There have been predetermined characters that those with brown skin have been provided to portray to be able to be a part of the industry – sidekicks, IT-nerds, taxi drivers, terrorists. It’s not that there haven’t been any South Asians of note in Hollywood either. Over the years there are many faces that you would have spotted in films and TV series, like Sakina Jaffrey, Freida Pinto, Parminder Nagra, Janina Gavankar, Parvesh Cheena, and perhaps most popular, Kal Penn. Before the likes of Irfan Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Dev Patel caught the hearts of the West, it was people like them that created some semblance of a path for others of the diaspora to even consider a place for themselves in the Western world of film and TV.
South Asian stereotypes are aplenty. We’ve seen them playing out in The Simpson’s Apu, bumbling astrophysicist Raj in The Big Bang Theory, Ranjit in How I Met Your Mother, and many other bodega owners and call centre workers over the years. When people of South Asian descent were even cast in roles they were those of the lower rung, lacklustre secondary and tertiary characters that were more of supporting or passing roles to bump up the leads or provide comic relief.
Last year Penn tweeted an image of old scripts from his early years in the industry that perfectly encapsulates the kind of opportunities that were there in the industry, more so, the kind of representation, misrepresentation, in fact, that was in demand.
However, there is a shift that is taking place with a growing number of South Asians coming up and creating a space for themselves without having to give up their heritage or cater to stereotypes. We’ve witnessed people like Kumail Nanjiani finally breaking away from the roles of tech professionals in The Big Sick, which he wrote along with his wife Emily Gordon based on their own life. We’re in a moment in history where Mindy Kaling has become a household name with The Mindy Project and Ocean’s 8. Riz Ahmed stole the show in The Night Of, most recently his role in Venom, and of course, as Riz MC. Today we look at just some of the young South Asians that are challenging stereotypes and making waves, giving us and others around the world hope of better opportunities and representation on an international scale.
I. Hasan Minhaj
An Indian American Muslim, comedian Hasan Minhaj has never really held back when it comes to critical commentary, albeit in his own witty style. He joined The Daily Show as a correspondent under Jon Stewart and has gone on to host his own stand-up special on Netflix as well as a new show on the streaming platform called The Patriot Act. He was a featured speaker at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner where he vocally condemned the United States government and Donald Trump for inaction when it comes to a lack of action on gun control and its criticism of the free press.
Through all of his work Minhaj has been accepting and open about his South Asian heritage and roots, rarely whitewashing his content, criticisms or comedic routines. He embraces his multicultural identity, the reality of being an immigrant and encourages other Brown kids growing up in America, helping them navigate their own daily life and dual identities in White America.
II. Jameela Jamil
A British television presenter, radio host, model and now actress for American TV Series The Good Place, Jameela Jamil speaks openly about bullying, body shaming, eating disorders and racism – often violent in nature – she faced growing up in Britain.
Her new campaign ‘I Weigh’ calls out people for evaluating women based on their appearances rather than their achievements. Her unapologetic nature and openness, especially when it comes to her eating disorder have connected her to people across races, ages and genders. She openly criticised the Kardashian clan for their toxic perpetuation of misogyny and as “double agents for the patriarchy”. She has called for a ban on airbrushing in the fashion world, been outspoken about the unsolicited advice she got for being “too old” and “too ethnic” to make it in Hollywood, the industry’s racial representation or lack thereof, and the regular racial slurs she still receives.
III. Nik Dodani
He may be known popularly for his role in the Netflix original comedy Atypical, Nik Dodani took the world by storm with his stand-up routine titled Gay, Indian, and Disappointed. Drawing heavily on his Indian-American heritage, and his sexuality, Dodani’s routine titled Gay, Indian and Disappointed was born, and it’s as riotous as it is relatable to so many others who haven’t had the opportunity to explore their own freedom as he has.
Though Dodani’s stand-up sets are hilarious, there’s a note of poignancy underneath the veneer of self-confidence he portrays—one that’s essential if you’re going to get up on stage and get a bunch of strangers to laugh with you as opposed to laughing at you. Dodani, however, manages to skilfully navigate his way through the pitfalls and nuances of self-deprecation and manages to do so endearingly at that. He unabashedly addresses being gay and Indian in the US and we see this honesty come through in the roles he plays and his comedy routines.
IV. Vinny Chhibber
An Indian American actor, producer and content developer, Vinny Chhibber has seen first-hand the kind of whitewashing and stereotypical roles that exist in films as well as behind the camera, watching it play out in the kind of conversations that take place in casting meetings and production houses.
“I didn’t have really anyone but Apu from ‘The Simpsons’ here in the U.S. I still remember the first time I saw the film ‘American Desi’ with Purva Bedi, Rizwan Manji, and Kal Penn. It was awesome. That was really the first time I had seen someone that looked like me and talked like me on screen. Then a few years passed and the only thing I’d see with regards to representation were these kind of accent-ridden, disempowered Indian male characters that perpetuated a stereotype that I frankly did not identify with. The way Indian women were portrayed is a whole other story. I seriously didn’t know anyone that was Indian that was like that, which is initially why I started writing and then producing because were very few, if any, roles that I would audition for that I felt passionate about,” he said in an interview with The Teal Mango.
In another interview with The Guardian, he talks about turning down roles that perpetuate these warped notions of Brownness, refusing to promote these damaging roles that thousands of kids look to across the world. Chhibber has broken these moulds playing a witty, openly gay teacher in CBS’s Red Line and he also just wrapped working on Noah Baumbach’s latest feature.
V. Hari Kondabolu
An Indian-American of Telugu origin, Hari Kondabolu has been a major player when it comes to the conversation around South Asian representation in Hollywood with his documentary ‘The Problem with Apu’ that criticised the character of Apu in the long-running and ever-popular show The Simpsons as a problematic caricature of South Asians in the US that created a stereotype that has loomed like a dark cloud over Brown kids for years.
Kondabolu sparked a conversation and took on the mammoth TV series for its influence over the masses and the negative effect it has had on the psyche of people of all races and its influence on how they treat each other. An incredibly relevant political comedian, Kondabolu’s work has always touched upon the subjects of race, discrimination, identity and the queer identity. His Indianness has been intrinsic to his work and is something he has encouraged other immigrant children to embrace and question in a racially tense social climate.
VI. Naomi Scott
Daughter of a Uganda-born Gujarati Indian and Englishman, Naomi Scott is all set to play Princess Jasmine in the live-action remake of Aladdin, though it was a decision that was heavily criticised (Princess Jasmine is Middle Eastern, not Indian). Not just that, she made waves as Kimberly Hart, the Pink Ranger in the 2017 Power Rangers movie and will also be one of the lead ‘Angels’ in the reboot of Charlie’s Angels next year. In the past years, these were not roles you’d see someone of mixed Indian heritage (well, perhaps Aladdin since all Brown cultures are the seen as the same), so is there really a change taking place when it comes to racial representation in Hollywood?
If you liked this article we suggest you read: