Now more than ever before, the West is seeing the rise of Indians and people of Indian heritage in Hollywood, and it’s glorious.
Lately, the likes of Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Dev Patel, Lilly Singh, Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari have been taking the entertainment industry by storm. Back in 2012, Mindy Kaling paved the way for Indians on television, being the first Indian-American to create, produce and star in a television sitcom in ‘The Mindy Project.’ In 2016 Lilly Singh was ranked one the highest paid YouTube Stars by Forbes, and now has over 11 million subscribers #unicornisland.
This year Priyanka Chopra won her second consecutive People’s Choice Award for ‘Quantico’, Deepika Padukone is making her Hollywood debut in the movie ‘XXX: Return of Xander Cage’ also starring Vin Diesel, and Dev Patel’s movie ‘Lion’ has earned six Oscar nominations.
Having said this, seeing Indians on screen in the West hasn’t always been the case.
Growing up as young woman of Indian descent who was born and bred in the West, I would seldom see people who looked like me or who shared the same culture as me make their way onto our screens. On the rare occasion I would see an Indian on television or in a film, they were often depicted as the grossly stereotypical ‘token’ Indian with thick accents: the socially-inept nerd, telemarketer or Kwik-E-Mart operator, you get the picture.
Diversity by definition, is the inclusion of individuals representing more than one race, religion, colour, sexual orientation and so on. Diversity or lack thereof is a prevalent issue in contemporary western society as a whole. But when it comes to film and television in the West, it seems that the predominant narrative of diversity tends to be filtered through a monochromatic lens, in that, the focus is on white or black – quite literally. Arguably, this black or white focus makes sense given the long and dark history of systematic oppression of African Americans in the US, and the fact that film and television is largely Americanised in the West through Hollywood. However very often, the diversity discussion overlooks the vast majority of other racial and ethnic minorities including Asians, Indians, Latino and indigenous minorities, to name a few.
Back in 2016 the Oscars were boycotted due to the underrepresentation and lack of diversity of people of colour. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith were among the many who took part in the boycott. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite reverberated across social media taking aim at the heavily white and male composition of the Academy and it’s all white nominations for the major award categories for two years running.
This year, the Oscars have definitely made an improvement for diversity, with a record of six black acting nominations, which is amazing news, but how much did diversity really improve for all racial and ethnic minorities? Keep in mind that this year was the first time an Indian was nominated for acting in 13 years.
The thing is, it is really important that when we talk about diversity we remember it extends beyond black or white.
Emphasis on the ‘really important’. Here’s why:
Not only is film and television mass-consumed, its influence is also extremely powerful; but the power of the entertainment industry goes well beyond the celebrity-crazed culture of Hollywood. Film and television has the power to tell stories, smash stereotypes, dismantle norms and reverse gender roles. It has the power to alter traditional standards of beauty. It can inspire tolerance, acceptance, understanding, appreciation and compassion by allowing us to see the world from different perspectives. We can journey in someone else’s shoes. We can laugh, cry and feel for characters who are different from us. It even has power to change the way we view ourselves
More importantly, film and television transcends the screen and can change the perceptions, attitudes and treatment of people and groups in society. It can change culture. So, more diversity in film and television is important for creating a more understanding, compassionate, tolerant and accepting society for everyone. We ALL seek to gain with more diversity.
Seeing people who look like you, and seeing your culture and community represented makes such a difference in so many ways:
On a personal level (and said in all humility), there have been many times throughout my adult life where I have been asked what my heritage is, and when I would respond with Australian of Indian descent, people are often surprised because they think I don’t look Indian, they think Indians aren’t usually ‘attractive’, or they would say you’re hot with the caveat ‘for an Indian’.
This sort of response is not uncommon for many people like me. The thing is – I believe I look Indian, to Indians I definitely look Indian, and in my opinion Indian women are really some of the most beautiful women in the world, but that’s not how Indians are portrayed in the West.
A Hollywood with diversity would dismantle the Eurocentric standards of beauty present in the West, and would mean that all young people can see someone who looks like them being celebrated and be able to feel like they too can feel beautiful for who they are and what they look like. Diversity has the power to change how individuals view themselves and how they are perceived by others.
Now, you may be thinking – why is there a lack of diversity? Is it because there is not enough Indian/minority actors and actresses?
Aziz Ansari, an Indian-American actor and star of ‘Master of None’ penned an essay for the New York Times on the Hollywood diversity problem. He admitted that yes, it can be difficult to find Indian actors, but he explained that when roles are available, they’re handed to other ethnicities. This whitewashing of Hollywood is a controversial issue and it happens all the time.
Whoopi Goldberg, actress and talk show host on The View pointed out that the lack of diversity in Hollywood stems from the fact that there have not been a lot of movies made with diversity because people don’t believe the public want to see movies with black people in them. She says that until people start making movies, where you see more diversity in them, nothing will change.
Sunny Hostin, another co-host on The View pointed out that ‘WE’ the public, have the purchasing power to spend money watching movies with diversity, to make a statement that there is a market for more diverse movies and to ensure that Hollywood continues to make movies with more diversity. Hostin also points out that there is power in a boycott in the fight for diversity.All in all, diversity has a long way to go, but it has come a long way. And not just for Indians.
Something that really touched me was an interview with Gina Rodriguez and the cast of Jane the Virgin (which I highly recommend) – a brilliant, heart-felt, comedy, television show that celebrates strong Latina women.
In the interview, a fan of the show explained that one of the reasons she loved the show was because nobody had captured her culture before or had done it justice, and that growing up she had no role models on television that looked like her or had her skin colour, until Jane the Virgin came along. Gina Rodriguez was brought to tears by these remarks.
Essentially, we need diversity because when we have it, it really makes a difference for everyone. And when we don’t have it, we as consumers have the power through our purchases or even a boycott to push for more diversity. But we mustn’t forget that diversity isn’t just about black or white it’s also about everyone in between.