In the last decade, the Western film industry has justly received a lot of criticism for its severe lack of racial diversity, both on-screen and behind the camera. Initiatives like diversity quotas in awards governing bodies and popular movements like #OscarsSoWhite have not only resonated in North America and Europe but have become popularised in other parts of the world.
South Asians are among the most vocal supporters of the campaign to diversify cinema, to the point where newspapers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh take annual delight in releasing op-eds decrying the overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood. This is certainly a good thing. Arts and culture have a tangible impact on how society sets its standards, and global solidarity is needed to transform industries that have a global market.
It is also painfully hypocritical given the utter lack of engagement with minority representation in South Asian cinema itself. A combination of colourism, anti-tribal sentiment, casteism, classism, and ethno-nationalism has led to a sterile homogeneity of who gets to play the hero for the masses. These factors combine with country-specific concerns, such as Islamophobia in India, to erase the diverse identities that inhabit the Subcontinent.
It is true that some of these cases have finally begun to be called out. The Bollywood film Khaali Peeli was on the receiving end of global backlash when its song “Beyonce Sharma Jayengi” (Beyonce will be embarrassed) stated that the Black American superstar will feel inferior compared to the fair skin of the leading actress. The offending lyrics eventually got changed but it is telling that the same industry that supported the campaign to include more Black nominees at the Oscars still greenlit the original verse.
Upcoming film Funny Boy has also received its fair share of detractors. The Deepa Mehta-helmed project is an adaptation of a queer, Tamil Sri Lankan coming-of-age story and promises to be a ground-breaking moment for LGBTQ+ representation in South Asian cinema. Yet, the casting process completely left out the intricacies of Sri Lankan ethnicity despite the story focusing on that very dynamic in the context of the island nation’s civil war. The lead roles went to Sinhalese actors, a slap in the face to the Tamil community both at home and in the diaspora.
But these are just two examples in a rotten system – and even they have not been thoroughly deconstructed. Khaali Peeli, for instance, may have changed the lyrics of one song, but that does not take away from the embedded narrative trope of the heroine’s status being reflected by her skin tone, nor from the horrifying fact that the illiterate hero is named Blackie. Meanwhile, Funny Boy has deflected some of its criticism by stating that it was more important for the project to cast openly queer actors, thus reflecting the equally valid issue of authentic queer representation – while calmly sidestepping the intersectional nature of identity and the simple truth that queer Tamil actors exist.
Indeed, South Asian cinema thrives on simplifying the nuances of lived experience and the sometimes-messy complexities of identity and culture. Caste is one of the most pervasive social boundaries that still exists across the Subcontinent. It lies at the heart of increasing violence, wealth and educational inequity, religious stigma, and constant social abuse. But if you are to believe the majority of mainstream films, the way to break out of this is to better yourself on an individual level instead of challenging the system.
Clearly, the fault lies with the oppressed, not the oppressor. Similar and subtle victim-blaming stereotypes exist for Muslims in Indian cinema, and Hindus in Bangladeshi and Pakistani cinema. Adding another dimension of bigotry, characters who are “othered” due to faith also tend to be highlighted through industry-wide colourism. In a practice that needs to be unconditionally condemned, lower caste or minority religion characters are always played by privileged mainstream superstars whose skin is artificially darkened.
An identical problem can be seen when it comes to casting ethnic minorities in the Subcontinent, such as the diverse indigenous communities of East India. Popular North Indian superstars will get the role, achieving plaudits and continued career success for using prosthetics and make-up to race-bend their roles. It would seem that the global condemnation of racist standards such as blackface – including from the diasporas based in North America and Europe – is not enough to discourage the practical equivalent in South Asia itself. It certainly does not help that skin-lightening creams are a lucrative sponsorship opportunity for many of these same actors.
That these issues exist is bad enough, but there is also an intentional downplaying of their severity. The individual success of Muslim actors in India is often used as a shield against the Islamophobia that is deeply rooted in the films which they star in. (As an exercise, look at the number of films in which a Khan has played a Muslim on-screen – who is not a dark-skinned villain or a helpless victim – and compare that to the number of times those same actors have played a benevolent, upper-class and upper-caste Hindu, with a suspiciously fair complexion. Bonus points if the first name is Raj.)
Meanwhile, the overwhelming monetary power of Bollywood and its cultural capital are somehow proof of the double myth that Hindus are celebrated in Bangladesh and Pakistan and are in fact in positions of great privilege which affords them the chance to erode “traditional” values. Moreover, the fetishization of indigenous culture and the “honour” bestowed by out-group actors playing their roles is supposed to negate the decades of abuse and suppression that these communities face in the real world.
Culture matters because it shapes the popular consciousness regarding how things are shown to be versus how they really are. Normalising toxic stereotypes and expectations regarding marginalised groups has a disproportionate impact in a part of the world where cinemas are cheap and accessible forms of entertainment (even in the midst of a pandemic).
The solution, as is the case with any remedy against the spread of racism, is to uplift the people being affected. Empowering examples do exist. Films like Sairat, made by and starring Dalit creatives, unflinchingly show the violence inflicted on intra-communal and intra-caste relationships. Tribal artist associations like the All-India Santali Film Association are getting more financing to showcase authentic stories told by the voices that matter.
Now, more than ever before, it is understood that privileged groups must not simply speak for othersbut actively pass the mic. While we are at it, let us also pass the studio and recording equipment.
Ibtisam Ahmed is a Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and IR, the University of Nottingham, UK. His work examines utopias and colonialism, arguing that true utopia can only be achieved by uplifting marginalised voices. He has written and publicly spoken about colonial legacies on queerness, race, classism, culture and language. He wants to highlight silences and work with marginalised groups to return their agency in academia and in activism.