US sitcom about Indian outsourcing is racist, say critics

A new US sit-com set in Mumbai and being shown on primetime US television has kicked up a dust-storm of controversy amid claims that it is insensitive and even racist about Indians.

The show, Outsourced, which tackles the politically sensitive topic of outsourcing jobs from the US, follows the fortunes of a business manager, Ted, from a firm in the American Midwest who is dispatched to India's financial capital to oversee a call centre staffed by local employees.

In the first episode Ted can be seen making jokes about Indian food causing diarrhoea, the turbans worn by Sikhs and the fact that cows are considered sacred. "The traffic here is like Frogger [an arcade game], but with real people," he also declares. Already the show, based on a 2006 film, has triggered heated criticism from bloggers and US television reviewers, many of whom found the pilot episode inappropriate, insensitive and a throwback to less enlightened times.

Mikey O'Connell, writing at the popular television news website Zap2It, said: "As you might expect, the results are pretty offensive, but not even for their obvious racial and cultural ignorance. It's the laziness with which every element of this show was assembled that makes it such an annoying blister of a television series." He added: "It's nothing that people with senile, racist grandparents haven't already been rolling their eyes at for years."

Another reviewer, Piya Sinha-Roy, said of the show: "The premiere of Outsourced managed singlehandedly to piss off every Indian who made the mistake of thinking that in the 21st century, television may slowly be phasing out the stereotypes."

Not everyone agrees. The New York Times reviewer found nothing to complain about, while the cast of the show dismissed the claims of insensitivity. Ben Rappaport, who plays the main role, told reporters: "There's nothing about our show that's mean-spirited. Our show comes at this world with so much compassion and love... It's just about two cultures that don't know that much about each other and they're trying to know each other better."

Whether or not the series is insensitive or racist, the producers have certainly chosen a controversial topic. The issue of outsourcing back-office jobs from the West to destinations in the developing world remains hugely sensitive, both in the US, where politicians are under pressure to save jobs, and in India, which is worried about outsourcing drying up. President Obama has advocated cutting tax incentives to American firms that outsource jobs.

Earlier this month, Ohio declared it illegal to outsource jobs from the state, a move that was immediately condemned by the Indian authorities as "ill advised". India's industry minister Anand Sharma recently met senior US officials in Washington and "registered India's viewpoint".

Udyan Khanna, vice-president of India Forum Inc, a non-profit organisation based in Baltimore, said he watched the first episode of Outsourced and didn't have any problems with the show. "I would say that there were some inaccuracies. But this is not a documentary," he said. "I thought it was a pretty funny show."

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