Tuesday, November 23, 2010

'Outsourced': this currycature aint funny no more, mama.

An edited version of this piece appeared in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 47, Dated November 27, 2010. Please visit that link for the stripped-down version of this ramble.

As sitcom viewers, we hold some truths to be self-evident. For instance: a majority of American sitcoms are made for easy caricature, with the rare exception focused on social commentary—Salutations, Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds and Alan Alda: M*A*S*H changed the lives of everyone who plugged into the Star TV episode re-runs in the early 1990s, then rediscovered it online a few years later. Corollary to this truth: American sitcoms made for easy caricature either provide a generation with popular catch-phrases, or catches flack from a key demographic of the same generation for hackneyed writing.

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American television channel NBC’s Outsourced, which premiered on September 23, 2010 and was picked up for a full season a few weeks ago, has been rousing mixed reactions from just such a key demographic: 20-30 something American viewers, including Indian Americans and Indians currently residing in the United States. Most viewers have sounded off on their dislike of the show’s lack of timeliness, and some of its casting decisions. Others have commented on the refreshing presence of Indians and Indian themes, however dated, playing a main role in an American prime time show.

The movie this series is based on was a perfect little fairytale. Much like Mississippi Masala did in its own time, 2006’s Outsourced captured a certain piece of the Indian/American reality in our recent history with sweet detail. An eventful year, 2006 contained the death of Syd Barrett, Bismillah Khan and Pramod Mahajan. Several members of the Viriginia Tech campus were killed in a tragic homicidal shooting incident. Movie releases included Borat, Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest, Rang De Basanti, Krrish and Lage Raho Munnabhai. The July Mumbai train bombings happened, as did Hurricane Katrina, and the hanging of Saddam Hussein. The one thread that strung 2006 through in the United States was talk of American jobs being shipped abroad. And call centers was as far as American pop culture got in 2006 with Indian references, apart from quaint films like the Guru (2002).

2010 is a very different time. The past few years have brought us Big Bang Theory’s Raj Koothrappali and his non-Orientalist, Indian-grad-at-Caltech set of Indian cultural references. The entire cast eats Indian take-out once a week except for him (he detests Indian food), and throughout the series the viewer is aware that the other characters are well educated about Koothrappali’s manners and mores as well as a range of realties regarding India and the US-Indian diaspora. Russell Peters is now very old hat, except for those of us whose parents are just discovering Facebook. There is or was, the guy from Lost. Sanjaya, his hair and their combined appearance on American Idol. Slumdog Millionnaire. Bollywood Dance work-out classes. Bikram Yoga. MetroPCS’s Tech and Talk ad campaign. Harvard’s professional Bhangra team. Adiga and Lahiri are only some of the more recent additions to a plethora of Indian authors making a name for themselves internationally. And most importantly, no self-respecting pop culture pulse checker has mentioned call centers in about three years.

Quick overview of the Outsourced series plot: An American Novelties Company fires all their American staff, and then outsources the sales over to an artistic postcard representation of “Mumbai”, together with a young, snotty white American manager named Todd Dempsey (Ben Rappaport). Cue the Mumbai employee list: Rajiv, the Machiavellian manager, one beautiful young thing in love with her traditions (Rebecca Hazlewood’s complicated British accent attempting an Indian accent attempting an American accent), one sexually repressed bumpkin (Anisha Nagarajan, one of the happy surprises of the show), one Romeo with a heart of gold (Sacha Dhawan), one socially inept outcast (Parvesh Cheena, who plays his part brilliantly and together with Nagarajan, is responsible for some of the only nuanced characterization in this series.) Todd is quick to realize he needs to pick up on Indian cultural realities: from navigating personal space to understanding gender roles to realising that there is no such holiday as ‘Jolly Vindaloo Day’.

Still awake? The high yawn quotient of this tired, done to death plot is to an extent because Todd Dempsey is unlikeable from the get-go, portrayed as he is, as a close-minded white boy who’s terrified of losing his job security. But the show’s major flaws lie less in racism and more in lazy writing. Outsourced’s pilot took hesitant, baby steps, as if the cast and crew were constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure they hadn’t stepped on several million brown toes across the world. Can this be put down to all the backlash that followed Joel Stein’s unintentionally incendiary piece for TIME? Or do we place the script in the context of some of the reactions Mr. Boyle’s Oscar winning production garnered for itself?

After the deadly dull pilot, things did mildly improve with the first few episodes. The writers didn’t descend to easy tropes like spontaneous Bollywood dance/item number inclusions, even when it may have spiked their ratings. Arranged marriage references only began in episode three. But Outsourced’s Todd Dempsey continued to interact with a Mumbai that only exists in his imagination: there are no “decent burgers” to be had, no one has ever heard of Halloween (yet everyone seems to take to Halloween costuming in episode six like kitty party aunties to an Avon demonstration) and Rajiv is terrified of a tiger in episode four. As Madhuri Shekar, MFA student of Dramatic Writing, freelance writer & blogger for Reality Rocks and a Marketing and Communications Assistant at the University of Southern California said “… it’s set in an India that is unrecognizable… The thing that most offends me is the fact that they're trying so hard not to offend. It's just not funny most of the time, and there's nothing edgy, raw, or chaotic about a sitcom that's set in India. You'd have to really work hard to sanitize India”

Do we blame the inability of an American creative team to engage with the at times sordid and wholly hilarious realities in India, and a contemporary juxtaposition of American and Indian socio-cultural realities? Or do we blame ourselves, for having portrayed to the world that as one entire nation, Indians cannot take jokes made at our expense well? Can we laugh at ourselves as we are now, or can we only laugh at the happy two dimensional clich├ęs of ourselves that we agreed to endorse over a decade ago? Or is it that we are so out of touch with what it truly takes to live in urban India today that we have to wait for a book like Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ or any movie that Anurag Kashyap is behind to feel comfortable commenting on all that is real and “gritty” about us? Where are the jokes about recreational drug use, alcohol binges, relationship hypocrisy, urban angst, adult boredom, economic woes and general twisted humor, or do we pretend that none of this exists at home? India, us who are privileged enough to spend time having this conversation, are we so uptight that we cannot even reckon with these realities?

Let it be said there is some fun in the Outsourced scripts. Some winning touches include the A-team call center workers who return to India after gaining US degrees to work BPO gigs for Apple and Microsoft, who have mastered various American dialects and cult slang phrases and use them against the American manager’s loyal tribe of plastic vomit pushers. Dempsey and a fellow expatriate Charlie Davis (Diedrich Bader) dancing in an Indian disco for the first time, Davis discussing access to Yankee doodle American food like Smuckers Jam and Jiffy Peanut Butter, and the Indian manager Rajiv’s desperately passive aggressive comebacks are all LOL-worthy. The writers are beginning to push the envelope, using the same Sunny treatment that Lee and Walsh have perfected in other scripts: characters that don’t excuse or explain themselves, their awkward situations or their dystopian behavior. One only hopes that the writers continue to push the limit so as to explore ideas of Indian comedy that go beyond spoofs, stereotypes and slapstick.

What is particularly upsetting about Outsourced is that it could have been brilliant. It could have been a moment for keen social commentary on all us everyday people, both in the US and in India—us still living with our parents people, us saving money on rent by living with strangers people, us refusing to get into the family business people, us still repaying student loans people, us still single “because seriously, are you kidding?” people. Outsourced could have been a moment for writers and audience to have the gumption and the guts to look at Indians for the first time not through the lens of stereotypes but to be honest with Indian idiosyncrasies, whether they be Indians in the United States or in India. It could have finally been that big cross-over moment, where we all acknowledge that with torrents, travel between the two countries, cable TV and the internet in general, the supposed distance between America and India has moved on beyond Delhi belly and tech support. Outsourced could have been a place on TV we could finally go for gritty, realistic commentary on what it takes to earn and keep a job, pay bills and stay relevant to our peers in an urban Indian social circle. Perhaps authentic storytelling can only happen when writers in India participate in the production and scripting of such shows. Perhaps it is finally the time for stories about contemporary India that are told internationally to be crafted, produced and invested in locally. There is a market—We are all already here.