was NOT directed at them, The Kazakhstan govt. decided to take offence, assuming Borat was racially stereotyping them…sometimes I really feel bad for some of our better comedians… its worrying when a comedian has a higher capacity for complex thought than some of the major reps. of a nation.

  5. blackinjun Says:

    My complicated reply:

    Why are people insisting that racism is the same as stereotyping or bigotry? Racism is an effect and the cause is white supremacy. Apu is compared to what? All non white people are compared to what? If you agree then “racism” is a result of being forced (power) via many avenues, like formal education, media propaganda, economic coercion, etc. to accept a certain standard as universal and everything that deviates from it as not “normal.” People from India are themselves racist (caste system) within their country because they have that power, however outside they are stereotyped by white supremacy while they are bigots and prejudiced toward what white supremacy dictates as “non Aryan.”

  6. […] by a white dude. Some have likened this to white dudes who put on blackface for minstral shows. Desidreaming has an interesting post on this — the discussion in the comments is also […]

  7. […] by a white dude. Some have likened this to white dudes who put on blackface for minstral shows. Desidreaming has an interesting post on this — the discussion in the comments is also […]

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