Why Ashton Kutcher Got It Wrong
We should be grateful that the actor’s controversial new ad, where he depicts a Bollywood producer in brown face, is based on pure fiction rather than fact.
It’s happened. If you Google “Bollywood producer” and select the Images option, you see photos of Ashton Kutcher in brown face paint, sporting a wig and wearing a shiny, blue bandhgala (which, inexplicably, also has a animal-print cravat). Kutcher’s advertisement for Popchips has led to outrage in a shade of brown, led by one Anil Dash. Dash wrote on his blog—which has since been quoted in every article about Kutcher’s portrayal of a Bollywood producer named Raj—why he found the advertisement offensive. “Right now you’re making the world worse,” wrote Dash to Kutcher and the Popchips team. “Not just for me, or a billion other Indian people, but for my son, who I am hoping never has to grow up with people putting on fake Indian accents in order to mock him.” It’s never fun being a minority and Dash’s concerns perhaps voice those of the South Asian diaspora in America. When there are public figures like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, why should desis have to carry the baggage of being represented by an unfunny, pelvis-thrusting, painted Caucasian who speaks in a ridiculous accent and is a fashion disaster? However, as nice as it is of Dash to express solidarity with Indians in India, it is perhaps fair to say that in India, parents are more likely to be anxious about their kids being judged for not having the latest iPad than being mocked by fake accents.
For me, the question Kutcher raises isn’t whether the ad is funny or if it’s offensive. Kutcher’s ad is idiotic. Whoever came up with Raj clearly didn’t bother to tether it even loosely to any kind of reality. However, let’s say we did try to come up with a contemporary Indian characteristic and we based this on our knowledge of India today. What would it be?
Maybe we’d like to highlight how good we are with categorising people: if you’re from anywhere between Rajasthan and Kashmir, you’re North Indian. South of the Vindhyas, you’re South Indian, regardless of the fact that this region is made up of states that have completely different cultural and linguistic traditions. Should you be from one of the North Eastern states of India, you’re “Chinky”. Then there are the “lower castes”: Dalits, OBCs and tribals. So what if these three social groups are distinct from one another? They’re all discriminated against equally.
Perhaps we’d like to be known for our peculiar brand of optimism that inspired someone I met recently to tell me, “See, at least after the terrible mayhem of the Babri Masjid demolition, there have been no major riots in U. P. since.” It’s probably this ability to see silver linings that has led to Narendra Modi being touted as a potential Prime Minister, despite the bloody blot of the Gujarat riots on his record. As people constantly tell me when I raise the topic to those who are impressed by Gujarat’s economic growth, “It only happened once.” Yes, why hold just one genocide against a chief minister?
Then there’s our revolutionary fervour, which is ably expressed in 140 characters and Facebook messages and not much more. Whether it’s Hugo or Anna Hazare, we’re ready to wield those hashtags and wear the T-shirts and caps to express our solidarity. It’s not our fault that wearing a “Free Tibet” T-shirt doesn’t do much to actually free Tibetans when they’re arrested or placed under curfew conditions because the Chinese premier is visiting New Delhi.
Also, let’s not forget how important freedom of expression is to us. We have one member of Parliament who may table a law that would effectively gag the press because it is argued that, as evidenced by the media’s reportage of the November 26, 2008 terror attacks, the fourth estate needs regulations. Surely the central failure of 26/11 was not how it was reported but the fact that terrorists were able to plot and carry out the attacks despite the fact that we have intelligence bureaus and an active home ministry. Then we have a minister of Communications and Information Technology who wants to regulate online content on social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. And who could forget Mamata Banerjee, who seems to think she’s heading up a fan club rather than the state of Bengal. Only eight dailies can be kept in government libraries, according to her diktat, and that list doesn’t include some of the most popular local newspapers like The Telegraph, Anandabazar Patrika and Bartaman. She has also arrested a professor for distributing a cartoon that mocked her and is doing her best to gag Dodhichi, an alternative media centre that texts news and information to its list of subscribers.
We live in a country that has temples for film stars, where politicians and statesmen can be organised into a corruption league table. Here, many believe women ask to be raped when they wear certain clothes, drink alcohol or step out at a certain hour. Ours is a country where an actress is “fat-shamed” not just by tabloids but by (supposedly) serious news media. Here, people who incite riots against minorities, like Sikhs and Muslims, walk freely because there never seems to be adequate evidence against them. This is the country where a young girl’s murder is grossly mishandled by investigative agencies and now the parents seem to have become the prime accused as a result of speculation rather than evidence. Considering our reality, we should be relieved that Ashton Kutcher doesn’t know what we’ve made of ourselves and his vision of Indians is what it is.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.Tags: Anil Dash, Ashton Kutcher, Popchips commercial, The Definite Article