How can we reimagine South Asians on the big screen?
June 26, 2019
I was a teenager in suburban Sydney, Australia, when I went to the cinema in my local shopping center and watched Mira Nair’s The Namesake. I’d read Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name, but the film simply overwhelmed me.
When I was growing up, my parents had never identified our immigrant experience as part of the Indian diaspora, but in The Namesake, I saw it mirrored in the generational saga of a Bengali family grappling with its roots while assimilating to America.
It was also the first time I’d seen a Hollywood screen filled only with South Asian actors, where the white girlfriends and best friends stuck out like sore thumbs, against a palette that was palpably desi. I identified with every small detail: from polite mannerisms and ways of dressing – the bindi on Tabu’s forehead, the straw chappals on her feet – to the sitar, the sweets and the colorful drapes that embellished the sets.
It was 2006, just a few years after the release of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, a film starring Korean-American and Indian-American actors in lead roles. No doubt, they were crass caricatures, but in post-9/11 America, the film subverted all the stereotypes attached to those who resembled Kal Penn and John Cho.
These films came and went without much ado. In hindsight, it seems as if they were paving the way for recent releases like The Big Sick, Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe, now hailed as triumphs for Asian-American representations in Hollywood.
In film and television, there’s an increasing visibility of South Asian actors: Mindy Kaling in The Office, The Mindy Project, and in her latest release, Late Night; Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation and his Netflix series, Master of None; Kumail Nanjiani in the Oscar-nominated comedy, The Big Sick.
No longer does the audience see South Asian actors playing old, white-washed stereotypes of cab drivers, convenience store workers, or geeky sidekicks. It has now become possible to reimagine how these actors, writers, and producers tell their own stories.
But these possibilities have come with a reckoning, too. In the 80s and 90s, the most recognizable South Asian on TV was an over-exaggerated Apu on The Simpsons. When the comedian Hari Kondabolu questioned why, for so long, South Asians were confined to a racist caricature with an offensive accent, the showrunners simply responded with: “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”
What does it mean to ‘deal’ with these ‘things’?
When Rita Sengupta moved from Washington, D.C. to New York to pursue acting full-time, she heard the same thing from people at auditions: “It’s a great time to be you in the industry right now.”
The 27-year-old actor and comedian auditioned for the supporting role of a funny best friend, a role that came with the physical description of “ethnically ambiguous.” At the audition, a white actor lamented to her: “It’s tough right now, but I’m sure you’re getting a lot of call-backs.”
“It was hilarious,” Sengupta said. “I thought to myself, ‘Don’t you realize we’re both auditioning for the same thing, but you’re the lead?’ It just felt very hypocritical.”
A study by the University of Southern California found that Asian-Americans represent 1 percent of all leading roles in Hollywood. In 1983, Ben Kingsley, whose father was Indian, won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Mahatma Gandhi. Since then, no other actor of Asian heritage has won the award.
This absence of diverse actors and experiences on American screens doesn’t just reflect the underrepresentation of people who make up 6 percent of the American population, it has a profound effect on the collective psyche of South Asians.
“That is what ethnic erasure accomplishes; it imagines worlds without the very existence of South Asian people,” writes Canadian writer Fiona Khan. Representing whiteness as the norm and framing white stories as universal renders everything else as abnormal.
Sengupta, a queer, South Asian woman, decided she wanted to be an actor at a time when #OscarsSoWhite was trending: “There have been decades of white people, specifically white men, telling their stories in a variety of different ways and characters,” she said. “We’re at a point where it’s really important for us to create our own stories, because no one is going to do that for us.”
Sengupta started performing stand-up and eventually took up acting classes. In these rooms, she found herself gravitating towards the few South Asians, people of color or LGBT actors.
“We could commiserate on these experiences, and I could tell they had their own hunger and desire to tell their own stories,” she said.
But whenever Sengupta found audition postings for people of color, she noticed the plotline always revolved around their racial identity: “If there was a gay person, it was about their hardship coming out to their parents. Or if there was an immigrant, it was about their coming to America story,” she said.
Those stories are important, said Sengupta, but they tend to perpetuate the same narrative.
“The Mindy Project was criticized for not being “woke enough” because the main character skirted around the issue of race and dated only white men, while The Big Sick was called out for portraying South Asian women as maniacal and hungry for an arranged marriage.”
“I grew up in Oklahoma, so my childhood, while unique in growing up in a South Asian household, was like any other white kid, where I went to the mall on the weekend,” she said.
Ria Tobaccowala, a filmmaker who grew up on the south side of Chicago in one of two Indian families on her block, feels similarly.
“As a creator, the challenge I face when writing a character is feeling like I need to lean into my culture,” she said.
“But I don’t think I’m that different to my white counterparts at work. So I’m trying not to over-idolize someone’s cultural experience.”
Heman Gray, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz, describes three types of representations that minority actors tend to be lumped into: The first is assimilist, where minority characters are colorblind, and race is never an issue in the storyline. In Kaling’s Kelly Kapoor or Ansari’s Tom Haverford, for example, any mention of race and culture is absent from their character’s trajectory. The second is pluralist, where minority characters are presented as successfully as white people, but dealing with their own racial, ethnic, and cultural issues on a superficial level. In The Big Sick, Nanjaini’s character is a comedian who doesn’t conform to his traditional Muslim upbringing, but worries about parents’ impression for having a white American girlfriend.
South Asian narratives tend to lie between the first and second types of representation, largely because the model minority myth has long ruled the community.
The third representation is multicultural, portraying a group of multiracial characters as they would be in similar, real-life social situations. Tobaccowala believes that when South Asian representation in film and television starts to become more multicultural, a part of every individual will be more reflected in their work.
Last year, she made a film about a Dominican coming out of prison and converting to Islam.
“You could say, ‘Why is this Indian girl writing about a prisoner in a Spanish-speaking family?’,” she said. “But I know a decent amount of Spanish, and I grew up in an immigrant family.”
“We all find little parts of our own experience in other immigrant stories,” Tobaccowala said.
“While actors and filmmakers like Kaling and Nanjaini have succeeded against all odds, and on their own terms, the structures that created those odds in the first place are still very much in effect.”
And with more diverse stories, comes the opportunity to play more diverse characters. This is important, if for nothing else, then just “to have more parts to play,” said 34-year-old actor Vandit Bhatt.
Bhatt sees this in his role on the new NBC show, New Amsterdam, where he plays Anupam Kher’s son, a young musician with an addiction problem who’s trying to mend a broken relationship with his father.
“Sometimes families are fractured in South Asian communities, and that needs to be shown on mainstream American television,” he said.
Bhatt, who has also appeared on shows like The Michael J. Fox Show and the Priyanka Chopra-starrer Quantico, is grateful that in the fifteen years he’s been acting, he hasn’t been asked to play a terrorist or a cab driver
“I don’t mind playing a cab driver, as long as we’re telling a three-dimensional story about him,” he said.
By weaving our outer and inner lives with racial identity, South Asian narratives can start to reflect the everyday South Asian experience and become more normalized.
Will every story be accessible to a wide audience? It depends, Sengupta says. “I don’t think you need to explain things to people,” she said. “If you’re in my audience, you’ll get it and you’ll like it.”
“I learned from my startup background that it’s bad to market a product to everyone,” said Sengupta.
The recent success of Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe reflects both the desire and an appetite of an audience built-in for these narratives.
In part, this surge is because of the space that streaming services and platforms like Netflix and YouTube are providing. When Fatima Asghar’s Brown Girls, a 2017 webseries about a queer Pakistani-American writer, debuted on Elle.com, it immediately caught the attention of HBO.
The effort to expand globally, beyond a traditional White audience, isn’t just an effort in championing diverse stories. It comes with profits. Netflix has not only signed up people in over 130 new countries, in January, it had over a 150 million subscribers with record international growth.
But with every example of Asian-American success in film and television, comes the burden of representation.
The Mindy Project was criticized for not being “woke enough” because the main character skirted around the issue of race and dated only white men, while The Big Sick was called out for portraying South Asian women as maniacal and hungry for an arranged marriage.
On her part, Kaling responded in a 2013 Entertainment Weekly interview with, “I have to become the United Nations of shows?”
A.O. Scott, chief film critic for The New York Times, writes, “It’s always too easy to conflate individual achievement with systemic change.” While actors and filmmakers like Kaling and Nanjaini have succeeded against all odds, and on their own terms, the structures that created those odds in the first place are still very much in effect. Those who benefit from the current system continue to uphold those norms and biases, and those who succeed despite it often can’t afford to take risks.
Sengupta thinks there’s a certain pressure on individuals to uplift a whole culture: “That’s a lot to ask of one person,” she said.
Besides, she says, a lot of change also happens behind the camera — with casting agents, directors who fill their roster with diverse writers (or lack thereof), and distributors after a project is complete.
“I’d never been a writing room where every other person was also of South Asian descent,” said Tobaccowala.
This changed, however, when she joined Kalakars, a non-profit initiative in New York that aims to nurture South Asian talent in film and television.
“It was a nice reaffirmation that we weren’t writing to a particular stereotype, and we all came from different experiences,” she said.
For South Asians to succeed both in front of and behind the camera, the know-how to follow a path needs to exist from the very beginning, instead of having a backup plan, which is common: “You do a double major in college, or enter the arts after getting a degree in something else,” said Bhatt.
“But I studied acting in high school and got a BFA. There was no backup plan.”
In the future, Bhatt says, we have to encourage South Asian kids who want to go into the arts “to follow their own passions, whatever they may be.”
For now, South Asians are seeing themselves reflected on film and television in a myriad of tiny, bit-sized ways, but in time, we will fill the screen whole.