Professor Mani Discusses South Asian Identity, Dating, and Sexuality

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Wednesday evening, English Literature Professor Bakirathi Mani held a discussion on South Asian identity, dating, and sexuality. The event was sponsored by DESHI as part of Diya Week.

Mani began by showing a short film, “Brown Faces”, created by two of her friends. The film was a collection of clips from movies and T.V. shows, showing how South Asians are portrayed in the media. The film included clips from the Simpsons, a James Bond movie, Indiana Jones, and Siddhartha. After the film, Mani and the students discussed whether or not they could relate to the characters and how South Asian characters in movies and shows were often caricaturized and “reduced to buffoons”.

Next, Mani showed clips from “Mississippi Masala”, a movie directed by Mira Nair. “Mississippi Masala” portrays a relationship between an Indian woman and an African-American man and how it creates cultural and racial tensions. Mani added to the discussion with personal anecdores, explaining how as a girl growing up in Japan, she was affected by seeing the film.
“It left a powerful impression. It was the first time I had seen a South Asian woman [in the media] as a speaking, alive woman who expressed her sexuality,” she said.

Mani also showed scenes from “The Namesake”, a recent film with Kal Penn, to create a contrast between the relationships in that movie and those in “Mississippi Masala”.

Students contributed by commenting on the film clips, or with their personal experiences with dating and South Asian culture.

Mani ended the discussion by pointing out the “problem of a lack of representation” of queer relationships in portrayals of South Asians, and the importance of “expanding our parameters for different kinds of relationships”.

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