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Diversity has been a bit of a buzzword in media for the last few years, and the announcement of the 2017 Academy invitees has brought the debate firmly back into the spotlight. Following a slew of whitewashing East Asian roles and the subsequent backlash from audiences, it seems pretty clear that audiences are impatient for the representation they deserve.
We think the best way to promote representation on screen is to support diverse artists so the industry sees that diverse faces and stories do make money. With that in mind, we’ve noticed a spike in South Asian entertainers making it in the West. Here’s a handy list of South Asian talent that has been killing it this year! Some of their work I love, some I don’t, but all of them deserve credit for their success, so check out some of their work!
The British-Pakistani actor-rapper-activist smashed his way into the mainstream last year with his role in HBO’s hit series The Night Of, and for his part as Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Those of you who have been fans of his for a long time, though, will remember his mixtape Post 9/11 Blues, which was actually banned in the UK for its controversial lyrics. A powerful voice for the South Asian diaspora community, Ahmed has never been afraid of controversy. His first film Shifty, Ill Manors The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Road to Guantanamo, and Film4’s iconic terrorist-comedy Four Lions have all earned him critical praise as well as ruffling a few feathers!
Ahmed has worked his way up through small roles in huge films like Jason Bourne and Nightcrawler, and has more recently starred in British detective film City of Tiny Lights alongside Billie Piper, and had a small but vital role in Netflix’s The OA.
As well as his on-screen endeavors, Riz MC forms a third of the rap group Swet Shop Boys alongside Indian-American rapper Heems and producer Redinho. The trio released their first album Cashmere last year, and have just finished their Sufi La tour to promote their new EP.
Ahmed has also been very active in raising money for Syrian refugees, and very vocal about the importance of representation in media, delivering a brilliant speech in Parliament, earning himself a place on TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2017 list.
Dev Patel is probably one of the first names you think of when you think of South Asian faces in Hollywood, right? After his catapult to fame in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Patel has continued to work with some of the biggest names in the business.
This year, his performance in Lion earned him an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and SAG nomination for best Supporting Actor and a BAFTA win.
In between those two projects, Patel has added his unique charm to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise, as well as more profound roles in Chappie and The Man Who Knew Infinity.
India’s own film industry, Bollywood, is the biggest in the world, and it’s full of talent. Luckily for Hollywood, some of those stars have decided to make the jump into Western cinema! Priyanka Chopra is one such actor.
A megastar in Bollywood, she decided to branch out and has been starring as Alex Parrish in secret service drama Quantico. You may also recognize her from the recent Baywatch remake in which she stole the show as the conniving Victoria Leeds.
If you’re a fan of her work, but a little apprehensive about venturing into the world of Bollywood then Bajirao Mastani and Gunday are good starting points! We can look forward to seeing more of Chopra in Hollywood, since she’s set to star in A Kid Like Jake (2018) with Claire Danes and Octavia Spencer, and Isn’t It Romantic (2019) alongside the likes of Rebel Wilson.
Following in her Bajirao Mastani co-star’s footsteps, Deepika Padukone is also Bollywood royalty who has made the jump to Hollywood. You’ll remember her from the latest installment of Vin Diesel’s xXx franchise, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, where she played the gun-toting femme-fatale with a heart of gold, Serena.
Both of these kick-ass Indian ladies have done so much to dispel cultural stereotypes in both the Indian and American film industries — and we can’t wait to see what that do next! This hasn’t been officially confirmed, but Diesel has certainly made some noises about bringing Padukone on board for a future Fast & Furious film!
Crossing oceans and genres, let’s take a look at our next star: Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj. You might know Minhaj from his work as a correspondent on The Daily Show alongside Trevor Noah, or perhaps from his now-infamous speech at this year’s Press Correspondent’s Dinner, where he effortlessly and hilariously dragged Donald Trump without breaking a sweat.
His most recent project, the Netflix comedy special Homecoming King has been his most resounding success — and that’s saying something! Comedy specials have become a staple of Netflix, but Minhaj’s show is like none you’ve ever seen before. It’s rib-splittingly hilarious, but the humor is woven into a narrative stretching from his early youth to the present day. Minhaj lets us into his childhood as an Indian immigrant in America, endeavoring to connect with his emotionally closed father, throughout his experiences in high school, and as a struggling comedian, and his fraught love-life, right up until his current success.
With unparalleled showmanship, Minhaj leads his audience through the ups and downs of his clever narrative. He jokingly claims to be “the cure for racism,” and though he’s just being flippant, there’s a note of truth to it. By speaking so openly about his experiences, in such an entertaining and raw way, there’s a shred of hope that viewers can learn something about how to overcome prejudice.
We look forward to seeing his future work in projects such as The Spy Who Dumped Me alongside Mila Kunis and Gillian Anderson, not to mention his undoubtedly bright future in stand-up!
Iconic The Office actress Mindy Kaling has had huge success with her comedy show The Mindy Project, as well as by lending her distinctive voice to huge films such as Inside Out and Wreck-It Ralph. She’s got some totally different and exciting projects coming up for us to look forward to!
Kaling is playing Mrs. Who in Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of sci-fi classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, as well as being one of the Ocho in the all-female Ocean’s installment Oceans Ocho, alongside Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne Hathaway, and Rihanna!
Aziz Ansari is another comedian who started out as part of an ensemble show, and went on to create his own! Since the end of Parks and Recreation, Ansari has been hard at work on his own Netflix show Master of None. The second season came out this Summer, so if you need something to binge, this is the show for you!
The show follows Dev, a struggling actor in New York, through his tumultuous professional life, love life, family life, and friendships. Though the show overall is a little hit and miss, some episodes do an admirable job of presenting the problems faced by second generation immigrants. The dangerous thing about this show, however, is the lack of diverse South Asian voices within it. Though his friendship group is diverse, and there are other Indian supporting characters, Dev’s approach to balancing cultures is never challenged by anyone other than his parents. This presents the idea that second-generation South Asian immigrants are a homogenous group who all subscribe to Ansari’s philosophy – something which puts me off the show a little.
The Silicon Valley comedian has gone a step further and made a semi-autobiographical film about his own love life, The Big Sick. The film documents the mostly-true story of how he and his wife Emily met, and all the challenges they faced in the early days of their relationship, from serious illness to begrudging parents.
Though I can’t begrudge Nanjiani his success, nor his intentions in making this film, I do begrudge him the message this film sends. Though, to him, it is simply his personal story, by putting it out there on the big screen, it becomes representative of the South Asian community simply by dint of there not being very many South Asians on the big screen. The biggest issue I have with this film is that Nanjiani’s family and their Pakistani values are not given the respect they should be. Though kids rebelling against their parents’ wishes in matters of love isn’t exactly a new theme, when the relationship at hand is inter-racial, cultural sensitivity is vital. Unfortunately, The Big Sick grants Nanjiani himself more time in conversation with Emily’s parents than with his own. Whilst Emily’s parents get screen-time discussing how much they love their daughter and just want the best for her, Nanjiani’s parents are reduced to stereotypes whose attempts at arranging a marriage for him are always the butt of the joke.
Rather than representing immigrant children as caught between two cultures, both of which they value, Nanjiani presents himself as pulling away entirely from his family’s culture and towards Western culture. There is no middle ground at all, and no opportunity granted to showcase the positive value of Pakistani traditions. I hope that Nanjiani continues to be successful in future, but I also hope he considers the responsibility that he has by dint of the position he is in, to represent South Asian culture on a world stage.
It’s important not to forget talent behind the camera too! Iconic British-Indian writer-director Gurinder Chadha has been a staple of Brit-Asian culture since her seminal 2002 film Bend it Like Beckham. She’s also lent her talents to Indian Austen adaptation Bride and Prejudice, as well as teen chick-flick Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. This year saw the release of her most recent project Viceroy’s House — an epic period drama depicting the India/Pakistan partition, and the role the British Viceroy had to play in it.
Chadha has always done a brilliant job at reflecting the specifically British-Asian experience in her work, so her connection to both cultures makes her the ideal filmmaker to tackle so contentious an issue. All three sides are allowed to expound upon their complex standpoints, and the film comes together in a beautiful Downton Abbey meets Bollywood merging of cultures.
Mira Nair is another Indian director who has been unafraid to tackle controversial cultural topics. From her Academy Award-nominated debut feature film Salaam Bombay!, to her terrorist drama the Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair’s distinctive style has always brought fraught topics to the forefront of conversation.
Her most recent project, Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, tells the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi’s journey out of poverty. This is a perfect example of a successful director of color using her influence to give a platform to other diverse stories, not just ones from her own culture.
That’s the end of the list for now, but other South Asian focused media coming out soon include Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, telling the true story of Queen Victoria’s unlikely friendship with Indian clerk Abdul Karim. Also in production is an upcoming BBC adaptation of Satnam Sanghera’s seminal memoir The Boy with the Top Knot, which documents his experience as a young boy growing up in Wolverhampton.
Now go forth and enjoy some pukka programs!