Thursday, January 05, 2006

Incense and sensibility

No recap of 2005 would be complete without a chronicle of the inroads that Indian culture has made in the American mainstream. This is why every major media outlet's year wrap-up has been incomplete. (Sports Illustrated bastards!) Until now.

Much thanks for the idea go to the folks who run Sepia Mutiny, a site that manages to track this very subject on nearly a daily basis, and with much greater detail than I will attempt here. (They "borrowed" 55 Fiction Friday from me, so I'd say we're even.)

We may as well start with Aishwarya Rai. Her 2004 film Bride & Prejudice got released stateside earlier this year, and was soon followed by her appearance in American commercials as one of the famous faces of L'Oreal (with or without possible voice dubbing). Introducing herself to English-language cinema in a Jane Austen movie adaptation is not as crazy as it sounds; back in 2000, she played the equivalent of the Kate Winslet role in a South Indian adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

The tag "most beautiful woman in the world" has stuck to her, and while I'm glad that an Indian actress has achieved that notoriety, let's face it: she's no Monica Bellucci. One of the alleged faults of this adaptation is that Aishwarya's character is supposed to be the plainer of the two eldest sisters, but I didn't mind because I preferred Namrata Shirodkar (pictured, left).

More on this later. I saw Pride and Prejudice yesterday and thought it might be fun to compare these two recent films with the definitive 1995 BBC miniseries. There's a lot to compare, but I'll try to make it happen this month.

Aishwarya's costar Naveen Andrews had a pretty good year as well: formerly best known as the soldier from The English Patient, he resurfaced in the American mainstream in 2004 as Sayid on the TV series Lost. He plays an Iraqi character, but he was nominated for an Emmy, so I'm pleased. I know there are few women on the island, but it would still be nice if they gave him a romance that lasted longer than a single episode and didn't end in her death.

I don't watch ER anymore, but my mother tells me that Parminder Nagra's character not only escaped death in November sweeps, but in fact got married. To Dr. Gallant. Whatever.

While Grey's Anatomy still lacks an Indian doctor, viewers like me can appreciate the recent guest appearance of Sunkrish Bala as a one-night stand of the useless title character. He experienced a day-after nightmare, as he's diagnosed with priapism. And his character was named Steve Murphy, which tells me that the casting process must have been color-blind. Very cool.

Ravi Kapoor: still on Crossing Jordan. I haven't been watching. (Nor Indira Varma on HBO's Rome.) Rhona Mitra, who's quarter-Indian, defected from Boston Legal (which I no longer watch, now that she's not on it) to Nip/Tuck (which is too weird). And I have no interest in reality shows, so all I can tell you about Toral Mehta on The Apprentice is that she's of no relation.

Even without a M. Night Shyamalan release to behold or criticize, there was a little impact made by directors of Indian heritage. For better or worse, Jay Chandrasekhar graduated from his Broken Lizard comedy troupe to direct The Dukes of Hazzard. (I didn't see it, but it opened well, and I heard good things about its stunt car work. Maybe he'll emerge unscathed.) Also of note is Shopgirl, which was directed by Anand Tucker, and the 2004 Indian-themed documentary Born Into Brothels, which won an Oscar in 2005.

A different kind of Indian starlet came into her own, so to speak, in the adult film industry. Months ago I was in an Indian grocery store (waiting for my parents to determine what fresh vegetables they wanted to buy) when I picked a Indian-American lifestyle magazine and made two discoveries. One was an article about Sepia Mutiny and other Indian-themed blogs. The other was a story about Sunny Leone, a Canadian-born model who's apparently the newest contract headliner for Vivid Entertainment. They make movies with high production values, but will probably put her in about 20 films a year. In some ways, the adult film industry is like the old American movie studio system, or (ahem) Bollywood.

But most of the stuff I mentioned above is long form media. For the real action, look to commercials. There's the L'Oreal commercial, and then the Honda ad (listed as a featured video here) that uses Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A.'s "Galang." And, of course, the Kal Penn wannabe in the Poser Mobile ads. But maybe my favorite 2005 example is the middle-aged businessman in the ad for Starburst fruit chews. Go here, then click on the tape marked "Juicy Spot Lemon." You won't regret it.

So yeah, we're taking over, and not just by population standards. Just see how brown the world of entertainment gets by, oh, 2023.


Courtney said...

Don't forget the "technical jargon" guy on the Cisco Systems ad. Click on The Boss.

Neel Mehta said...

Huh, never saw that one. I know commercials used to have an Indian-accented voiceover, but that's it.