Los Angeles | The Era of Indo-Cool

With the launch of the online magazine, Republic of Brown, Indians abroad are connecting with their heritage

01 August, 2010

WHEN GEETANJALI DHILLON moved to California from her native Punjab at age eight, she felt like an unwelcome foreigner. She and her family avoided their neighbours because they made threatening or racist remarks.

“It wasn’t cool to be a little brown girl in the 1970s,” Dhillon says. “There was really nothing cool about Indian-ness back then.”

As a result, she says, Indians tended to stick together and keep to themselves, and never developed a confident collective sense of themselves. They never claimed their ‘brownness,’ you could say.

Now that she is 42, with two young kids of her own, Dhillon says all that has changed. Indian-Americans are more comfortable than their parents were with their dual identity, and America’s attitude to India is opening up, too. She’s so sure of it that she’s betting her business model on it. In late April, Dhillon launched a weekly web magazine, Republic of Brown, which bills itself as the arbiter of ‘Indo-cool’ for what she calls the “global mobile Indian.” It features new trends in South Asian-inspired fashion, music and film, and features Indians making waves all over the world.

So far, 70 percent of Republic of Brown’s readership is in the United States and 20 percent is in India, but the site is premised on the idea that as South Asians—especially Indians—become more affluent, their interests will naturally coalesce. Dhillon says her friends talk about the same bands and films and drink the same cocktails whether they are in Mumbai or New York.

Republic of Brown is hoping to capitalise on India’s growing cultural influence in the US, where the Indian community is in its third generation and seems to be experiencing a cultural coming-of-age. Aasif Mandvi, an Indian-American actor on the comedy programme The Daily Show, puts it this way: “We’ve reached this tipping point where South Asians have not only succeeded in business and technology, but are also now appearing prominently in mainstream media, music, fashion and politics in the US and around the world.”  Many Indian-Americans are quick to point out that it may have taken longer for them to get into the arts because careers in music or film were traditionally looked down on. But with the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) population fast expanding, and the Indian-American community maturing into a comfortable iteration of itself, many of these cultural restrictions have broken down.

NRIs have also benefited from the explosion of American interest in India after the international success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Although not all Indians were pleased with the gritty portrayal of poverty in the film, Dhillon saw the movie as a great opportunity, bringing India into the Western spotlight.

Dhillon, who lives in Los Angeles, says she witnessed the so-called Slumdog effect in Hollywood and the rest of the US entertainment industry. She rattles off films with Indian themes or starring Indian-American actors that are in the works. This autumn, NBC will premier a sitcom called Outsourced, about an American manager who has been transferred to India to run his company’s call centre. The show, which is about Americans trying to figure out India, will feature mostly Indian actors.

The growth of ‘brown talent’ on TV was the topic of one of Dhillon’s first articles after the launch of Republic of Brown: “It used to be that an Indian character on primetime American TV had to be either a cabbie or a convenience store clerk,” she wrote. “It’s not that we don’t love Apu [the Indian clerk on The Simpsons], we do, but it’s high time to move on.” She pointed out that the Thursday night line-up on NBC has back-to-back shows featuring Indian-American actors—Danny Pudi, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling and Maulik Pancholy—in some of the top-rated American comedies and sitcoms, like The Office and 30 Rock.

The greater visibility of South Asians on mainstream American TV and in the wider culture excites Abhi Tripathi, too. He co-founded the most popular Indian-American blog, Sepia Mutiny, six years ago. Back then, he’d post a blog any time he heard that a South Asian actor was to be featured on a TV show. Now, he says, “I couldn’t even keep track.” And the same applies to the world of music: when he was younger, Tripathi and his friends followed No Doubt and Soundgarden—two rock bands with South Asian members. There were precious few other Indian faces making music in the US. To Tripathi, what’s most notable about the transformation is that Indian and South Asian musicians have branched out beyond classical Indian music and Bollywood into purely American genres like jazz and rap.

Dhillon believes an ‘era of Indo-cool’ has arrived. She says many of her generation didn’t engage with their roots the way their India-born parents did. Her own experience was slightly different, because she went to school in Punjab for a few years, which deeply influenced her identity as an Indian. But many second-generation Indians in the States haven’t ever been to India, and have pushed aside that aspect of themselves, in an effort to fit in.

“Now that India is considered cool in mainstream American culture, it will be interesting to see how it affects their attitude to India,” she says. “I think it’s inspiring for Indians in their 20s to hear about other Indians acting and making art and music.” The third generation of Indian-Americans, the oldest of whom are in their early teens, are going to have a radically different relationship with their Indian heritage than her generation did—and she wants Republic of Brown to help shape their idea of India.

The magazine will feature well-established artists and personalities, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as well as unheard-of artists, and relative newcomers like British-Indian artist Bharti Kher,  who makes art  with bindis.

“When I think about why it is that Indian-Americans like to hear about Zoya Akhtar, the director, and Reshma Saujani, the first South Asian woman to run for US Congress,” Dhillon ponders, “I think part of it is that they are proud. We’re still making inroads in the arts and we’re a young minority group in the US. It still has an impact on us to see Indians doing interesting things and breaking down barriers, wherever they are in the world.”