First things first: I’m a big fan of cartoons. Despite officially being a music beat writer, I’ve written quite a few articles about some animated shows I think back on fondly. I like all types of cartoons; however, the ones I have the most nostalgia for aired on Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney during the late 2000s to early 2010s. Being a fan of cartoons is a large part of who I am as a person. Another part of who I am is that I’m Indian, and incidentally, these two attributes of my identity never mixed. Growing up, I didn’t see people who looked like me on TV. If I had actively looked for Indian actors and actresses, or if I was a fan of Bollywood films, I’m sure I would have found what I was looking for. However, I can probably count on one hand the number of Indians I found in cartoons when I was younger. That being said, the most prominent Indian that I have ever encountered on television was none other than Baljeet Tjinder from “Phineas and Ferb.” And I hated him.
Baljeet did not represent me nor reflect my Indian identity. I’m not saying that “Phineas and Ferb” is a bad show; in fact, I enjoyed it tremendously. I’m also not saying that the creators of Baljeet’s character were morally incorrect by including him in the show. It’s a lovely sentiment that Baljeet was included as a major Indian character in a popular kids’ show. And there’s nothing wrong with Baljeet’s voice actor, Maulik Pancholy, or any other Indian Americans who play characters like Baljeet. Finally, I’m not saying that other Indian Americans can’t or don’t see themselves in Baljeet. Clearly, that’s not true; Baljeet’s fandom precedes us all. I mean, just look at the number of brown kids who have dressed up as Baljeet for Halloween.
However, the traits that comprised Baljeet do not represent me or any Indian American that I know. He is introduced as a book-smart nerd, with one of his defining character traits being his bully named Buford. Baljeet has an exaggerated Indian accent (Pancholy is an Indian American with an American accent). It’s one thing to celebrate the differences in everyone’s cultural heritage, especially in a bustling city like the fictitious Danville, but it’s another to create a character only to make him overtly different from the rest of the group.
Indians and Indian Americans aren’t a monolith. As I said, I’m sure there are Indians who felt represented by Baljeet. However, Baljeet was one of the only pieces of anything that could’ve counted as representation I had growing up, and I still couldn’t relate. One of the most perplexing moments of watching television as a kid was when I saw Karan Brar, the actor of Chirag Gupta in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and Ravi from “Jessie,” in a Disney Channel bumper. He said the usual line, “I’m Karan, and you’re watching Disney Channel,” except in an American accent — completely distinct from the thick Indian accents of the popular characters he played. Watching TV in the 2000s and early 2010s, I felt like the only Indian characters in the media were those that had just immigrated from India and embodied the stereotypical tropes. There are over one billion of us in the world, yet it seemed every Indian on TV was a variant of Baljeet.
This is an issue that existed long before Baljeet. Comedian Hari Kondabolu created a documentary called “The Problem with Apu” to discuss South Indian representation in “The Simpsons” regarding the character Apu. However, I don’t care about Apu. I don’t watch “The Simpsons,” and no one I know watches “The Simpsons.” Everyone I know has watched “Phineas and Ferb,” though. Indian representation in animation and television is getting better these days, between “Sanjay and Craig,” “Never Have I Ever” and HBO Max’s “Velma.” Unfortunately, if “The Simpsons” was before my time, then these shows are most definitely after my time. What I wish is that I had true Indian representation when I was growing up, in a way that didn’t create a monolithic perception of South Asians, and in the media that I regularly consumed. But all I had was Baljeet.
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