Ashton Kutcher, known for his unusual savvy when it comes to investing in tech companies, and for actually being a presence in those spaces (attending conferences and personally meeting startup founders), must know that many of those technical companies have key employees or founders of South Asian descent. So imagine the surprise of many when Kutcher appeared in ‘brownface’, and offended legions. The Indian diaspora in the US were left asking: “Why is it totally unacceptable to do blackface, but ok to do brown/yellow face in the US?” Even Gawker, known for being on top of the game, posted a somewhat inane take on the issue, taking no particular stance.
The advert for Popchips was conceived and put together by the (ironically named) firm Zambezi; the PR firm that promoted this campaign proudly is Alison Brod PR. Their conceit? Kutcher takes on the persona of five different characters, each a bachelor trying his luck on an Internet dating site: World Wide Lovers. How does Kutcher tackle five different personas? Does he go through the rigours of method acting, or Meryl Streep himself into an otherworldly rendition of an Other? Nah, this is the man who made his name on That Seventies Show. Kutcher takes a well-travelled path to transformation: wearing outlandish outfits, donning facial hair and wigs, and attempting some foreign accents. Worst of all? None of the personas are funny.
So why did such a uninteresting advert get people’s attention? It was the Bollywood Director persona, in which Kutcher is in ‘brownface,’ speaking some boring lines in a badly imitated version of the accent that made Apoo (and Hank Azaria, the actor that provides many of the Simpsons’ character voices) a household name in the US. Indeed, many Indians speak accented English – some deeper than others, and varying by region – no news there. My 8th grade Math teacher, Mr. Dubey, spoke a much finer version of Kutcher’s attempted accent as he waxed lyrical about the virtues of the universal language of numbers. As I grew up, my sisters and I prank called unsuspecting housewives across the Copperbelt Province in Zambia, and one of the accents we used was Mr. Dubey’s thrillingly accented English. Of course, we loved the accent, we joked about it, and…we didn’t want to be associated with it, either: that accent was one of those things marking South Asians as not ‘civilised’ enough for the transformation that was expected of us at the far reaches of Empire. But as I grew older, I realized: the beauty of such accents! What fine variations of the language! And I wondered, at the risk of sounding like a caricature of Chimamanda Adichie’s “If you only hear one story about X, that is the only one you know”: if the only Indian that Americans know about is the 7-11 Apoo, how impoverished will our collective expectations be?
Obviously, those Indian-Americans who shared chunks of their own startup companies, and bet on their futures together with Kutcher went straight online to voice their upset. They felt, as did Anil Dash, that “the onus is on [Kutcher] to respect his business partners.” Dash went on to offer a superb list of What to Do When Your Company Makes a Racist Advert in his blog. (Read it – it’s brilliant. He even refers readers to Jay Smooth’s How To Tell People They Sound Racist.)
Still, people who were weaned on the One Story of Apoo from the Simpsons were left wondering why people were so offended. On Gawker, Kelly Cameron asked, in true ingénue fashion:
Is that really racist? It’s stupid, yes, but he’s playing an Indian, so he’s wearing make up. Is it inherently racist to play someone from an ethnic group you don’t belong to? To me, racism is saying that your group is better than another group or groups. I don’t see that this ad even criticizes Indians, or necessarily even the fake Bollywood producer.
But the Internet happily produced this amazing anecdote too, by John O’D:
I am reminded of the actor Sayeed Jaffrey’s comment (on BBC radio some years ago) on Peter Sellers’ portrayal of an Indian doctor in the film The Millionairess. “Such a shame he played a character with a north Indian name with a south Indian accent.” One of the great put-downs.
This is not to say that Indian advertising is free and clear of racism: recently, a Bollywood director shocked people when he opined that light skinned actors were better for filming, because dark skinned people’s featured don’t show up. (He was only openly wording the widespread, internalized racism towards people with dark skin, a bias that spawns skin-lightening creams and matrimonial adverts extolling the virtues of “fair” daughters throughout South Asia.) And Indian adverts used racist caricatures of “African Bushmen” without imagining they would raise a hair (see my colleague Sean Jacob’s post about some of the adverts). These adverts also employ a version of “brownface” and racist caricatures to sell soft drinks. The ad-makers defend it all as “funny” and “what’s the problem?”
I’m certainly not saying: “Indians do racist caricatures, so Americans doing it is ok,” but as long as we are up in arms about racist caricatures of ourselves, let’s also address our own group’s pervasive, lunatic, and ugly views surrounding dark skin: one that has accompanied us throughout our history, and walked easily onto the stage of the present moment, like a conjoined twin we mostly pretend isn’t there.
And this just in: “The real controversy is how we look at comedy,” said Shilpa Davé, author of the forthcoming book Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American TV and Film. See Sara Khan’s “Do We Amuse You”?