MTV’s short-lived animated series Clone High USA, which premiered 15 years ago this month, is one of those brilliant cult TV classics, like Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks.
The premise of the show, which was created by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, is honestly best described in its theme song: “Way way back in the 1980s/secret government employees/dug up famous guys and ladies/and made amusing genetic copies.”
Clone High put some of history’s most important figures together in high school to give us a brilliant sendup of the saccharine, angsty, Paula Cole-tracked television shows of the ‘90s. It followed Abraham Lincoln, his best friends (a goth Joan of Arc and party animal Gandhi), the popular, shallow love interest Cleopatra, and the macho jock JFK.
A voiceover dubbed every single episode a “very special” one, there were multiple proms, and guests like Marilyn Manson, Tom Green, and Jack Black taught the high school kids about nutrition, ADD, and drugs. The show was outrageous, irreverent, and incredibly dark, and even while it parodied American teen dramas, it still managed to create its own gut-wrenching and emotional moments.
There are so many delightful rabbit holes you could potentially go down with Clone High. But I need to talk about one character: Gandhi, the crown jewel of the show, and also the thing that caused its downfall.
After the first season, politicians in India caught wind of the show’s less-than-reverential depiction of the father of their nation, and, based on a couple descriptions of his characterizations from the MTV website (“stupid enough to take a swim in its piranha-infested moat”) led a successful campaign to end Clone High.
My brother and I stumbled upon the show five or six episodes in, but were heartbroken to hear of its cancelation, and furious at the nation of India (we’re Sri Lankan, it’s fine) for causing it. Fifteen years later, the almost fittingly bombastic end to the wacky show remains something of an obscure anecdote—just like the show itself.
While it does seem like the case is closed and the lesson has been learned (something along the lines of “Don’t mock other countries’ heroes”), as a South Asian American, I’m still trying to unpack what happened and what the show’s incarnation of Gandhi really meant.
There’s the very clear Indian interpretation of Gandhi the virtual saint. And there’s the American interpretation, of a civil rights leader whose dedication to peace was honorable and also made him the perfect target for ironically violent renderings by the American pop culture machine. After all, Gandhi did appear on the ultraviolent claymation show Celebrity Deathmatch three years before Clone High aired (he won against Genghis Khan).
With two clear understandings of the figure, it’s hard to find a middle ground that could appease people in the middle—those who shared both a South Asian identity and an American one—but Clone High’s Gandhi was accidentally the first to try.
It’s not like I felt represented by Clone High’s Gandhi, but it was special to see an Indian icon acknowledged and included in such a brilliant piece of television. It would be another two years before Harold and Kumar, so almost the only depictions of South Asians in America were rudimentary caricatures like Apu from The Simpsons, Taj from Van Wilder, and the white guy in brownface from Short Circuit.
These characters checked all the classic Indian stereotype boxes, rendering Indian immigrant identity into an amusing plaything, dangling American acceptance in front of them, and laughing at their attempts to grasp it. Along with this came a persistent emasculation; having male Indian characters want nothing more than to have the sexual prowess of an American man and failing spectacularly.
These characters were racist, but I loved them anyway, devouring whatever scraps of South Asian representation I could get. I knew that the culture was simply being made fun of, but at least I got to feel like I was in on the joke. We don’t have a lot to work with.
Despite setting out to subvert the ultimate Indian icon, in many ways Clone High’s Gandhi wasn’t a huge departure from how South Asians had been represented. He’s the sidekick. He’s not exceptional with the ladies (despite having a successful rap career). He was the comedic relief, as South Asian characters tend to be. But Gandhi didn’t have an accent. His comedy wasn’t rooted in his being Indian, although the physical humor was sometimes enhanced by the reminder that this clumsy, hyperactive dunce was supposed to be Gandhi.
By nature of being grown in a test tube in a secret government project, Gandhi was American. The only baggage he brought from India was the pressure to live up to the real Gandhi’s greatness (something almost every character dealt with). That Gandhi was voiced by Michael McDonald, a white man, didn’t even feel that problematic at the time. The MAD TV veteran is hilarious, he didn’t do an accent, and it’s not like there were a robust array of South Asian American actors to choose from, or any, really.
It was almost unheard of to have an Indian character who sounded and acted American and that felt groundbreaking. Unfortunately, India did not see it the same way. Clone High’s depiction of Gandhi was controversial to say the least. It probably didn’t help that Indians had just dealt with another Gandhi-related controversy in America. In its February 2003 issue, Maxim published “Maxim’s Kick-Ass Workout,” the depictions of which consist of a muscly white guy inexplicably beating up Gandhi, who is apparently described as “this weenie.” It definitely sounds like some ironic Family Guy-inspired humor, but the backlash in India was severe enough to solicit an apology from Maxim.
In a way, the unsuspecting Clone High was caught in the crossfire. The show never aired in India, but India caught wind of it in light of the Maxim controversy and responded with just as much ire. Almost 150 activists and Members of Parliament in India pledged a hunger strike in response to the show, supported by the grandson of Gandhi himself.
In a 2014 interview with Grantland, Chris Miller explained:
150 politicians and Gandhi’s grandson sat in a hunger strike at the MTV India offices, right when the head of Viacom, Tom Freston, was visiting, and he was trapped in the building. And they basically threatened that they’d revoke MTV’s broadcasting license in India if they didn’t take the show off the air. And then the show went off the air. So I guess not any publicity is good publicity.
In a statement, MTV apologized, saying:
MTV US apologizes if we have offended the people of India and the memory of Mahatma Gandhi…MTV US wants to make it clear that CLONE HIGH was created and intended for an American audience. We recognize and respect that various cultures may view this programming differently, and we regret any offense taken by the content in the show.
As a South Asian American, caught between American and Indian (or in my case Indian-adjacent) culture, I was obviously extremely conflicted. Of course I admired Gandhi. What South Asian kid makes it out of childhood without learning all about the Salt March or being forced to watch both VHS tapes of the Ben Kingsley movie? When we had to dress up as a historical figure and give a presentation about them in fifth grade, I chose Gandhi. (One of my classmates chose Hitler, so I was being extra-good.) Whenever we played two truths and a lie, my lie was always that Gandhi was my great uncle and people always believed me.
Maybe because I had an affinity for the leader growing up, I was enthralled to see the depiction of him in Clone High in an American context. Of course he would be in the same cast as JFK and Abe Lincoln and Cleopatra and Joan of Arc. He was iconic. Besides, it was obvious that the Gandhi on the show was not actually Gandhi.
I’ve thought a lot about the controversy since then. In the immediate aftermath of the cancelation, 12-year-old me was livid. As a Sri Lankan and an American, it was a little too easy for me to resent India because they didn’t get it. Gandhi, the lawyer and brilliant civil rights leader who outsmarted the British Empire, was obviously not actually stupid enough to go skinny-dipping in a piranha moat. I realize now that my response itself was full of a desperation to be accepted into white American culture through this little brown bespectacled proxy.
It’s very understandable why India would not be entertained by such a depiction. Hell, seeing people lose their minds over the removal of statues dedicated to people who fought to keep black people enslaved and are technically traitors to the United States of America, India’s reaction to Clone High almost seems tempered.
Looking back on the show, producer Bill Lawrence told Entertainment Weekly:
The only thing I would do with a time machine is have one of the three of us, when we were doing Gandhi, go, ‘Hey, no one here really knows who Gandhi is, he’s such an iconic and almost deity-level person to a certain part of the world, maybe that should be a different guy if we’re going to have him obsessed with dry-humping and getting loaded.’
Clone High’s Gandhi brings up an interesting question about cultural sensitivity and global icons. Gandhi’s impact is undeniably worldwide, but while he’s maybe one history lesson in an American classroom, he is revered as a saint in India. Upholding a complicated person as morally flawless is definitely dangerous, but then again, I’m not sure it’s America’s place to tear through that red tape. It’s not like American media had ever treated South Asian characters with much respect anyway.
It’s hard to not be stuck on Gandhi because he’s a brilliant and hilarious character—but also because technically (it’s a stretch I know) he was one of the first South Asian characters who (completely inadvertently) wasn’t defined by Indian stereotypes and often subverted them. And oddly enough, the blasphemous characterization of the Indian idol was the exact sacrilegious mix of South Asian and American I had been waiting for.
I still believe that India’s response was overblown, and said more about the importance of keeping up appearances of nationalism than it did about anything else. But I realize that, mostly, I still feel salty about the cancelation because, even 15 years later, American media is still plagued by the same lack of consistent and meaningful South Asian representation that made me latch onto something like Clone High in the first place.