Is ‘Outsourced’ really that offensive?

It depends who you ask. But even if it isn’t racist, that doesn’t mean it’s enlightened.

Is 'Outsourced' really that offensive?

Lewis Jacobs/NBCU Photo Bank/CP

From the reaction to Outsourced, you’d think it was the most offensive portrayal of India since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The half-hour comedy, which airs on Global at 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays, is about an American (Ben Rappaport) who is forced to take over a call centre in India—or at least a Hollywood sound-stage version of it. Rizwan Manji, the Canadian actor who plays the hero’s scheming assistant Rajiv, says he thought the show would be criticized for making light of outsourcing and “the unemployment rate in the United States.” Instead, critical reaction to the pilot mostly ignored economic issues and focused on racial ones; Joshua Ostroff in the Toronto alternative newspaper Eye Weekly wrote that it “pushes the offensive line toward out-and-out racism,” while declared that the jokes about “timid women” and Indian food are familiar to “people with senile, racist grandparents.”

Most of the complaints have been about the mocking of Indian customs and names. There are jokes about the name “Manmeet,” and Manji’s character tricks his boss into thinking that vindaloo is a god as well as a food. In response, the writers have argued that comedy is based on exaggeration, and that the Americans are also treated stereotypically. “It’s a comedy first,” Manji says, while head writer Robert Borden told the Kansas City Star that “we have to have the right to make the Indian characters out to be as silly as the white ones.”

Borden and his colleagues may be genuinely surprised at the reaction to the show, since it’s based on a movie that didn’t get negative publicity. The original film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, had the same premise and many of the same culture-clash jokes: an American hero perplexed by Indian customs (like arranged marriage) and Indian characters who mangle English for laughs. Some of the most hated gags in the show, like a comparison between American novelty hats and traditional Indian headgear, are based on bits from the movie.

But while the movie’s director, John Jeff­coat (who is not involved with the show) got respectful treatment for his portrayal of India, Outsourced hasn’t been seen as a step forward for diversity. Manji thinks this is unfair, since it’s “the first time in network television that you have five series regulars that are South Asian,” and that “a third of our writers are Indian or Indian-American,” including Vera Santamaria, who created the Canadian sitcom How To Be Indie.

That may be part of the reason why some supporters of Outsourced are arguing that the attacks on the show aren’t representative of South Asians. Manji argues that “if you go on Facebook, you’ll see all these concerns about the show, but if you see what the South Asian community is saying about it, it’s all very positive.” And Prashant Agrawal, a business columnist for GQ India, told Maclean’s that although “reasonable people across the board were worried about the show” before it began, he thinks the writers have “done an admirable job of trying to make sure it is sensitive to all involved.” In other words, anti-Outsourced comments could be a manifestation of white liberal guilt.

On the other hand, just because a show isn’t racist doesn’t mean it’s enlightened. Jeff­coat’s film was respected in part because he went to India to make it, whereas Borden told TV Squad that he didn’t even go to India to do research because “I owed my wife a different trip. We’ll go to India if the show succeeds.” And the network may be getting the impression that the culture-clash jokes are becoming worn out: it’s moving the show to the little-watched 10:30 time slot, where its ratings are likely to fall.

But for now, a show like this may have value simply in bringing another culture into the self-absorbed world of English-language TV. Manji is happy that “there was an episode about paan,” a custom of chewing betel leaves, because “90 per cent of Americans don’t know what that is.” An episode where a character is addicted to paan might not teach Americans and Canadians to respect India, but at least it’s there as a 20-minute reminder that India exists.

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