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Pop Stuff: Brown Actors in White America

Although Priyanka Chopra cuts an elegant figure on the Oscar stage and in Hollywood, the diversity debate has very little discussion outside black or white

Soleil Nathwani May 12, 2016
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Priyanka Chopra as Alex Parrish in ABC's 'Quantico.' Photo:  David Eckelman/Flickr

Priyanka Chopra as Alex Parrish in ABC’s ‘Quantico.’ Photo: David Eckelman/Flickr

The biggest media event in the world was marked once more with a hashtag: #OscarsSoWhite. In the year that Leonardo DiCaprio, Hollywood’s golden boy, won his much deserved and long overdue golden statuette, in a sign of other things notably overdue, Spike Lee was absent despite his honorary Oscar win in 2015. The director was one amongst several boycotts due to the all-White ballot or as he put it, “40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All”. Simmering fury has given way to diversity initiatives, an Oscar Committee shake up and a push towards the fantasy that is colour blind casting. But where are all the brown people?

Priyanka Chopra cut an elegant figure on the Oscar stage and I applaud her for busting down network doors Quantico style so others can follow. Still the diversity debate is a checker board, one with very little discussion outside black or white. The black creative community has waged a long war to being heard. So David Oyelowo, ironically overlooked by the Oscar Committee for his incredible turn as Martin Luther King in Selma, is now in high demand and the Ghostbusters reboot welcomes Leslie Jones as a black female poltergeist annihilator. But while rumors that Idris Elba might be the first black James Bond gather fans, a similar switching of the color palette from white to brown remains a pipe dream.

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If no one is banging the dhol to make sure that Indians are well represented on screen, we won’t move the needle much from Peter Sellers donning brownface in The Party. Tropes that confine us continue to exist. We’ve progressed from Apu in The Simpsons only by IQ points. Kunal Nayyar’s role in The Big Bang Theory as a Caltech astrophysicist and Dev Patel’s role as mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity, perpetuate stereotypes, albeit smarter ones. Aziz Ansari has broken a boundary in his show Master of None by addressing issues that face Indian actors. But how much is the collective psyche really changing if he and Mindy Kaling have had to write their own parts and create their own shows in a system that hesitates to cast an Indian as actor first, ethnic minority second. Pee Cee has challenged that very paradigm, making it clear that whether playing FBI agent or Baywatch villainess she will not prop up Indian clichés. And as Deepika Padukone follows suit, playing the lead in Vin Diesel’s next outing, the Bollywood-Hollywood tryst is escalating. However, like Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor before them, the current Bollywood crop flirt with the US and settle down at home. And for its part, Hollywood is tapping into the star power of Bollywood, not trying to replace the all supreme White Leading Man.

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An endemic problem solution needs an endemic solution. When there are more Indian actors clamoring for roles in America, a bigger uproar that of close to three million Indians in the US less than a hundred have recognition on screen and enough actual power to stage a boycott, things might shift. Just last year famed black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor was cast as Indian rocket scientist Vincent Kapoor in The Martian and the fall out was a mere whimper. What we need is big noise, to tell the suits in charge that every shade of brown is simply not the same Flava.


The author is a former hedge fund manager-turned-film producer and magazine writer. Twitter: @whats_cutting

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