You can’t get far into any discussion or analysis of TV these days without talking about diversity – a subject which networks and producers still struggle to wrap their minds around, let alone execute.
But answers and tools for improving representation on TV have been available. That’s why it’s embarrassing that this industry-wide weakness is only recently being addressed with any real effort.
In 2006, The Office aired “Diwali,” a remarkable episode that holds up and is still a pivotal benchmark in how to tell diverse stories in Hollywood.
I wasn’t an Office fan when “Diwali” aired, but I remember catching a preview of it during Heroes and my interest was immediately piqued. I wouldn’t see the episode until a friend showed it to me a few months later, and starting the next day, I watched every episode of that show until it ended.
“Diwali,” written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Miguel Arteta, finds the Dunder Mifflin crew celebrating one of the biggest Hindu holidays with Kelly (Kaling) and her community after work one day. As Dwight correctly explains it, Diwali is “a celebration of the coronation of the god-king Rama after his epic battle with Ravana, the demon king of Lanka.”
Diwali itself is not the focus of the episode – apart from Dwight’s explanation, which quickly turns into Michael trying to talk about the Kama Sutra at work under the guise of cultural literacy – and there’s little explanation. The episode is never a Culture 101 lesson, nor is Kelly the de facto tour guide into her heritage.
By naming the episode after the holiday, the show invokes immediate curiosity from viewers who aren’t familiar. For those who are, the episode title and tantalizing glimpses of celebratory scenes within it were irresistible.
It’s also accurate. Apart from any prayer, most Diwali celebrations consist of eating and dancing with family and friends, just as the characters do in this episode. The party’s background playlist is comprised of appropriate Bollywood songs (and Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” which has honestly played at every Indian wedding I’ve ever been to), the food is vegetarian, the shoes are in a pile outside the door – these are all minor details, but because they come from Kaling’s lived experience, they make for wonderful authenticity.
The music in particular stands out. These days, if a TV show incorporates Bollywood music or dancing (and they sure do try), the songs are incongruous, outdated, or – in many cases – royalty-free music with a vaguely Indian sound that the studio itself produced to avoid any official processes required to obtain rights to Indian music. Maybe it was easier to cut through that red tape in 2006 – or maybe the team behind “Diwali” actually cared enough to bother.
The episode is littered with offensive moments, because The Office is populated by characters who offend, but the butt of the joke is ignorance, not otherness. When Angela says “they eat monkey brains,” we laugh because it’s patently ridiculous, as made clear when it’s coming from a character known for being uptight and intolerant. When Indian people actually eat monkey brains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it’s presented as fact.
All told, “Diwali” is a perfectly normal and enjoyable Office episode. With the holiday as a backdrop, the Dunder Mifflin crew gets out of their usual environment, and enjoy a rare opportunity for socializing away from the workplace. We still get multiple plot lines, including Jim’s wild night of drinking and crunching numbers in Stamford. (Andy saying “Are you ready to party?” pre-lapped with a classic Bollywood song remains the most brilliant transition I’ve seen in television history.)
So, this Diwali, I’ll be celebrating as I do every Diwali: By eating Indian food, lighting sparklers, and watching “Diwali” – an episode that celebrates Indian culture as exuberant and inviting, and actually gets it right.