'Whitewashing' in Hollywood is real; but Priyanka Chopra, Aziz Ansari et al are breaking free
Dev: You seen The Social Network? The Indian guy is a white guy. They use brown face makeup.
Ravi: No, I’ve read he’s 1/16th Indian.
Dev: We’re all 1/16th something. I’m probably 1/16th black. You think they’re going to let me play Blade?
This innocuously insightful exchange from Indians on TV, an episode of Aziz Ansari’s witty Netflix show Master of None hit the nail right smack in the middle of its head. Ansari and fellow person of colour (POC) co-creator and writer Alan Yang wrote the script for this episode (including the scene where Dev recounts to Ravi his childhood disillusionment on finding out the Indian character of Ben Jhaveri in the Short Circuit 1 & 2 movies was in fact played by white American actor Fisher Stevens) based on personal experiences. From Caucasian actors playing non-white characters to actors of colour being typecast, Dev’s, and by default Ansari’s, struggles are real. But they’re certainly not new.
Hollywood has been “whitewashing” since the entertainment industry originated. High profile white actors playing POC roles include Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s Japanese neighbour Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the cringeworthy The Conqueror; and Alec Guinness, who had the most ethnically diverse acting portfolio (he played an Arab prince in Lawrence of Arabia, a Japanese businessman in A Majority of One, and an Indian professor in A Passage to India!). In the past decade itself, we’ve seen this happen multiple times: Max Minghella playing the real Mr Divya Narendra in The Social Network; Jake Gyllenhaal as and in The Prince of Persia; Angelina Jolie as Fox in Wanted (a character that is African-American in the comics and was apparently based on Halle Berry); and Emma Stone who portrayed Allison Ng (a character of Chinese, Native Hawaiian, and Swedish descent) in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha.
Whitewashing in comics and manga recreations is even more unforgiving because of their wide (and fanatical) fan base, as was obvious by the recent furore over the stills from the upcoming remake of the classic Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell surfacing online, revealing Scarlett Johansson in the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi. Upset fans, who suggested that Japanese Oscar-nominated Pacific Rim star Rinko Kikuchi could have been cast instead, are right. Clearly, there’s no dearth of good actors to authentically portray POC characters on film.
On television too, there has been constant debate over the lack of diversity on popular shows, from FRIENDS, Seinfeld, and Girls to Hank Azaria’s possibly racist depiction of Apu on The Simpsons. Or the litany of shows through the 90s with one token black actor. Or the token Indian guy in a show about geeks (looking at you The Big Bang Theory). Remember the hilarious satirical Token Black from South Park?
This is why Aziz Ansari and his self-awareness in scripting an episode such as Indians on TV, is important. It doesn’t get lost in its commentary on Hollywood’s diversity and race problems. It doesn’t just identify a problem; it actively works against it. This episode practices what it’s preaching. While Dev and Ravi talk about the “token minority” rule where there can’t be more than one Indian in a television show without it suddenly becoming labeled as an “Indian show”, they actively break that rule themselves. Because Master of None is anything but an “Indian show”. It’s a perceptive multigenerational, multi-racial, and multi-gendered look at a social-media-and-millennial infused age.
This is why Mindy Kaling, the second-generation American Indian actress, who doesn’t conform to “conventional” beauty standards, is important. From writing episodes of The Office and starring as Kelly Kapoor on the show to creating and starring on her own show The Mindy Project to writing uproariously funny and insightful New York Times bestsellers to delivering equally uproariously funny and encouraging Harvard Law School commencement speeches, Kaling is the epitome of the new “diversifying” face of Hollywood. No honestly, her work is so good and funny that her race and ethnicity automatically take a backseat.
And this is also why, despite Quantico’s messy dialogue, endless twists, and Gossip-Girl-set-within-the-FBI style love triangles, Priyanka Chopra leading the show as a kickass non-traditionally Indian character, her on the precipice of worldwide stardom and on the cover of TIME for its 2016’s 100 Most Influential People list, is so freaking important.
The normalising is happening slowly, but surely, across films, television, and even theater (we all know about the black Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and JK Rowling’s awesome response to it). For every Tilda Swinton being cast as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange (who in the comics is a Tibetan man, and who was cast as a Celtic character in the movie to appease Chinese audiences), there will hopefully be more Ansari, Kaling, Rhimes, Chopra and other POC to satisfy us. There’s already a proposal to give some traditionally white roles to Asian actors in exchange of the whitewashing (cast Steven Yeun as James Bond, Ansari as Spider Man, and Chopra as Jack Sparrow!). Now all we need is the combined Asian population to sign a petition, and we’re good to go!