Russell Peters made a name for himself with the sort of racist comedy that would be verboten in today’s sensitive climate. But Peters got away with it because he pretended that he was in on the joke – he was not immune to the stereotypes he peddled, including showcasing himself as a rather obvious product of his Indo-Canadian ancestry.
While this worked in standup, it does not in Peters’s new comedy series, The Indian Detective, currently streaming on Netflix. Here, Peters plays Doug D’Mello, a bumbling cop whose enthusiasm for a non-existent drug bust gets him suspended from his job. Like Peters, D’Mello is Canadian with an Indian background. His father, played by Anupam Kher, lives in Mumbai.
Expectedly, the father feigns a heart attack to get his son to visit him. This leads to D’Mello getting embroiled in a murder mystery with all the hallmarks of Mumbai crime: shady underworld dons and skyrocketing real estate deals played out in the background of the city’s slums.
I can imagine the discussions among the writers as the show was conceived: Peters waxing on his intimate knowledge of the country’s quirks and his certainty that blending them with high crime in India’s commercial capital will yield television gold. Rarely has dross been so magnanimously imagined.
It’s not just the stereotypes, which grate for sure. Indian viewers are by now used to seeing shots of cows roaming streets and swarms of people pouring out of railway stations in Western productions. All that is alright, they tell themselves, if the product can offer something more, say, a heartwarming story of making good, like Slumdog Millionaire.
But the series is not even funny. The jokes don’t land. Peters’ devil-may-care persona from his standup is merely flippant here, as he seems to absorb job loss, romantic disappointment and the potential loss of a parent with cringe-inducing alacrity.
Worse, the language is stilted. In Mumbai, the locals look like Indians but speak like Canadians, in a heavily accented Hindi that is hard to fathom. This is not nearly the case with other Netflix productions set in the east, such as South Korea’s detective series, Stranger. Why not have authentic settings and let subtitles help the viewer navigate his way through the show, which happened at any rate with The Indian Detective even for Hindi dialogue?
One wonders, then, if the show was hastily envisioned or if the company just does not care enough about Indian viewers. One hopes it’s the former, because many of us are eagerly awaiting Netflix’s adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. For now, the maker of the classics The Crown and Stranger Things has some catching up to do on its India-focused content.