If you follow me on the ’Gram you’ll probably be aware that in 2019 I lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding my notoriously private personal life and with that “came out” publicly as a cis gay man – laying to rest (once and for all I hope) the tiresome rumours and speculation about my sexual orientation and relationship status…
I put came out in quotation marks because, having been proudly out to my family and friends since my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t consider myself to be in the closet.
And if there was in place some dastardly elaborate master plan to conceal my sexuality from the public, then I really screwed up my end of the mission.
I’m genuinely not trying to be cute or facetious here, but how on earth could my sexuality have remained such an ongoing mystery?
Because I’ve been routinely photographed and identified at Pride and other LGBTQ+ events in big time PDA with my boyfriends of the moment (no stud-shaming please), my companions at red carpet shindigs and public events have always been arm candy of the male variety and I’ve only ever been seen and recognized out on the town on romantic tête-à-têtes with…you guessed it, other m-e-n!
So if my sexual preference has been a secret, it’s been hiding in plain sight of anyone with half-decent gaydar or a facility for deductive reasoning.
Just ask the kids on the Twinkle-twats…
Er… Is South African Twitter okay?
If you’re reading this as a member of the LGBTQ+ community (or an ally), rest assured that while I share your distaste for the puerile ‘humour’ and the unabashed trafficking in tired homophobic tropes, I’d like to think that some of the more mean-spirited tweets are really about lampooning me personally (or as a media figure) than they are about any special animus targeted at queer people in general.
And if you’re being charitable, in internet years these nuggets are like a hundred years old anyway.
Although, in the process of compiling this tiny sample even I was surprised by just how many folks I owe brain rent to on the Tweety-Tinkles.
Anyhoo, where was I?
So while I made zero attempts at trying to mask my sexual preference or ambiguously muddy the waters with a “beard” or a bevy of female plus-ones, what I hadn’t done was explicitly confirm it or issue a public statement announcing it to all and sundry.
In the beginning of my career on national television, I resented having to.
At the time I remember thinking:
“Heterosexual presenters don’t come out as straight, why should I be expected to make an unsolicited declaration about which gender does it for me? Who cares? And how or why is it even relevant to the work anyway?”
Then, as my career took off and I experienced my first heady dose of ‘celebrity’ (by comparatively modest South African standards) and all its bizarro consequences, many other surprisingly complex reasons for not inviting the world in began to present themselves.
Sidebar : I’ve frequently been asked in interviews why I chose not to officially come out during my career as a presenter – and I’ve always demurred or declined to answer because the press tends to favour quick and easy bite-sized responses and, in all sincerity, my rationale for cordoning off my private life is not something than can be explained simply or succinctly.
Sure, I could have bare-boned things and said that I had a career, a long-running series and production company (with employees and freelancers) to protect – and left it at that. If I wished to elaborate on my reasons, I could’ve argued that being a television presenter is not like a regular job where you can claim unfair dismissal if your company fires you because you’re gay, because in TV land, if they take issue with such things, they just stop booking you – for shows, gigs, endorsement deals etc. Or they fetishise your gayness and cast you precisely for that reason.
I don’t know which would be more depressing, frankly.
But even though every one of the aforementioned reasons would be valid, compelling and true, they merely scratch the surface of the complicatedness of navigating through life as a public figure who’s also a sexual minority within an ethnic minority, in a country still in the adolescence of its democracy and obsessed with the labels and essentialist identity politics of its turbulent and complicated past.
I’m a big fan of context, so the following might seem long-winded or meandering, but this is my process, so I hope you’ll indulge me and come along for the ride…
The Rabbit Hole
At the heart of my chain of reasoning for not openly discussing my sexuality was the very calculated decision to keep the ‘noise’ out.
I find that this is a really difficult one to explain to non-famous people (sorry, my BFF thought civilians sounded pejorative) who’ve never been engulfed by that world, but no-one can ever truly prepare you for the soul-sapping nature of ‘fame’ – and the many games it plays with your head, especially when it comes to self-honesty, self-value and self-concept.
It starts with the little things like the regular ‘normal’ stuff that you’re suddenly no longer able to do without some kind of curious or uninvited consequence, so you become circumspect about engaging in the kind of casual recreations most folks don’t give much thought to, like shopping or going to the movies. I can’t begin to describe the intrusion of being surreptitiously photographed while trying to take a bite of a meal at a restaurant by someone pretending to be on their phone, or how disconcerting it is to be pointed at and spoken of in the third person in public spaces, even though you’re within plain view and earshot of the people doing the talking and the vulgar pointing. I’ve always tried to be gracious and patient about it all, but there were many days when I was sorely tempted to break that fourth wall by blurting out, “Psst, you guys do know I can see and hear you, right? Just a human being here folks. Like you.”
I also found that I became wary of meeting new people, socially or romantically, because I would often have to examine whether their attraction to me actually had something to do with me or if all that kindness and flattery was motivated by star-fuckery and opportunism. It isn’t fun when your purely platonic date from the night before tells everybody at the gym that you slept together for the brag points and it snowballs into the talk of town by lunchtime.
Then, of course, there were the detractors and critics. I wish I could say that most of them were fair and constructive, but people have a tendency to project a lot of their own internal stuff onto folks in the public eye. And there’s a very special cocktail of scorn and venom South Africans reserve for public figures who trigger their insecurities or don’t fit a conventional mould, yet come across as unruffled and a little too self-assured for their own good.
The result of all this (and so much more) is that you get drawn into a kind of vacuum or house of mirrors, where your perception of who you are can gradually and rather insidiously become warped, distorted or corrupted by the hype, press and opining surrounding the persona you (and others) have cultivated and fashioned in your image.
And if you’re guileless, immature or not firmly tethered to your selfhood, it’s so easy for the persona to bleed into the person.
As someone who thought I’d never lose my way even I had to perform a conscious re-centering in the adolescence of my ‘celebrity’ after Glenda, my BFF and most trusted mirror since high school, pointed out some discordant changes to my personality.
It was a welcomed check from a friend – and an important check-in with myself.
So putting up a firewall around my superego and soul and jealously guarding my private space and relationships from the kind of invasive and dehumanizing scrutiny, not to mention morbid curiosity, that people in the public eye are uniquely subjected to – was my way of maintaining sanity and balance.
Ironically, it only made my private life even more of an enigma and a source of fascination.
“It’s a dream, with a nightmare stuck in the middle” ~ George Michael (“Star People”)
There’s also a really sinister underbelly to the world of broadcasting that people on the outside don’t get to see or even imagine.
It’s a high-stakes zero-sum game in which I quickly came to realise that the most sacred and intimate aspects of a person’s life are considered fair game to be weaponized or used as fodder by industry players and grifters who would act in self-interest or self-dealing.
When your hard-fought work product succeeds in finding an untapped audience and a gap in a totally saturated, highly competitive market, the very same people who pooh-poohed your ideas fall over themselves trying to muscle in on the action. Fortunately (and perhaps karmically), they’re also clumsy enough to give away the game by accidentally emailing you their own internal memos!
By the way, anyone naïve enough to think that I’m being conspiratorial or melodramatic about all this has probably never been stalked or heard of astroturfing or been the target of orchestrated smears and a complaint brought before the BCCSA – where it was dismissed, not least of all because the complainant didn’t show up to their own hearing. Why, it’s almost as though they were acting in bad faith! Mmm…
Don’t be fooled by the beautiful bright lights and pretty veneer, boys and girls.
Showbiz has a really dark, ugly side.
Gays Of Our Lives
Through the heteronormative lens of the era, playing the fame game was an especially fraught tightrope to walk for LGBTQ+ public figures.
They may have gotten somewhat better at it nowadays, but in the nineties and early noughties, members of the press and public were still fixated on lurid stereotypes of the past and had a sort of juvenile, voyeuristic fascination with the mechanics of what gay men in particular got up to behind closed doors.
The media’s default inclination and incentive was to sensationalize, objectify or sexualize LGBTQ+ people for ratings, not humanize them.
It was also clear to me that South Africa’s post-apartheid virtue signalling to the world about celebrating diversity, being deracialized and hip to LGBTQ+ people and issues was at best, wishful thinking and at worst, cynically disingenuous lip service and pseudo-progressive posturing.
After our liberation struggle’s Kumbaya moment of euphoria had worn off, some previously disenfranchised and oppressed groups merely cherry-picked our constitutional democracy’s noble pronouncements about freedom, human rights and dignity only as it applied to them and their own interests.
LGBTQ+ rights may have been enshrined in our constitution, but many average South Africans didn’t get the memo.
Or they just ignored it.
You need only revisit the tweets earlier (and many others like it) to see that for a lot of South Africans the ‘gay’ part isn’t the basis for a joke, it is the punchline.
Even some of the well-meaning people that I knew and encountered treated it like it was a nice-to-have “in a better world” optional extra – and not something to fight for or genuinely aspire towards achieving in this lifetime, like eradicating racism.
Their brand of LGBTQ+ ‘activism’ peaked at applying a rainbow filter to their Facebook profile pic so they could pat themselves on the back for being an ally, while saying absolutely nothing when friends and family made vile or disparaging comments about queer people in their presence.
It’s much like Hollywood and its pathetic and insulting queer baiting.
More symbolic virtue signalling, with no substance.
Of course, that low bar is so much better than open hostility, but it highlights just how hollow some of that “solidarity” with LGBTQ+ people and issues actually is. I’ve met many decent, open-minded “liberal” folks who claim to be totally “cool” with gay people, but are horrified and appalled by any suggestion of a gay or trans character/s being introduced to storybooks for school children. Because, once again, LGBTQ+ characters are immediately sexualized in the imaginations of some straight people – and we can’t have that sort of thing in children’s books!
I’m sorry, but you’re not a champion of any marginalised group if you would rather they be invisibilized or erased – or if you can’t or won’t recognize their humanity and their right to exist.
Familiarizing children with the presence of LGBTQ+ isn’t brainwashing or indoctrination. It actually better equips them for life and improves their social skills when they’re exposed to diversity at a young age.
Besides, your kids are going to meet and encounter LGBTQ+ individuals at some point in their lives. Wouldn’t you rather that they not feel ill-equipped, uncomfortable or confused when that happens?
Chris (my partner) and I are godfathers to a bright and delightful nine-year old girl. Amber and her twin sister Jasmine and their elder sister, Kiara, are like the children we’ll never have (out of choice). So unsurprisingly, we attend a lot of kiddies parties – and all the girls’ friends have pretty much figured out that Chris and I are a couple.
One day, one of the parents of the kids relayed a story in which her young son enquired if Chris and I were “married”. When the mother asked him how he would feel about it if we were, he expressed his enthusiastic approval, adding, “Because they’re so hamsome together, aren’t they Mummy?”
This adorable lad didn’t see anything unusual about the fact that Chris and I were of the same gender, nor that we were of different races, for that matter. To him it seemed perfectly natural to imagine that we might be married, just like his parents and all the other couples who loved each other.
My point is that children are so much more resilient, insightful and chilled than we give them credit for.
It’s the so-called grown-ups who need help with their faulty programming.
“In South Africa, I am oppressed because I am a black man and I am oppressed because I am a gay man. So, when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions… All those who believe in a democratic South Africa must fight against all oppression, all intolerance, all injustice”.
~ Simon Nkoli
Which brings me to that other elephant, seemingly always obligatorily wheeled into the room whenever the question of my identity comes up.
The added complexity of my ethnicity and race.
“You’re Indian? But You Speak So Well!”
My genealogy may be Indian but I grew up self-identifying as a citizen of the world – and a child of Africa.
It’s not something that was instilled in me. I wasn’t told to see myself that way.
I just felt it.
And despite its turbulent past and its present-day real challenges, I adopt South Africa as not just my birthplace but also my birthright – and home.
Even when we, as black, brown and LGBTQ+ people, were oppressed, victimised and treated as low-status, second class citizens during apartheid, I knew in my heart of hearts that no matter where the fates took me I was always going to be of Africa.
And while restrictive, belittling labels were constantly being assigned to us, my race, ethnic heritage and ancestry, though a source of great pride and joy, was and still is secondary or incidental to my identity.
As is my sexuality, by the way.
So when my fellow South Africans rush to categorize or box my hyphenated identity into a simplistic, one-dimensional definitional typecast or avatar like “Indian” or “gay”, my patience gets sorely tested.
Like most people, I wish to be judged on my merits and appraised for my character and the quality of my contribution to the world, not purely by extraneous data points like my race, gender or sexual orientation. Of course, those things matter and are undeniably a part of my lived experience and makeup, but they alone don’t singularly define me.
Alas, such nuance and complexity is lost on those who stubbornly insist on measuring people and the world with the standards of a colonized mind. Their default, intellectually-lazy tendency is always to reach for the easy stereotypes, clichés and tropes they were indoctrinated in.
Decades into post-apartheid democratic South Africa I still find myself putting up with so much garden-variety racial stereotyping and microaggressions that I usually try to make sport of it, so as to maintain my sense of humour (and resist the urge to accidentally tip my drink in someone’s lap).
Them : “Where are you from?”
Me : “I was born in South Africa.”
Them : “No, what’s your nationality?” (aaaand we’re off…)
Me : “Well, you look like a smart person. Since I was born here it stands to reason that my nationality is South African, wouldn’t you say?” (in a deliberately sarcastic and patronizing tone)
Them : “What I mean is, where are your parents from?” (shamelessly unrelenting)
Me : “Well whaddayaknow, they’re South African too!” (really laying the sass on thick)
Them : “Er…no, I guess I was wondering if…er…” (now self-painted into a corner and nervously stuttering)
And then it’s time to make em squirm…
Me : “Oh, I see. Let me guess! You want to know about my race and where ‘my people’ come from, don’t you? What my ethnic origins are?”
Them : “Oh heavens, no, I didn’t mean all that!” (clutches imaginary pearls to feign innocence and indignation)
Me : “Sure you did! Well, since you appear to have a bee in your bonnet about this for some reason, I’m second-generation South African of Indian extraction.” (smirking in triumph)
That is until…
Them : “You’re Indian? But you speak so well!”
These insufferable encounters only increased in frequency after I debuted on television…
The year was 1998.
That might have been just over two decades ago, but you have to understand that it was a dramatically different time. One that would be unrecognizable to many young South Africans today.
For starters, it was still very much an analogue age.
VHS was still a thing, DVD was yet to catch on and 1080p HD was still a whole decade away from being introduced. Betacam SP was still the industry standard. Professional photographers still shot with film and cellphones didn’t have cameras. Folks still sent faxes and favoured landlines over high mobile call fees. Touchscreen smartphones weren’t invented yet. Social media hadn’t exploded and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube didn’t exist. The internet wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, so the age of VOD and SVOD was a mere pipe dream.
And terrestrial television still reigned supreme.
Back then, male Indian TV anchors and personalities were extremely rare and mostly associated with investigative journalism or the news, most notably, Anand Naidoo who’d left SA to work for CNN and Manu Padayachee who, as the first person of colour (yes, I said first person of colour) to appear on M-Net, famously quipped during his first broadcast, “Don’t adjust your set. I am this colour.”
Through dumb luck and circumstance, my first foray into TV presenting wasn’t just unplanned but also happened to be in that most exclusive and rarefied genre of South African television programming not historically associated with, or frankly, even available to Indian presenters : the primetime magazine show*.
The holy grail for all future-somebody TV presenters.
Of course it was an open secret to all of us in the industry that the ‘unofficial’ template for casting magazine show anchors back then was – two hosts : one male, one female; one White, one Black.
To that end we’d already exhaustively auditioned and finally cast the dream team of Zoë Fairbrother (now Fairbrother-Straw) and Justice ‘Just-Ice’ Ramohlola as the original hosts of Chill Out (the show our company had successfully pitched for and was about to produce), but a pre-existing contractual obligation to a rival network resulted in Justice having to be replaced – literally days away from the first shoot!
So my stepping into his shoes at the very last minute was a fluke.
*Incidentally, I may have been the first Indian male to attain studio-host status in this much vaunted category, but I wasn’t the first to break the primetime-lifestyle-show glass ceiling. It was actually my sister, Saira Essa, who did so a few years prior with her appearances as a field-presenter on M-Net’s flagship lifestyle series, “Premiere”.
Thrown, at first, by my “cultured”, “international sounding” accent and manner of speaking, initial test audiences for Chill Out ruminated on whether I was Italian, Portuguese, Armenian or some kind of Mediterranean hybrid, but the moment they were informed that I was Indian, they projected all the baggage of their immutably stereotypical perceptions of Indian people onto my on-screen persona.
To those who knew I was Indian to begin with, I was an accidentally mis-genred conversation piece.
The perceived exoticism and incongruity of my Indianness (and all the long-held attitudes that came with that) in the context of a sophisticated and glossy magazine show about wine, cordon-bleu cuisine, travel and contemporary lifestyle became a subject of curiosity and intrigue.
This, I admit, helped not hindered my career – and I went on to host the Miss South Africa pageant (another holy grail) and anchor a new magazine series (InStyle) on SABC3.
But as someone who’d always fought hard to escape pigeonholing and defy stereotypes, I found it frustrating enough that these audiences were still trying to wrap their heads around the novelty of an urbane Indian magazine show host, I certainly had no desire to participate in mainstream media’s tacit fetishization and tokenism of my gayness as well.
Once, while my show was playing media partner to the Out in Africa Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, the festival’s director, Nodie Murphy, privately berated me for having not come out publicly. She felt that the visibility of an openly gay Indian celebrity might embolden, empower or offer hope to other LGBTQ+ Indians in South Africa. Nodie, of course, was absolutely right – but what well-meaning advocates like her didn’t seem to appreciate or understand about the South African mainstream media power-structures of the time was how little agency ethnic minorities were afforded when it came to telling our stories or shaping the narrative. Even if I used my own show and platform as a vehicle for coming out (which I was loathe to do because it would have been characterised as grandstanding or politicized as ‘propaganda’), I knew I would have very little control over the establishment media press that my coming-out would have generated.
I could tell from the framing of the offensively stereotypical, dumbed-down, soundbite-type questions I was constantly asked by people and the press that, even if I were to come out, I was not going to be accorded the courtesy of being able to tell my story with dignity, much less be given the opportunity to introduce nuance and sophistication to the conversation, especially as a gay man with a Muslim first name and a Gujarati Hindu surname, from an ethnic minority consistently painted by the South African media and culture in a single broad brush as provincial, deeply religious, mystical and “exotic”.
“Birdie Num Num”
People in South Africa and indeed the world have a really annoying and degrading tendency to view Indians as one homogeneous culture and race, so we’re seldom portrayed or seen as having more than one dimension. And when you view people through that lens, you flatten all the contours and intricacies of a person’s individual identity.
Though to be fair, some of that is on Indians and our tendency to self-stereotype – but more about that later…
We like to talk about how folks troll us with hate, tribalism or contrarianism as sport, but we seldom acknowledge how wilful ignorance, disingenuousness and intellectual laziness are also forms of trolling. Worse yet, back then when the internet was still growing up, the trolls weren’t insulting you online, they were blithely doing it to your face.
And because the hurtful consequences of being too lazy to put in a little more time and effort to understand the nuances of someone’s cultural and sexual identity were always casually excused as just a genuine “no offence” whoops moment, there was a lot of gaslighting going on when you would call them out on it. As in, “Oh, you’re being too sensitive.”
Basically, you weren’t just expected to explain things to people, you were also expected to understand it for them.
Pushing back against monolithic views on race, ethnicity and sexuality only diminished and insulted everyone involved because it often meant first having to debunk so many preconceptions – until, exasperated, you were reduced to assuming the kind of condescending tone and plainness of speech a pompous prick might reserve for the learning impaired.
As in, “I can’t believe I’m having to say this, but you do know Indian people don’t only live on curry and gay men don’t only think about dick, right? Right?”
One of my main motives for devising Eastern Mosaic – the show that, somewhat ironically, came to define my career as a presenter – was precisely to counter that kind of ignorance and push back against the stereotyping of South Africans of Indian origin in the mainstream media.
I was never meant to be one of its hosts and I remember feeling quite conflicted when I was cajoled into assuming that mantle by the Commissioning Head of SABC 1 at the time, precisely because I’d worked so hard up to that point to sidestep the epithet of “Indian presenter” – not out of a sense of embarrassment but as a form of righteous protest against ethnic typecasting.
Again, I know…how the irony hurts!
Nevertheless, I leveraged whatever mainstream cred and A-list capital I had and pigeonholed myself in the service of Eastern Mosaic‘s greater aims and objectives : to give Indians a voice on a national platform and represent South Africans of Indian origin with dignity, grace, nuance and respect. And to use entertainment TV to inform and educate non-Indian South Africans about the additional layers or tiers of identity that were unique to their Indian brothers and sisters of our “rainbow nation”.
And I’m so glad I did because a decade later I experienced probably the worst thing that can happen to anyone who works in the boredom-killing business (i.e. entertainment) : a crisis of conscience.
In it you’re forced to take a good hard look at the work you’ve put out into the world and honestly ask yourself if it added any real, appreciable value, beauty or good. To this day, I still encounter people (of all races) for whom Eastern Mosaic meant so much and was so illuminating – and it warms my heart.
I recognized then the powerful role ethnic media could and did play in the transition to democracy in the post-apartheid era.
But I also dream of a time when South Africans won’t need shows like Eastern Mosaic or its successor, Mela, to individualize Indian people.
We are not there yet.
Okay, Rant Alert…
Fair warning : the following is based on my personal experiences and observations from my 20+ years in South African broadcasting. Some of it might sound to you like the language or tone of someone who’s bitter and aggrieved, but understand that this is intended as a legitimate critique of the lens through which the broader South African culture views and therefore treats minorities. I consider myself fortunate to have enjoyed a long, fulfilling and successful career in media, but I will not underplay what a source of ongoing frustration it’s been to push back against marginalization and typecasting in the television industry. An industry, I might add, that plays a vitally necessary and influential role in not just reflecting but also shaping our popular culture. Sorry South Africa, it’s time to spill the tea – and the chai is hot!
It says a lot that even after a 15-year long consistent presence as a host on national television non-Indian South Africans still mostly refer to me, not by the name I share with an internationally famous cricketer turned politician nor the one that rhymes with Luke Skywalker’s dad, but as “that guy from Eastern Mosaic” or “that Indian guy on TV”.
Sometimes they’ll throw in “stylish” or “handsome” as an added descriptor – but still, nameless.
Of course, I’m not entitled to anything, least of all name recognition, but these are the very same people, tellingly, who’ll show flash-in-the-pan presenters with less than a year’s worth of output, who happen to be White or Black, the consideration of at least referring to them by one of their actual names or even a cute nickname.
And here’s the thing…
I don’t believe it’s deliberate or malign in most cases.
I think it’s a genuinely unconscious thing that a lot of non-Indian South Africans just do.
Since colonial times, Indians have always been othered. Even dyed in the wool 4th generation South Africans (of Indian origin) are viewed as slightly alien or foreign and as not having properly assimilated into the broader South African culture.
And again, to be fair, some of that is on some Indians who rigidly self-identify as Indian first and South African second or both in equal measure. Imagine the kind of puzzling and schizophrenic message it sends to fellow South Africans about your sense of identity, patriotic allegiance and belonging when you show up to the India vs South Africa cricket match flying both the nations’ colours, for example?
But being part of the Indian diaspora is complicated AF (as I will try to explain in my next post).
Regardless, fast forward to present day South Africa and it appears we haven’t really shifted or expanded the Overton window to address the complexities of marginalized identities – and how they’re characterized in the everyday discourse.
For example, when it comes to the entertainment industry, it seems as if there’s still a separate lane for performers, artists and presenters who are of Indian origin. Whereas Black and White showbiz wannabes are freshly minted as ‘stars’ on an almost daily basis, Indians of equal talent and merit are automatically relegated to the fringes until they’ve proven themselves ‘worthy’ of mainstream consideration and recognition.
Has that infamous glass ceiling been restored since my day?
Have I and all the other Indian television trailblazers before me who made it in the mainstream been invisibilized or erased?
Notice how a notable latter-day Black entertainment commentator/blogger described one of my protégés and successors, Tevin Naidu, in his blog’s generally complimentary profile piece. See if you can spot what’s problematic about it?
“Eastern Mosaic viewers on SABC 2 this Sunday got to see a new strikingly good looking presenter on the show…Tevin is not just an Indian guy but a South African guy, if you catch my drift.”
He goes on to add that Tevin…
“…has a (sic) potential to have the (sic) cross over appeal like Sashi Naidoo” (another well-known South African of Indian origin)
If you read the rest of the write-up and another post in which he laments the fact that Indian performers and talent are not given their due in the South African entertainment industry, you’ll realise that the author actually means well. He echoes my earlier sentiments thusly:
“South African minorities tend to get lost in the fray between blacks and white. While the line between the white and black entertainment industry is clearly drawn in South Africa (not that we want to admit it), minorities like Indian South Africans have not being (sic) given the attention they deserve.”
The writer in question hasn’t responded to my email request for comment, so I’m left to read between the lines with regards to his “if you catch my drift” dog-whistle, which, along with the “potential to have cross over appeal” assessment, felt eerily reminiscent of 1998 and the many times I would have to face off a boardroom full of supercilious White commissioning editors and marketing heads in the early days of my career.
It reeks of the same dripping condescension I was expected to gladly endure (in the third person) as they openly debated the merits of whether I was magazine show host material. You know, being an Indian person…if you catch my drift? (wink wink, nudge nudge)
It would appear in 2020 South Africa, that people of Indian origin continue to be viewed from the same haughty, imperialistic perspective or gaze.
On social media I’ve noticed that #easternmosaic is frequently employed as both a noun and an adjective in any post or comment that references anything even tenuously or remotely Indian, however random, in our pop culture. So if someone non-Indian dons an Asian garment, cooks a spicy dish or attends a colour run, it’s tagged as an “easternmosaic” activity – which is fine if you can look past the casual cultural appropriation, but that one-size-fits-all hashtag is also liberally applied to other content, TV shows or events not related to Indian costume, custom or tradition, where one or more Indian guests, contestants or characters just happen to be present – and not doing anything Indian-y besides just being demonstrably Indian.
All of this suggests that “the Indians” are still seen as a monolith or a demographic – not a diverse group of unique and autonomous individuals, characters or personalities.
And again, this is 2020, not the 90’s.
Now imagine how further dehumanizing, depersonalizing and objectifying it would be to then be labelled as “that gay Indian guy from TV” had I come out in a symbolic gesture back then?
To have to endure the indignity of being corralled into yet another tiny box of namelessness and superficial identity for expedience?
As if routinely being asked to do voice-over work where I would be expected to perform an exaggerated, caricaturized enunciation of an “Indian” accent (like they’re all the same) wasn’t insulting and galling enough, every single time I’ve ever been interviewed or asked to be a guest on someone else’s TV or radio show my Indianness wasn’t just thrust to the front and centre of the interview, it was sometimes the only angle.
Like that was the only thing or topic I was seen to be ‘qualified’ to talk about!
And it’s not just because I presented an Indian lifestyle show like Eastern Mosaic.
There are many of my Indian colleagues in the film and television industry who report similar experiences.
Because there were so few of us, ‘famous’ Indian people were routinely called upon by members of the mainstream entertainment media to be spokespeople for our entire race. Wishing to learn about the specifics of our ethnic heritage, traditional cuisine and ancestral customs and practices is one thing, but we were expected to explain our “culture” (which is a bizarre and inelegant way to frame the question because as South African nationals we were culturally not too dissimilar to the person doing the asking).
They might as well have phrased it as, “Please help us understand your tribe’s strange and mysterious ways.”
I realize that this all sounds exaggerated and implausible, but I’m really not overstating how fucked-up public perceptions of Indian people were as recently as 2013, when I retired from presenting.
One Trick Pony
For example, every single one of the following are straight-up legit guest interview invitations that have been tossed my way by popular TV shows…
“Hey Imraan…we thought it would be fun for you to come on the show and teach us all how to make a ‘proper’ Indian curry.”
“…everybody’s mad about ‘Bollywood’ (used in this instance by the ignorant sender as a blanket term to describe all Indian cinema, regardless of language, region or genre), so why not come on to talk about it and maybe teach us some Bollywood dance moves.”
“What can you tell us about Ayurvedic medicine?”
And, I shit you not…
“We thought I’d be great if you come on and show (female talk-show host’s name) how to drape a sari.”
With that demeaning and crass, tabloid-y climate and context in mind, I invite you to let your imagination run wild and dream up what sort of hackneyed, worn-out clichés and degradation the mainstream (and eventually social) media circus would have sought to visit upon me as an openly gay Indian public figure all those years ago?
Go on, knock yourself out.
Because absolutely no-one subjects gays, particularly gay Asians, to any kind of stereotyping or formulaic generalisations, right?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is why I never bothered coming out.
So, in conclusion…
Resigned to the depressing probability that even the so-called new South Africa was not ready or willing to graduate beyond identity essentialism to advanced citizenship – and that there were always going to be folks who wouldn’t know what to make of people like me who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be put in a circumscribed box to be neatly categorized and labelled, I determinedly went about pursuing my livelihood in public and living my private life under the radar and eventually managed to carve a career and a corner for myself in that very narrow, crowded lane of opportunity* ethnic minorities in the South African entertainment industry were relegated to.
*(My Indian, Asian and Coloured brothers and sisters will, ahem…”catch my drift”)
And when I eventually retired from work in front of the lens, I just wanted to be left alone.
Out of sight and out of mind, I figured that public interest in my personal life would eventually fade, along with my so-called ‘celebrity’ and relevance (such as they were).
And that would be that.
Then, an unexpected series of events last year brought about a change of mind – and heart.
You could say I felt a calling…