This year, films and TV shows are moving beyond stereotype and casting men of South Asian heritage as romantic leads. But is this a false dawn or not, wonders Kaleem Aftab.
For the first time in my life, I’m enjoying watching television shows and movies with characters of South Asian origin in them. Growing up in London during the 90s, my experience of seeing people who looked like me on screen was usually limited. In films such as Love + Hate, East is East, Ae Fond Kiss and Bend It Like Beckham, the characters often felt like they were tied to an agenda, with the focus of their storylines being on what made them ‘Asian’. This jarred with a boy like me, who was more concerned about what made me ‘British’. I wondered where the other stories from the diaspora were, and whether the movies would ever truly reflect my life.
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But things, belatedly, are changing. This summer has seen a wave of films and TV shows in which men of South Asian heritage have taken leading roles – and their heritage has not been their whole storyline. In cinemas at the moment we have Yesterday, Richard Curtis’s high-concept rom-com about a singer-songwriter who is the only person who can remember the Beatles; next month sees the release of feelgood hit-in-the-making Blinded by the Light, a coming of age story about a British-Asian Springsteen fan; while today in the US, a TV spin-off of Four Weddings and a Funeral created by Mindy Kaling launches on Hulu. What unites them? They all feature dashingly handsome Asian leads, whose ethnicity is nevertheless a secondary or cursory aspect of their identity.
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This is all part of what has been a quiet revolution in South Asian representation in Hollywood. One of the chief architects of the change has been Kaling, born Vera Mindy Chokalingam in Massachusetts to Indian parents. Kaling’s a writer, producer, director and actor who recently wrote and starred in Sundance hit, Late Night – and before that produced and starred in her own sitcom The Mindy Project. She is adept at plumbing her own life – as well as the attitudes she encounters both as a woman and as an American South Asian – to create astute comedic moments.
The Mindy effect
Her influential effect really began, aged 24, when she was employed as the only woman out of five writers working on the US version of The Office. In the end, she wrote more episodes than anyone else, directing some of them and earning an executive producer credit, while developing her own character of Kelly Kapoor to transcend stereotype; in fact, the character’s trajectory is symbolic of how the treatment of South Asian-heritage characters has been changing.
In the past, there have been a number of false dawns for people with brown skin on screen
To begin with, Kelly is a marginal supporting character, defined by how her manager sees her. We first meet Kelly in an episode called Diversity Day. She is treated like a curio; her boss starts mimicking Indian stereotypes, just as Peter Sellers did in The Party, and she slaps him. She’s angry. Similarly, many of us of South Asian heritage have been angry the whole of our lives because the caricaturing of us has been so blatant. However, as the series went on, her character became more complex and one of the show’s real stars.
Are we really seeing a new dawn for characters with brown skin on screen, though? In the past, after all, there have been a number of false ones. Take the 90s and early 2000s when several aforementioned prominent films came out of Britain featuring British-Asian characters. As much as that was seen as a fundamentally good thing, though, they all followed a wearingly similar pattern, essentially adapting the Romeo and Juliet template: a young Asian falls in love with his or her white counterpart; family and custom get in the way; love conquers all.
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Of itself, there is nothing wrong with this tale. The dilemmas, debates and confrontations between cultures are an interesting theme to explore. And narratively, it provides satisfaction: first the tension, then the happy ending, promoting racial harmony, when the couple inevitably ends up together despite all the obstacles. But, in such films, there must always be a villain of the piece who opposes multicultural relationships – inevitably, an Asian parent. Combined, these films promoted a subtly noxious message of assimilation which is all about the destruction of difference over the acceptance of it.
More simply, though, my anxieties about films centring on South Asian-heritage characters has often been that they ‘other’ or exoticise us, as if we stand apart from the pop-cultural mainstream. Kaling perfectly captured this pigeonholing in an episode of The Office in which Kelly dresses up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz on Halloween, but her boss suggests that a better costume would be a soccer strip so she could look like the Asian heroine from Bend It Like Beckham.
An easygoing approach to ethnicity
The ten-episode Four Weddings and a Funeral is far from a perfect show, but its approach to ethnicity is refreshing – set in West London in the present day, it feels more representative of the area I grew up in than any mainstream film or TV show I have seen before. Though it is only very loosely associated with Richard Curtis’s original film, what you might call the Hugh Grant role here goes to Nikesh Patel’s Kash. Kash is a banker who dreams of being an actor, but he always does what he believes he ought to do. Early on, he jilts his American fiancé (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and moves in with his dad, Haroon (Harish Patel); in classic rom-com style he is, of course, in love with his fiancé’s best friend, Maya (Nathalie Emmanuel).
They looked at actors of all different backgrounds for Yesterday. I’m glad that they believed in me as that means it’s a cultural moment – Himesh Patel
His heritage does feature as an element of his character, but is dealt with in an easygoing manner. Hounslow resident Haroon wants his son to have an arranged marriage, and as soon as his son is single again, encourages him to go on chaperoned dates with a girl of his own faith. However he does this by cajoling and encouragement, rather than demands. Kash is reluctant until he comes across a picture of Fatima (Rakhee Thakrar) – and even though he is in love with Maya, he starts dating her, not out of obligation but because he wants to. In general, it feels revolutionary that Kash is allowed to explore options, and is not judged for it by his dad, his contemporaries, or the film-makers. The only hang-ups are Kash’s own.
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The visibility of South Asian men in non-stereotypical lead roles on screen is set to continue into the autumn with Armando Iannucci’s take on David Copperfield, with Dev Patel in the lead role. But let’s also hope that this is not some skin-deep diversity push.
Yesterday’s Himesh Patel is certainly hopeful that the landscape has changed fundamentally. Boyle cast him because he saw him in a short film, Two Dosas by Sarmad Masud, and liked his performance. “They looked at actors of all different backgrounds and ethnicity,” says Patel. “I’m glad that they believed in me as that means it’s a cultural moment. It shifts the conversation as it means that you can have an actor of a minority background as the lead in a romantic comedy, and not make it have anything to do with ethnicity. I think that’s really cool.”
Finally people have understood what the real meaning of diversity is – Gurinder Chada
And it’s not a one-off either for him, he says. “The jobs that I have done in the last year have had nothing to do with my ethnicity,” says Patel. “I’ve been in two period pieces, which is another door opening now. You also have Dev in David Copperfield and Riz Ahmed was recently in The Sisters Brothers, which was set in the 1800s. It’s something you wouldn’t have imagined a few years ago.”
But what about female stars?
Sadly, change doesn’t seem to be coming as quickly for female stars of South Asian origin, who aside from Kaling, are still struggling to land leading roles without an ethnic bent in films made in the West. Indian actress Priyanka Chopra was the first South Asian to headline an American network drama series, FBI thriller Quantico, in 2015. However since then, good roles have not been forthcoming for her outside Bollywood. Equally, Freida Pinto has not had the opportunities of her male Slumdog co-star Dev Patel. And judging by their subsequent career, you would think Keira Knightley had been the star of Bend it Like Beckham, not Parminder Nagra.
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However, more generally, the director of that film, who is also the film-maker behind Blinded by the Light, is optimistic that we have reached a tipping point when it comes to the representation of those with brown skin – led of course, by creators like her and Kaling. “Finally people have understood what the real meaning of diversity is,” states Gurinder Chadha. “It’s not about giving someone of colour a job as a production assistant: it’s about letting that person have the freedom to create and express from their cultural perspective without trying to get them to change that too much to fit your cultural perspective.”
The history of cinema is littered with disappointments, of course. The 90s was going to be the golden age for black American films but ended up with frustrated black directors and black character stereotypes being reinforced. That decade also saw a number of British Asian films but left that diaspora disillusioned. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to agree with Chadha: something, certainly, is stirring.
Four Weddings and a Funeral is available now on Hulu in the US. Blinded by the Light is released on 9 August in the UK and Ireland, 14 August in the US and India and 22 August in Germany
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