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Indian women 'get wild' in US soap

By Ashish Kumar Sen
Washington

Foreign Body still
The series is accused of portraying harmful stereotypes (Photos: Douglas Cheney/Big Fantastic)

An American web mini series that portrays attractive young women as part of a "group of dangerous Indian beauties" is creating ripples in the expatriate Indian community.

The two-minute clips are part of a 50-episode prequel to best-selling author Robin Cook's latest medical thriller, Foreign Body, which is centred on medical tourism in India.

The women are taken in by a group of "young, cut throat medical entrepreneurs who hope to train them and cultivate their nursing skills for their own mysterious ends", according to the show's producers.

The series ends on 4 August, a day before the book hits the shelves. The novel's storyline will pick up from where the web series leaves off.

Cook supplied the outline for the prequel to Big Fantastic, a California-based production company.

The episodes have been filmed in Los Angeles and Delhi.

'Sneaky'

Rachna Khatau plays Samira Patel, a free-spirited Indian woman who grabs an opportunity to chase the American dream.

She admits with a laugh that her character "gets a little wild" when she tastes the freedom offered in America.

Foreign Body still
The series is based on a Robin Cook thriller

Shamita Dasgupta, who heads the New Jersey-based South Asian women's rights group, Manavi, says the web series promises a "parade of scantily clad brown bodies of Indian women".

"As an immigrant from India and a feminist activist in the South Asian American community, my first reaction is to say, hurray, at least I will get to see some faces that look like me," said Mrs Dasgupta.

"Also, I rejoice that a few Indian actors are getting visible jobs."

But her second reaction is more guarded.

"Here we go again, I say. Historically, Hollywood portrayed Asian women as mysterious, bizarre and strange and contributed a lot to their being perceived as such."

She added: "Now, Indian women are being exoticised and presented as sneaky murderous intrigue-mongers.

"The 'Indian' characters in Foreign Body are nurses, who are as far away from any care-giving mission or characteristics as possible. These women will be unleashed in the US to wreak havoc in the health care community and perhaps even in the system.

"Could this be a sign of the dominant community's palpable alarm at the increasing health care tourism to India? Most likely."

'Harmful stereotype'

Rachna Khatau admits she was a little uncomfortable at first with the portrayal of her character.

By presenting working Indian women as deceitful vamps, [the series] has reinforced the harmful stereotypes of empowered Indian women
Rights activist Shamita Dasgupta

"I think people know that sex sells. But I wanted to make sure it was done professionally and would not be gratuitous," she said, adding: "But this is not who I am."

The London-born actress moved to America at the age of four and has family in India.

Khatau was not taken aback by the fact that the nurses were being portrayed as sexy because "this is not a Bollywood film. It is being produced here in Hollywood. It was going to have the style of a Hollywood film."

Like actress Pranidhi Varshney, her character Veena Chandra is born and raised in India.

Varshney says she wasn't offended by the portrayal of Veena as a "sexy Indian nurse".

"Rachna and I have become very good friends and we talked a bit about this," Varshney said.

"We have not done anything that we are not comfortable with. This is all in line with our characters. We are actresses."

Shamita Dasgupta anticipates a backlash from the series.

"By presenting working Indian women as deceitful vamps, [the series] has reinforced the harmful stereotypes of empowered Indian women and fanned the flames against immigrants currently rampaging in the country," she said.

Foreign Body still
The series centres around medical tourism

Big Fantastic did not respond to an e-mailed interview request.

Both Khatau and Varshney say their families have been supportive of their new roles.

Khatau's parents haven't missed a single episode of the show.

"They are proud and excited that this opportunity came about. They know it is so hard to find an Indian role [in Hollywood]," she said.

She says the producers have the option of converting the project into a film and is keeping her fingers crossed "that they do and that I will have a part to play in it!"

Varshney and Khatau have not read any of Robin Cook's books, but both are eagerly awaiting his latest thriller.

Khatau said: "I want to see what happens to my character!"

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