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Sanjaya: Giving Them Something to Talk About

by Mira Kamdar

Originally presented in ABC News, April 19, 2007

"I can promise you we won't soon forget you," quipped American Idol host Ryan Seacrest last night after Sanjaya Malaker was finally voted off the show.  Until that moment it seemed the worse he sang, Sanjaya only became more invincible.  Howard Stern gloated.  Simon Cowell threatened to walk out of his contract.  One disbelieving fan went on a hunger strike whose progress she posted on MySpace.  Others kept Sanjaya alive through the Vote for the Worst campaign.  Through it all Sanjaya just kept smiling, warbling and changing his hairstyle.  Even as the very last seconds of his fifteen minutes of fame were ticking away, he turned defeat into one final little comic triumph by crooning that he’d give people “something to talk about ... other than hair.”  It was a graceful exit.

What was it about Sanjaya that provoked such intense reactions?  American Idol is, after all, a show built as much on the spectacle of humiliation of bad pop star wannabes wearing their hearts on their sleeves and their hopes pinned to their newly bleached teeth as it is to the mission of discovering new talent for the recording industry.  Ethnically, Sanjaya was a novelty:  an Indian American.  Born to a Bengali classical musician and an Italian-American mother in the same town that produced grunge rock and Kurt Cobain, Sanjaya was the first South Asian performer to strut his stuff, night after night, in front of millions of American television viewers.

This seemed to unbalance some American viewers.  The Associated Press ran a story that blamed Indian employees in call centers on the other side of the world for Sanjaya’s longevity.  According to this rather paranoid theory, thousands of Indian call center employees were exploiting their access to banks of phone lines and the time difference, to shower American Idol with votes for Sanjaya.  This absurd story was finally deconstructed:  Call center employees are too busy taking calls from irate Americans having problems with their credit cards and electronic devices to put in mass calls to the United States on behalf of one of their ethnic compatriots.

Moreover, Indians have Indian Idol, the wildly popular Indian version of the same show, where – guess what? – all the contestants are Indian.  Indians are too obsessed with the current contestants on Indian Idol to be much concerned with what is happening on other national versions of the show.  Sanjaya Malaker did finally make the headlines in India because of the news he was generating in the States, but compared to Indian Idol contestants Abhijit Sawant, Debojit Saha or Sandeep Acharya, he really is a nobody in the land of his forefathers.  Sanjaya’s U.S. fans were buoyed by Jennifer Lopez’s endorsement of his Latin performance.  I’m sorry, but this just can’t be compared to the buzz in India over Bollywood star Preety Zinta’s recent meeting with this year’s Indian Idol finalists.

What about Sanjaya’s fellow Indian Americans?  After the call center story had been put to bed, rumors circulated that Sanjaya survived due to a massive voting campaign among the 2.2 million Indian Americans right here in the United States.  For some Indian-American commentators, Sanjaya’s evident mediocrity made him more of an embarrassment to the community than an asset.  “Its reverse racism to vote for Sanjaya just because he’s of Indian origin,” warned one blogger.  This individual was in the minority, however, with web sites such as Indian-American.org rooting for the nation’s first American Idol contestant with sub-continental origins.  Since voters on American Idol don’t have to identify themselves by national origin, we’ll never know how big a factor Indian Americans were as compared to, say, the Vote for the Worst campaign or Howard Stern in keeping Sanjaya alive for so long, but it is safe to say they did play a role.

Indian Americans are among the most affluent American immigrant groups, with household incomes in the $70,000 range.  There are more and more second-generation Indian Americans who ache to see pop heros that look like themselves.  Sanjaya, wrote Atul on the “Things I’ve Noticed” blog, is “our first Indian American idol” playing with the name of both country’s shows.  Admitting Sanjaya’s singing abilities were nothing to get excited about, Atul made the plea that Sanjaya was “the first Indian guy in the U.S. that has become a household name since Mahatma Gandhi.”  For that reason alone, he argued, Indian Americans should support him.

Until this past February, Indian and other South Asian Americans did have a limited opportunity to enjoy pop entertainment that reflected their own hybrid identity.  Then, in a move that was pitched as a cost-cutting measure, MTV cancelled MTV Desi, its South Asian-oriented program, as well as MTV Chi, aimed at Chinese-American youth and MTV K, for the Korean-American audience.  Only ever available on premium service conduits such as DirecTV, MTV claimed the ratings simply weren’t there to justify the cost.  But MTV never put MTV Desi, MTV Chi or MTV K out on non-premium channels where the big audiences are.

As the Sanjaya phenomenon indicates, Indian Americans and other Asian Americans are starved for entertainment by individuals with whom they can identify – so starved, they’ll even close ranks behind a clear loser like Sanjaya Malaker.  This is an underserved market that MTV had rightly decided to reach out to back in December 2005.  If Sanjaya can at least get people in the entertainment industry to again “talk about” the Asian American youth entertainment market, he will have accomplished something after all.

Mira Kamdar is an Associate Fellow of the Asia Society and the author of Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming America and the World (Scribner 2007).