I think it was the (thankfully) short-lived NBC sitcom, “Outsourced,” that made me so cynical of American television shows that even remotely tried to portray South Asian people or culture in any way or form. (For the uninitiated, “Outsourced,” which focused on the travails of an American managing Indian employees at a call center in Mumbai, was a tiresome show that relied on crass humor which, by perpetuating ridiculous South Asian stereotypes, was, arguably, incredibly racist.)
So it was with much trepidation that I sat down to watch Nickelodeon’s newest animated series, “Sanjay and Craig”, which made its debut on the channel in late May. The alarm bells started ringing in my head as soon I saw the cartoon’s eponymous lead characters. A boy of Indian origin with a snake as a pet? Please, God, let it not be a barrage of snake charmer jokes, I prayed. (I later found out that this series did have its origins in a zine that originally characterized Sanjay as, sigh, a 40-year-old snake charmer.)
But all my fears melted away as I watched the show — while it does have plenty of crude jokes (a segment in the first episode was about a butt transplant), I’m glad to report that “Sanjay and Craig” doesn’t rely on the “Outsourced” brand of humor. The cartoon barely touched upon Sanjay’s ethnicity — its focus is simply on a 12-year-old boy named Sanjay Patel, and the crazy, outlandish adventures he has with his best friend, a talking snake called Craig. In fact, the funny twosome reminded me of my all-time favorite animal-human cartoon duo, “Calvin and Hobbes.”
I, for one, am glad to see how Sanjay has been depicted in this animated series — much like Mindy Lahiri’s characterization in “The Mindy Project,” Sanjay’s ethnicity, while not swept under the carpet, doesn’t reduce him to a tedious caricature either. Actor Maulik Pancholy, who provides the voice of Sanjay, touched upon this point in an interview with India-West. “We’re not exploring what it’s like to be an Indian American kid,” he said. “We’re exploring what it’s like to be a 12-year-old kid, who happens to be Indian American.”
Pancholy, who’s known for his roles in popular television shows like “30 Rock,” “Weeds” and “Web Therapy,” said that the fact that Sanjay’s ethnicity is not the point of the show is one of its most exciting features. “We’re not ignoring them or shying away from it, but we’re also saying that it’s not as important,” he explained. And that is an extremely significant move — shows like “Sanjay and Craig” and “The Mindy Project” are helping bust people’s preconceived notions about minorities, and letting them see such characters as being more than just about their ethnicities.
Given that “Sanjay and Craig” is an animated series that is primarily catered toward a younger audience, I certainly hope that this show will result in some far-reaching effects on the American mindset toward people of South Asian origin. After all, the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in “The Simpsons” shaped the way many Americans looked at people of Indian origin for a long, long time, and so having a Sanjay Patel stream into the general consciousness would certainly be something us brown folks can look forward to.
Aby Sam Thomas is a writer and journalist currently living in New York City. Talk to him on Twitter at @thisisaby.