“Outsourced” is one of my favorite shows on television. Yes, that “Outsourced,” the NBC sitcom about the call center in India that caused all the hoopla about portraying wildly offensive stereotypes, appearing on the A.V. Club’s “worst new series of 2010” list. And since I knew you were wondering, yes, I am indeed an Indian-American.
But before I begin my defense, a bit of personal background is necessary. I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a place with more bears than brown people. Though my family was part of our town’s small, tight-knit Indian community (which existed solely because of the local university), my classmates and closest friends were overwhelmingly not Indian.
Still, throughout my childhood, my parents made sure to emphasize Indian culture, so I grew up worshipping Bollywood stars Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawala, learning Hindi and practicing Hindu traditions just like any kid from my native region. But, as a kid, my strong Indian identity was only part of my private life — publicly, I burrowed my Indianness due to a fear a of ridicule by my friends, who I thought wouldn’t understand my enjoyment of movies with people gyrating their hips to songs in a foreign language (among other cultural chasms).
I just didn’t want my friends to think that I was different and weird — I would get embarrassed if my parents spoke Hindi in front of them, but the minute they left I would crank up the “Dil Se” soundtrack on the stereo and pull out my “Chacha Chaudhary” comic books. These dueling identities continued throughout middle and high school, slowly merging during my senior year as I became more confident in my brownness.
Then, freshman year of college, God said, “Let there be ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ ” and suddenly Indian culture became universally cool. I eagerly jumped on this new status quo, watching movies like “Dostana” with my American friends, feeding them homemade Indian food and teaching them assorted words in Hindi. But it still didn’t feel complete — my culture seemed more like an accessory. People still couldn’t comprehend the aspects of Indian culture that defined my personality.
That’s when “Outsourced” came into the picture. I’ll be the first to admit that I thought the show was going to be a disaster. The promos, which featured jokes about a guy named “Manmeet” (“Man Meat,” LOL) and a rotund Indian man awkwardly singing along to the Pussycat Dolls, made the show seem like a step backward.
The pilot came along, and as I feared, it was deplorable — the jokes were as stupid as the promos forewarned, the characters unlikable. I was ready to write off the show permanently if it hadn’t been for a handful of stylistic choices that I never thought I’d see on primetime American television — in particular, the use of the enthralling title song from “Omkara,” my favorite Bollywood movie of all time, throughout the episode.
I decided to watch the show again the next week and noticed a marked improvement, especially in the subtleties of the interactions between Americans and Indians. A sequence that really hit home for me — and I’m sure many other Indian-Americans — involved the character Madhuri requesting her American boss, Todd, to pronounce her name correctly. He repeatedly mispronounces it, and realizing the futility of the exercise, Madhuri exasperatedly accepts the wrong pronunciation.
The memories came rushing back: all the first days of school, when my new teachers would read off the roll call and I would cringe with anticipation of how badly they would butcher my name. “KAY-vai?” they would call out. “Actually it’s pronounced Kuh-vee,” I’d respond. “KAY-vee?” “Kuh-vee.” “KAH-vee?” “Yes, that’s right.”
The nostalgia of hearing Bollywood songs from my childhood, combined with my ability to strongly empathize with situations made me quickly warm to “Outsourced.” But my reverence of the show didn’t begin until I saw the third episode, which featured Todd and the object of his affections, Asha, engage in a discussion about their views on relationships in Indian and American culture. As Asha explained the merits of arranged marriage to Todd, I sat there in amazement — arranged marriage is such a significant part of Indian culture that I haven’t been able to begin to explain to my American friends throughout my life, and here was this NBC show doing the job for me.
Since then, “Outsourced” has gone on to nail the aspects of Indian culture I could only dream of relating to my friends, including the nuances that one rarely sees in typical Western depictions of India. Take paan for instance, an Indian tobacco-filled leaf sold on street corners that many men — including my dad — are hooked on. Watching Gupta’s addiction to the product evoked my childhood joys of squeezing onto a moped with my dad, mom and sister as we embarked on quests to buy paan from street vendors in India. And now, because of “Outsourced,” I can talk to my housemates about paan and they’ll know exactly what it is.
For me, and maybe for other Indian-Americans, watching “Outsourced” is an unbelievably cathartic experience. All the aspects of my culture that I publicly hid for so many years surfaced as a sitcom for all of America to watch. And hopefully, the next Indian-American kid growing up in the Upper Peninsula will never be afraid to be expressive of his Indian identity.
It’ll never be the wittiest sitcom, and I doubt it will ever win any Emmys. But whether it lasts just one season or 10, I will never forget what “Outsourced” has done for me.