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January 17, 2000
Desi Detractors, Defenders Of West Wing
The threat of another "war" between India and Pakistan recently became a 'reality,' albeit on a fictionalized prime time television show. And it launched a public opinion battle, with some Indians complaining it was anti-Indian, and a few saying the show addressed an aspect of South Asian political reality many Americans are not aware of.
In the last two weeks, West Wing, a Golden Globe nominated popular new show on NBC, presented episodes in which the Indian army invaded Pakistan-held Kashmir, with a threat of a potential nuclear war breaking out between the two South Asian neighbors.
The lead character in the show, the fictionalized liberal US President Josiah Bartlet (played by actor Martin Sheen) then seeks the advice of the eccentric British ambassador, Lord John Marbury (guest star Roger Rees) on the situation. Lord Marbury gives the president a lesson on religious wars, suggesting that many in the US are ignorant about the emerging powers of the world.
West Wing is broadcast every Wednesday evening at 2100 ET on NBC and is a co-production of Warner Bros Television.
The show is the creation of young playwright and screenplay writer Aaron Sorkin. In the eighties, Sorkin made news when his play A Few Good Men became a huge hit on Broadway. In 1992, director Rob Reiner made a hit film starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, based on Sorkin's screenplay. Sorkin also wrote the screenplay for another Reiner film, The American President (1995), starring Michael Douglas.
In addition to Sheen, West Wing also stars Rob Lowe, a former member of the brat pack group of actors, as Sam Seaborn, a senior staff member to the US president.
The two episodes featuring the India-Pakistan 'war' were broadcast on January 5 and 12. In a reference to the war in Kargil, the show did suggest that India's attack was not altogether unprovoked.
Besides the British ambassador, the show also portrayed two young actors as the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors. Ironically, a young Pakistani actor, Iqbal Theba, played the Indian ambassador.
The first episode of the show mentioned that India's forces against Pakistan included 300,000 ground troops, 4 escort carriers and some naval destroyers.
These facts were challenged on a web site dedicated to the show The Winger's Guide to the West Wing.
A 'Rahadyan' writing on the site said: 'Kashmir is in a mountainous region between India and Pakistan, and so I can see why the troops are there. But not the warships?"
He then went on to quote the 1999-2000 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships, saying India did not have any escort carriers. He added that currently India has an aging aircraft carrier, INS Virat and eight destroyers.
The show also provoked a debate on the South Asian Journalists Association e-mail discussion list.
Criticizing the show, Pragya Gupta wrote it was an 'anti-India, pro-Pakistan propaganda on primetime network television.'
He was countered by Ravina Khosla, who works at The Wall Street Journal's interactive media group.
'I think it's important that we don't overreact every time the media decides to address a South Asian issue,' Khosla wrote. 'I'd hate for the western media to ignore South Asia or only portray South Asians as dumb guys with funny accents on comedy sitcoms. West Wing should be commended for addressing such a complicated issue in a balanced manner.'
Sanjib Baruah, a professor of political studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, commented on the inclusion of the British ambassador in the show.
'I thought the presence of the character of the eccentric British ambassador was quite interesting,' Baruah said on the SAJA list. 'The absence of any inside knowledge and expertise on South Asia and the president having to turn to a colonial-era English "expert" on the region, with typical colonial-era theories about why Hindus and Muslims fight was quite telling.'
'This may be a caricature,' he added. 'But a biting commentary on today's policy making on South Asia even though the makers of the show may not have realized how apt it was!'
Finally Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, and the moderator of the SAJA list wrote: 'Whatever you might think of how each country is portrayed in this fictional story, I was just excited to see India and Pakistan in prime-time entertainment (they even pronounced "Pakistan" the right way). Much better than seeing yet another Eastern European crisis on American television.'
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