During my days as a Post-grad student, our indomitably witty Econ Prof would often prescribe essential reads to keep things interesting. Books like Freakonomics and Super-Freakonomics had instantly become our go-to reference in proving how cool Economics really was. It was only a matter of time that the discussion would turn toward the sub-prime crisis that had catapulted America into the biggest recession they had seen in years and when it did, the class found itself wracking their brains trying to explain the roots of the problem. Before long, a Freakonomics-induced self-proclaimed rockstar stirred the discussion towards how the basic spending habits of an average American were starkly different from that of an Indian. Nationalists that we all are, everyone got excited and suddenly, we were throwing out esoteric trivia on how great our culture was as compared to the debased Americans. It was at this moment that our Prof introduced The Inscrutable Americans to us. This 1991 novella by Anurag Mathur recounts the journey of a young Indian boy from an orthodox Indian household who moves to America to study Chemical Engineering. The coming-of-age story is a hilarious outlook on the the culture shock that the boy experiences. And this brings us to the story of Aziz Ansari.
Ansari was a second-generation Indian-American who was born in South Carolina in the state of Columbia to Tamil Muslim parents who had moved to America in the late 1970s. Despite the fact that he was born in America and never really had to experience the stark culture difference between the two nations, he was always kept close to his heritage through his parents who were devout Muslims and Indians at heart. It was during his Freshman year at NYU in 2001 that Ansari started trying out stand-up on talent nights or open mics at local Comedy clubs, much the same way as many of our favorite comedians started out. Being a brown kid growing up in a predominantly white country, Ansari was very much aware of diversity issues American culture struggled with. There were stereotypes against Indians, against blacks, against Asians and in fact for every possible coloured race that had been assimilated into their society. These observations became the foundation of Ansari’s brand of comedy where the jokes would more often than not provide a social commentary on a cultural issue that people lived with everyday but were blissfully unaware of.
Stand-up for Aziz Ansari was all about projecting his voice out there through which he could talk about things that he couldn’t have in your average conversation. Things that were perhaps too uncomfortable or too political to be able to freely discuss them with people without offending someone. This was the voice that Ansari carried into his Emmy award winning Netflix comedy-drama series Master of None where he plays a 30-something actor named Dev Shah who navigates the entertainment industry and his personal life as he deals with stereotypes, relationships and his own identity as an Indian-American. Master of None carries the same aura that we loved in the shows from early 90s – authentic characters, everyday life and relatable dynamics between people.
Ansari infuses the story of his own life into Dev Shah who is also a Tamil Muslim and a second-generation Indian-American. Interestingly, the actors playing Dev’s parents in the show are Ansari’s actual parents, Shoukath and Fatima who are both medical professionals just like they are in the show as well. With co-writer Alan Yang, who is also a second-generation immigrant from Taiwan and had worked with him on Parks and Recreation, Ansari brings out a very poignant portrayal of what the world looks like through Dev Shah’s discerning eyes.
In the Season 1 episode titled “Parents”, Dev’s dad doesn’t know how to update his calendar on an iPad, so he asks Dev for help. The scene cuts into this sepia story of the dad’s childhood in South India when he is playing with an abacus which is snatched away and broken by his elder brother. This idea of never having enough is again reinforced in the next scene where a decade later he shares his passion of wanting to become a doctor with his father, which is shot down with the reason that they didn’t have that kind of money to send him to medical school and that he would have to work in a factory instead. Then the scene cuts to his new life in America with a young wife and a new-born son, as he deals with discrimination at his work-place. In the final scene in this flashback montage, we watch dad surprising a teenage Dev with a brand new computer, fading out on the kid’s beaming face into present day Dev who is getting late for a movie with friends and says that he would do it later ’cause he doesn’t want to miss the trailers and that he wasn’t his personal computer guy. Guilt-trip much ?
Even though the premise is an introspection into how we treat our parents, the treatment is insightful and humorous with exaggerated expressions and tightly written comic dialogues. At the end of the episode, we see Dev and his Taiwanese-origin friend Brian talk about how easy life had been for them thanks to the sacrifices their parents had made. They go back home and help out their dads – while Dev helps his father configure the calendar, Brian goes back home and discusses an intellectual-sounding article from The Economist that his dad had wanted to discuss with him earlier. Well, those are Asian dads for you!
In a candid interview with Kerry Washington on the show Actors on Actors by Variety magazine, Ansari admitted that there was no way he would have ever gotten to play a character like Dev Shah had he not written it himself.
Dev’s acting career in the industry is also Ansari’s own story through the decade that he has spent writing, speaking and co-directing. In a candid interview with Kerry Washington on the show Actors on Actors by Variety magazine, Ansari admitted that there was no way he would have ever gotten to play a character like Dev Shah had he not written it himself. After the critical acclaim that was garnered, it was a pleasant surprise to everyone in showbiz that a show with a brown person as the lead character and so many layers would ever have this kind of acceptance by the American audience. Indians have been typecast for ages in Hollywood, which in fact is the subject for episode 4 in the first season titled “Indians on TV” where Dev walks into an audition where an Indian character is to be cast for a film. As Dev starts acting out the dialogue, he is asked to stopped and begin again with an Indian accent with the characteristic head-wobble to go with it. This subtle, racist stereotyping has become such an integral part of everyday culture that no one really bats an eye ’cause that’s how an Indian is supposed to talk; doesn’t matter if he was born here and had grown up just like any other English-speaking American kid. Just looking Indian wasn’t enough, you had to act a certain way too.
You can watch the full interview right here:
The discussion on diversity doesn’t confine itself to being an Indian or an Asian for that matter. Dev’s circle of friends is a motley crowd in itself – his friend Brian (played by Kelvin Yu) is of Taiwanese descent and has had a similar upbringing as Dev, Arnold (played by Erica Wareheim) is the only white guy in the group but even he has his own set of quirks almost reminiscent of Kramer from Seinfeld, and Denise (played by Lena Waithe) who is a black feminist lesbian. Each of these characters symbolize a facet of our society that is attacked for being different – no matter if you’re Asian, no matter if you’re black, no matter if you’re a woman. And again, each one of these characters is being played by people who are very much like that in real life. Ansari and Yang’s penchant for authenticity takes centre-stage here. And why not ? Isn’t that the point of telling stories ? Being honest about the narrative and the people who inhabit it ? When did political correctness or cultural enforcement become more important than speaking your heart out ?
Here’s a scene from the first episode of season 2 titled “The Thief” which takes place in Modena, Italy and is picturized to give a nod to the classic The Bicycle Thief :
Master of None brings out some of the most subtle cultural appropriations that have seeped into art and society. Through awkward conversational comedy and beautiful cinematography, interactions with people take on a real-life visage. Every subject is handled with a sensitivity and poignancy that is not meant to teach you a lesson but to make you feel what the character is feeling and understanding it from his perspective. Mark Schwartzbard’s incredible use of color palettes elevate the narrative into a dimension which endures long after you have watched it.
Ansari’s voice is a stand-out performance as he explores the many eccentricities and quirks of the inscrutable Americans. But at the end of the day, its about the people around us who have their own stories to tell and their own journeys about how they became what they were – never perfect, never the master of anything but happy in their own right.
Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of this show and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.