The box office and critical success of 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians was a landmark moment for Asian representation in American cinema, especially since a Hollywood film (without the stereotypical martial arts or nerd roles) with predominantly an Asian cast had not been made since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.
The thing to note is that the film was directed by Jon M Chu, an American of Taiwanese origin, and co-written by Malaysian-Chinese female writer Adele Lim. The story puts a female Chinese immigrant in America, played by Constance Wu, front and centre of a love story set in Singapore. It is backed by Warner Bros. This scenario is a rarity in Hollywood.
Hope is that the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My May Be will encourage film Studios in the US to invest in projects with diverse casts and writers with a lot more consistency than they have so far.
But when will South Asians get their Crazy Rich Asians in Hollywood? Not that we need a me-too version of the film, but I am talking about a film led by South Asians, focusing on their narrative. Perhaps soon.
There is no doubt that South Asian actors have made big inroads in the American entertainment industry, with a visible increase in number (relatively) of actors in the pop culture, but it is yet to make the path-breaking mainstream films that will change the course of South Asian representation in American cinema.
For the longest time, the caricaturish Indian character, Apu, from The Simpsons, perpetuated a problematic stereotype of South Asian people, something that loomed large over brown kids in the West. A thick accent being one of them. It has taken a long time for actors to break the IT nerd, doctor, cab driver, terrorist stereotype. And it’s been work in progress for a long time.
Just like the Black, Asian and Hispanic communities, South Asians too have had to deal with whitewashing of roles for eons. Up until the 90s, there were barely any Indian characters, and the few that were there were often either whitewashed or brownfaced. Fisher Stevens, a white man, was called out by Aziz Ansari a few years back for playing the oddly named Ben Jahrvi in 1988’s Short Circuit 2. What makes the South Asian’s struggle even worse is that they don’t even get cast in important roles, forget about their stories being told.
South Asians have come a long way since then, and a lot of credit goes to actors like Kal Penn, Asif Mandvi, Sakina Jaffrey, Parminder Nagra, Janina Gavankar, among many others, who fought through the 90s to break the Apu stereotype.
Kal and Asif have been at the forefront of the fight to get significant roles, doing bit parts on most occasions. Kal first rose to fame with the stoner comedy Harold and Kumar in 2004, and followed it up with two more films in the franchise, a silver lining in times when America was still waking up to the potential of SA actors. Interestingly, Kaal’s co-star was South Korean actor John Cho.
In Master of None’s ‘Indians on TV’ episode, Aziz, in fact, addressed the reality that despite being Indian American, actors like him are asked to put on a fake Indian accent during auditions to fit the West’s convoluted idea of how Indians speak and behave. He also took a dig at how the roles offered to them are still few in numbers and limited in scope.
It is only in the last 7-8 years that more South Asian actors have risen to the forefront of film and TV projects. The struggle for Indian and Pakistani actors (who are the majority South Asians in Hollywood) today is to reject the white narrative. And since most of it is white narrative, they have had to find a way of creating their own. And some of the top South Asian artistes in Hollywood right now are the ones who are creating their own content.
Take for instance Aziz Ansari, who produced, wrote and acted in his Netflix show, Master of None, which premiered in 2015.
In his show’s Indians on TV episode, Aziz, in fact, addressed the reality that despite being Indian American, actors like him are asked to put on a fake Indian accent during auditions to fit the West’s convoluted idea of how Indians speak and behave. He also took a dig at how the roles offered to them are still few in numbers and limited in scope, so all the Indian actors are mostly vying for the same parts. And then in 2016, Aziz, who broke into the scene, playing the dapper but goofy Tom Haverford for six years in Parks and Recreation, made history by becoming the first Indian American and Asian American actor to win a Golden Globe- for his writing of Master of None’s ‘Parents’ episode.
While Kunal Nayyar’s Rajesh Koothrappali, an astrophysicist, in Big Bang Theory is one of the most-known Indian acts on American television in the last decade, it did very little to break the ‘nerdy Indian guy with a thick accent’ narrative.
Mindy’s romantic comedy series The Mindy Project, which premiered in 2012, was a major breakthrough. And it found its viewers. It was the first time that a network comedy was being helmed by an Indian American woman. She created, wrote and starred in it.
Kumail, whose breakthrough role came in the IT comedy on HBO’s Silicon Valley, finally broke away from the roles of tech professionals in 2017’s The Big Sick, which he wrote, along with his wife Emily Gordon, based on their own life.
American television though has been a lot more inclusive and aware of the need for diversity in pop culture than the big screen. It has a lot to do with Indians working hard behind the scenes.
A very important moment in history would be Mindy Kaling’s show getting green-lit. Mindy’s romantic comedy series The Mindy Project, which premiered in 2012, was a major breakthrough. And it found its viewers. It was the first time that a network comedy was being helmed by an Indian American woman. She created, wrote and starred in it. Mindy’s journey has seen an upward trajectory since, as she also starred in Oceans 8 last year, rubbing shoulders with some of the top actors on screen.
Three years later, in 2015, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra made a smashing entry into American pop culture and broke all the stereotypes by playing a badass FBI agent on ABC television’s prime time show, Quantico. It was the first time an Indian actor was playing the lead in a network TV drama. Her character was a big breakthrough, as her accent, styling and characterisation was a far cry from the typical Indian characters on TV. Thereafter she played the villain in the big screen comic version of the quintessential American show of the 90s, Baywatch, alongside Dwayne Johnson.
The actor-producer is now producing and developing multiple projects in America, including a film on Ma Anand Sheela, a horror film with Blumhouse Productions, an interracial dance-based reality show, among others.
But there is still a long way to go. A UCLA report published earlier this year, found that 1.4 out of 10 lead actors in American films are people of colour. Of the 174 theatrical films released in 2016 that the report looked at, Asian actors and actresses made up only 3.1 percent of top film roles.
The report also found that films and television shows with casts attuned to America’s diversity tend to register the highest global box office figures and viewer ratings. And the industry now appears to have started embracing the idea that America’s increasingly diverse audiences demand film and television content populated with characters whose experiences they can relate to.
But there is still a dearth of roles, with casting agents peddling stereotypes. Last year, Priyanka admitted to have been rejected by a casting agent because of her ethnicity.
The first step towards perhaps an Always Be My May Be or Crazy Rich Asians therefore is to get Hollywood to present at least two leading South Asian actors in the lead and in a relationship on screen.
Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra are making an Indian wedding comedy with an all-South Asian cast. The film will be produced by Mindy and Priyanka’s Purple Pebble Pictures, with Priyanka starring in it too. And Universal Studios has secured the rights to the movie.
In the same vein, I would say that the time is just about ripe for more Indian content. Hollywood is waking up to diversity and inclusiveness on screen, and the main thing about succeeding in breaking stereotypes is to stop playing them, and the actors today, more than ever before, are an effort to do so.
British actor of Pakistani origin, Riz Ahmed made an impression with Night Of and recently starred as the main villain in superhero flick, Venom.
Bollywood actors like Irrfan Khan, Anupam Kher, Frieda Pinto and Dev Patel have consistently landed roles in Hollywood movies.
Hasan Minhaj, an Indian American Muslim, has caught America’s eye for his sharp political observations about world issues in Patriot Act. And Lilly Singh is about to become the first Asian (and Asian woman) to ever host a late night talk show on network television, which will air later this year.
Naomi Scott, whose mother is a Uganda-born Gujarati Indian and father is British, played Jasmine in the recently released Alladin, and is already on board for the Charlie’s Angels reboot.
With more and more South Asian actors being vocal about rejecting the white narrative and demanding inclusiveness in casting, and pushing to create, write and produce content with mainly South Asian actors, it is only a matter of time before Indians gets their own Crazy Rich Asians or Always Be My May Be.
The goal is tough – write South Asian lead characters, break stereotypes in the storytelling and yet be palatable to the movie-going audience in the US.
But even as I write this, two women are hard at work, creating an Indian wedding comedy in Hollywood. Mindy and Priyanka have joined hands to make a film with a complete South Asian cast. The film will be produced by Mindy and Priyanka’s Purple Pebble Pictures, alongside Dan Goor (co-creator and executive producer of Brooklyn Nine-Nine), with Priyanka starring in it too. To top it, Universal Studios has secured the rights to the movie, after a hotly contested bidding war with the likes of Sony, Netflix and Amazon Studios.
Deadline.com mentioned in an article that it has already dubbed the film as Crazy Rich Asians meets My Big Fat Greek Wedding. With Mindy involved in the writing, rest assured it will be an authentically Indian American narrative.
But the fact that American studios are eager to ride the South Asian wave following the success of Crazy Rich Asians is a big positive sign for the future of South Asian representation in Hollywood.
Mindy-Priyanka’s Indian comedy will be shot next year and will hit the screens perhaps in 2021. Here’s hoping that the 2020s see South Asian content finally getting its deserved place in Hollywood.