The American version of The Office is one of my favorite TV shows, and I’ve watched it from beginning to end at least a dozen times. A big appeal is that unlike many American sitcoms, it has a fairly diverse cast. Certain parts of the show have aged poorly (Steve Carell’s Michael Scott uses both the f- and t-slurs), but in general the show celebrates all kinds of people, and makes a point of showing that an ignorant comment is just that, ignorant.
Indians make up about .9% of the American population, and are one of the fastest growing groups (according to the 2010 census). While some Indian artists, such as actor Kal Penn, have made headway, few Indians appear on screen. Prior to Mindy Kaling’s starring role on The Mindy Project (2012) and Priyanka Chopra’s starring role in Quantico (2015), I can’t think of any Indians in lead roles except for the actors in NBC’s disastrous show Outsourced (2010). Although even a show that dealt in stereotypes like Outsourced was appreciated by some, because it was far more representation than had been on American TV.
Speaking of Mindy Kaling, she was a writer for The Office beginning with Season 1 in 2004, and also played the character Kelly Kapoor. She wrote the Season 3 episode “Dilwali,” in which her co-workers join her for a Dilwali celebration. Michael Scott makes several blunders (as does Angela (Angela Kinsey), who is also portrayed in a negative light), but in general the characters are respectful and interested in the event.
“Dilwali” is remarkable and fun for how well it fits into the show’s universe. The cast had already participated in multiple celebrations such as Halloween and Christmas, and had also visited outside locations as a group, such as an ice skating rink. Kelly is happy to share her traditions, although when questioned about them, she has a difficult time going into detail. However, this does get at the idea that it’s not the other person’s job to educate. Ask for some basic information and then do your own research. (Which another character, Dwight [Rainn Wilson]) does. None of the Christian characters are pressed to explain Christmas.
After Kelly invites everyone to the celebration, Michael holds a meeting so the office can learn more about Hinduism and Dilwali. This is a disaster because none of the characters know much and what they do know rests on stereotypes.
The actual celebration, held in a school gym, is packed, bright, and welcoming. Professional dancers fill in as extras, and familias Bollywood tunes play on the soundtrack. Kelly introduces her boyfriend to her parents, who disapprove of him. Michael has a nice chat with Kelly’s parents, until he insults them by asking if she will throw herself on a fire when he dies. Their disgust, especially Mrs. Kapoor’s (played by Kaling’s actual mother), is palpable.
This moment illustrates a common problem in America: What do we learn about other cultures? The most salacious parts. The Kama Sutra, sati, the Thuggee cult. The show paints Michael as ignorant and a buffoon, but he is not alone in thinking/asking that kind of question.
Food plays an important role in the episode. “I’m vegetarian, what can I eat?” Angela asks sharply, and is upset when she is told “it’s all vegetarian.” Michael mistakes a samosa for a s’more. In both instances, the characters look foolish. Angela refuses to try anything except bread, even though it meets her standards. Michael doesn’t pay attention to anything.
Later, Michael uses Dilwali to propose to his girlfriend (it is their ninth date; she says no) and later sings a song about Dilwali. The focus of the show is a white man, and so the focus of the episode must ultimately be on a white man.
Still, it’s a fun episode about a holiday and cultural that doesn’t appear often in American media. The show points out when someone is being insensitive or ignorant. The celebration is treated as simply a normal part of life, no different from any other office party. No different from any other celebration or community, period.