When I was growing up in the ‘80s in a small town in Texas, words like sari, mehndi, and bhindi weren’t common in mainstream media or among my non-Indian friends. I straddled two different identities, and felt torn between trying to mask my Indian heritage at school while downplaying my Americanness at home. When people asked me questions about my heritage, I often felt the need to justify or defend my cultural backstory.
This is all changing, especially as Indian culture has spilled into mainstream American media in television, movies and books in recent years. Representation isn’t a cure-all, but the diversification of the media can signal the start of a dialogue — both with those who want to gain an understanding of the culture, as well as how to embrace multiple identities simultaneously.
It’s a refreshing shift from years past, especially because the diversity of the Indian diaspora is finally getting its due. Characters and storylines are also expanding beyond painful stereotypes and punchlines, and there is a concrete effort to highlight Indian-Americans from Gujarat, Bengal, Tamil, Punjabi and other regions. In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, here are 11 television shows, movies, and books centering Indian characters and stories, and exploring issues that I wish were given airtime when I was growing up.
“Never Have I Ever” (Netflix)
Created by Mindy Kaling, the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever” chronicles Devi Vishwakumar, a 15-year-old sophomore from Sherman Oaks, California, and her adventures in high school. She is dealing with a lot, including grieving the loss of her father, clashes with her mother, and navigating a broadening world that also affects her friends, cousins, and love interests. Devi, who is of Tamil descent, readily sees a therapist and isn’t subservient — and with her friends, is busting plenty of stereotypes left and right. The show tackles subjects like arranged marriages, sex, and a need to break from norms and tradition, and features plenty of cringe-worthy moments in high school hallways.
“Family Karma” (Bravo)
“Family Karma” is a reality show following several Indian-American families in Miami. The show touches on several themes including identity, marriage, and the constant struggle between three different generations. The show also delves into the communal aspect of what it means to grow up with a network of “aunties and uncles,” and how their opinion can sometimes influence how parents treat their children — and how people treat each other.
“White Tiger” (Netflix)
Priyanka Chopra stars in the film version of author Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel, “White Tiger,” which explores class, caste, and inequalities in India. The film is a stark look at the divide between rich and poor and how it impacts survival, and centers on one man’s journey as he attempts to pull himself out of poverty by whatever means necessary.
In “Halwa,” an Indian-American mother, played by Vee Kumari, secretly reaches out to her dearest childhood friend on Facebook to escape her abusive husband. This film centers on Sujata’s journey as she tries to balance her needs and wants with the immovable duty of doing the right thing, and in doing so, explores her own sexual identity and agency..
“Thank You, Come Again”
Directed by Nirav Gupta, “Thank You, Come Again” depicts an Indian-American convenience store owner and how he interacts with his subconscious as he grieves his father’s death. Gupta creates tight storytelling and explores race and identity in this short film, which speaks to the struggles of an undocumented Gujarati working in the United States. Gujarati-Americans account for six percent of Indian-Americans and there are many who either work or own convenience stores. This film sheds light on the intersection of grief, loss, identity, and how to find home.
Family is the main emphasis of the Netflix original “Tribhanga,” which showcases mothers and daughters trying to navigate difficult themes around sexual assault and violence. In particular, this movie focuses on older women exploring their relationships through the lens of a daughter who gains a different perspective when her mom falls into a coma. The powerful performances showcase a full range of emotions, from strength to vulnerability to perseverance — a clear departure from victimhood and lack of agency.
“The Parted Earth” by Anjali Enjeti
Set in 1947, Anjali Enjeti’s novel “The Parted Earth” focuses on Deepa, a 16-year-old Hindu girl who falls in love with a Muslim boy, Amir. Their forbidden romance is magnified by the political climate, given that the British government has just divided the country into two parts: India and Pakistan. The novel cleverly traces Deepa’s roots through her granddaughter who lives in Atlanta — it’s through her perspective that the reader learns more about Deepa and her life.
“Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance and Social Change” by Anjali Enjeti
Navigating in-betweenness of several different identities is hard to manage, but in “Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance and Social Change,” writer Anjali Enjeti answers the question “Where are you from?” in a way that makes others feel less alone. She talks about her flaws when looking at how she’s dealt with race and traces her evolution into a social justice activist. Enjeti’s essays are an in-depth look at a variety of important subjects, such as abortion, the AIDS crisis, navigating relationships, and learning how to embrace vulnerabilty.
“This Is One Way to Dance” by Sejal Shah
In her debut essay collection, “This Is One Way to Dance,” writer Sejal Shah uses her lyrical style to explore place, culture, and identity. She discusses what it means to be a writer of color, a woman, a daughter of immigrants, and how these identities led her to make certain choices throughout her life. Her prose moves expertly through ruminations about food, music, marriage, and language. Shah voices her own experience throughout the collection and makes it clear that this is her story and not a commentary on all Indian Americans and their journeys. The essay collection centers on pushing boundaries on stereotypes and identity.
“Sister of the Bollywood Bride” by Nandini Bajpal
An Indian wedding is the driving force in Nandini Bajpal’s novel, “Sister of the Bollywood Bride.” Mini’s sister, Vinnie, is getting married, of course, Bollywood style — and Mini is left to handle all of the wedding details since their mother passed away several years ago. This novel follows Mini and her desire to give her sister the wedding of her dreams as she deals with their uninterested father, as well as an unexpected romance, and a monster hurricane.
“The Knockout” by Sajni Patel
In this debut by Sajni Patel, “The Knockout” follows Kareena Thakkar, a 17-year-old Gujarati girl who has entered the competitive world of martial arts. The novel takes a deep look into a teen’s struggle to balance her Indian-American heritage and her personal goals. Much of the novel tackles the idea of being “enough,” and explores the ways in which Kareena doesn’t quite feel “Indian enough” and how her pursuit of martial arts makes her feel like an outsider. As the novel progresses, she falls in love, and in doing so, must reconcile her pursuit of her individual goals with her heritage and culture.