Ah well, Indians are offended. Yeah, again. This time it’s Ashton Kutcher, making us the only people after Demi Moore to take him seriously. An advertisement for Popchips, features Kutcher in fake dating service video as various “types” looking for love. He plays Swordfish, Southern biker, lover, haiku writer; Nigel, British Rastafarean who can guess “if your navel is an innie or an outie”; Darl, who essentially spoofs Karl Lagerfeld and the offending Raj, Bollywood producer looking for someone “Kardashian hot”.
So what’s offending Indians — mostly US-based Indians? Well, the accent, with its hiddely-piddely D’s and roly-poly L’s perhaps. You know, the same rumbly, self-hating accent NRI actors employ while playing Indians from India (as in the show “Outsourced”). But the greater objection is that Kutcher does ‘brown-face’ — wears brown make-up to look Indian. Popchips pulled the ad, but like all censored material, you can watch it online (bite us, Kapil Sibal) and decide if it offends you.
If anything about it offended me, it was the exceptional lameness and un-funniness. But my lack of offence should not discount other people’s objections. Are all stereotypes offensive? Stereotypical humour has a lot to do with context. The idea of ‘brownface’ relates to “blackface”, an American minstrel performance tradition prominent from the 1800s to the early 1900s. White performers would paint themselves black, with exaggerated lips, wear curly wigs and ragged clothes to create black “types” like the dandy coon and the happy-go-lucky darky. But its offensiveness had a lot to do with the social and legal context of slavery.
This was a society where black people could not vote, own property, even share bus-seats or drinking fountains with white people, leave alone befriend or marry a white person without being killed or whipped or raped. In this context the caricatures served to cement the idea that black men were a dim and silly people who deserved to be treated like animals, because they were only half-human. Indians in the US clearly do not exist in such a situation of strong institutionalised discrimination. It could be argued that’s part of the reason the advertisers might have felt an Indian ‘type’ wouldn’t be as politically incorrect as a Latino or African American.
That said, just as a stereotype can be symbolic of endemic violence, so it can be an example of affection. But a stereotype is only really funny when it feels true, when it’s a comic distillation of closely observed traits. Such observation comes from actual intimacy and an ability to see cultures without the clutter of preconception. In these ads we can see that familiarity with Southern biker types creates some genuine absurd humour, as opposed to the vague Indian mish-mash of milking contests and Bollywood. Bollywood films incidentally are as adept at this crudeness from their Madrasi Mehmoods to the white folks in recent not-so Housefull not-quite comedies.
If this advert is not funny, it may not be racist per se, but it’s certainly born from a kind of soft racism, where a limited exposure to and understanding of a culture does not seem to inhibit people from making images of or about that culture. People get paid money to do this work, so they must learn what they need to make it truly funny rather than lazily slapping it together. With great responsibility comes great humour. But offence-takers might also take some responsibility for their responses. All jokes cannot be taken equally seriously. The classic response of high dudgeon is as crude as the stereotypes sometimes — and it’s just as hard to rescue laughter from censure as from prejudice.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.