Rani Chandra's debut in The Sarah Jane AdventuresTWITTER/DWONTHISDAY

If there’s one facet of my personality that overwhelms all others, it’s my obsession with film and television. I was raised on Zee TV serials and Hindi cinema. My teenage years were spent bingeing a frankly alarming number of Western shows and exploring a wide variety of film genres. Over time, my tastes have grown to encompass not just beautifully-made creations, ingenious plots and wonderful characters, but almost anything with cool effects, a bit of melodrama, or even just a great soundtrack (as I’ve been repeatedly told, I need higher standards). Suffice to say, I’ve seen a lot.

“I can think of few genuine reflections of my existence as a British-Indian.”

There are two levels to representation - diverse casting, and diverse characters. Thanks to my love for Bollywood, I’ve never felt bereft of brown faces on screen. Their stories, however, usually centre around life in India, so naturally I turn to Western media if I want something more relatable. But despite my cinephilia, I can think of precious few genuine reflections of my existence as a British-Indian.

Growing up, I vividly remember adoring the vibrant Rani Chandra in The Sarah Jane Adventures and being awestruck by the indomitable Rose Gupta in M.I. High. As my interests matured, I saw enough brown actors to keep me satisfied, but became more conscious of how their characters were actually written. I began to notice clear patterns beyond two-dimensionality and stereotyped intelligence, discovering endless ways to critique South-Asian character-writing. What struck me most was the way Indian characters in particular were named.

Riz Ahmed in Sound Of MetalTWITTER/POPCORN_LUCKY

Blind-casting South-Asian actors in roles without specific cultural backstories doesn’t bother me. Like everyone, I was in love with Beck Oliver from Victorious, played by Avan Jogia, Himesh Patel’s take on Emery Staines in The Luminaries last year exceeded my expectations from the book, and Riz Ahmed’s recent performance as Ruben Stone in Sound of Metal was nothing short of brilliance. But from Casualty’s Zoe Hanna to House’s Lawrence Kutner, there is a perplexingly recurrent theme of characters with distinctly Western names explicitly described as having (non-Christian) Indian family. Although this is sometimes narratively justified - though the actress playing her is not, Quantico lead Alex Parrish is biracial - mostly these names seem arbitrary, presumably chosen to increase palatability for Western audiences.

The rigidity of Indian naming conventions is diminishing, boosted by growing desires for uniqueness. I’m certainly not disputing the existence of Indian people with Western names, especially within ever-growing diasporas - Mindy Kaling is an obvious example, and Rose Gupta was played by Rachel Petladwala. Indeed, for Christian Indians, Anglican names are the norm.

Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor in The OfficeTWITTER/CHALAMARIUS

What’s strange, however, is the sheer number of characters who fit the pattern. Writers seem averse to ever choosing names of Indian origin, or do so with little care for authenticity. Cece Parekh (New Girl), Owen Sharma (The Haunting of Bly Manor), Connie Maheswaran (Stephen Universe), Kelly Kapoor (The Office), and Stephanie Patel (Suits) are just a few of countless characters with common Indian surnames but Western forenames. Of course, there are people for whom this is representative, but I doubt that is the main motivation at play. I believe showrunners see an opportunity to claim diversity points whilst still appealing to audiences who (according to them) don’t like “difficult” names, rendering their decisions somewhat disingenuous. The constant use of such forenames is an insidious reminder of a time when Indians felt pressured into changing their names to fit into Western society. I’m not suggesting we eradicate this trope completely; it would simply be nice to hear some more Indian-origin names thrown around in media discourse. Not all of them have six syllables — there is a plethora of snappy, memorable ones to choose from.

“Showrunners see an opportunity to claim diversity points whilst still appealing to audiences who don’t like “difficult” names.”

Even worse, sometimes characters have names that simply don’t match their heritage. Indian names are highly reflective of one’s ancestry, and usually a good indicator of family origin or religion. Clearly this was ignored when creating Dev Shah (Master of None), whose name suggests he’s probably from a North-Indian Hindu family. Shah’s parents, however, hail from Tamil Nadu in South India, and are both practising Muslims. This is baffling considering the show is made by Aziz Ansari, whose own parents are Tamil Muslims. Surely he, of all people, would recognise the importance of accurate naming, especially given the absence of Muslim-Indian characters on screen. Similarly, with both “Kumar” and “Patel” being overwhelmingly used as surnames, Kumar Patel from Harold and Kumar truly is the epitome of laziness. Obviously it’s not impossible for people to have such names, but when the majority of Indians choose to follow historical naming conventions even after emigrating, it feels incredibly callous not to bother with the slightest bit of research.


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I would be remiss not to acknowledge any well-named characters. The Bhamras of Bend It Like Beckham have traditional Sikh names, and although Never Have I Ever has its flaws, it did call its Tamil protagonist Devi Vishwakumar. On the other hand, such representation often comes from projects by South-Asian creators. True change is only achieved when enacted across the board. Here, Britain surpasses America; having keenly scoured many British credits over the years, there are a fair few accurately-named British-Indian characters, albeit mostly in small roles, whereas America is woefully lacking.

Getting our names consistently right would be another fantastic step towards genuine representation of Indians in Western media. That said, we’ve come a long way since the travesty of The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. With a name as basic as Priyanka Patel, I’m sure I’ll get to see myself killed off in a low-budget crime drama very soon.