Hollywood racism is nothing new. Growing up, I rarely saw people who looked like me in movies or on TV. When I did catch a South Asian performer, they were usually being forced to reduce themself to some one-dimensional stereotype—like the owner of a 7-Eleven or some sort of “model-minority” math wiz. While things are getting better thanks to shows like The Mindy Project and The Night Of, this unfortunate legacy continues unabated.
There is one thing, however, that seems radically different about our current moment: Never before has there been a critical mass of South Asian performers powerful enough to speak out against Hollywood’s racism.
In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu took the issue of representation head on with his TruTV documentary The Problem with Apu. It interrogates the way the Simpsons character has magnified problematic stereotypes of South Asian people. This week, when the iconic cartoon aired a dismissive clap-back against Kondabolu’s critiques, the comedian remained resolute and found a great deal of support in the media for his view that there is an ugliness to Apu that needs to be reckoned with. This dialogue around South Asian representation could also be found in the pages of InStyle, where Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra revealed that she had lost a movie role because of her skin color.
The fact that these two stars are using their platforms to speak openly and critically about in racism in the entertainment industry signifies a palpable shift. Those who used to be the underdogs, the sidekicks, the stereotyped are speaking out and people are listening.
This newfound influence of South Asian performers is evident to Rajan Shah, co-founder of the Association of South Asians in Media and Entertainment. “I think anyone would be foolish to argue there has not been profound change in the space in the last 20 years,” he said to me. “South Asians are suddenly seen in television in a way they’ve never been seen before.”
According to South Asian music and film scholar Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, this path was paved by performers like Kal Penn, Parminder Nagra, Maulik Pancholi, and Aasif Mandvi, who often held small roles in the 90s and early aughts. Penn, who broke out in 2004 with Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, was offered a slew of offensive roles throughout his career. Last year, he posted a string of tweets sharing the ridiculous parts people wanted to cast him in, which included snake charmer, lab buddy, and man with “slight Hindi accent.”
“There’s been a slow trickle of events that has led to this perfect storm,” said Bhattacharjya.
Utkarsh Ambudkar, an Indian American actor who plays Malcolm on Showtime’s White Famous and Mindy’s brother Rishi on The Mindy Project, told me that the way that South Asian artists approach roles in the industry has changed. “When I started working professionally [in the early aughts], if there was a role that came out, everyone who was brown would go out for the role, whether it was right or not."
There is still a dearth of roles, he said, as casting directors continue to peddle stereotypes. He pointed out that Hollywood still hasn't presented two leading South Asian actors in a relationship on screen. But there are also more actors rewriting and recreating the characters as they gain clout in the industry. His character in the movie Pitch Perfect, for example, was originally meant for Donald Glover, a black artist. And for his roles in Barbershop: The Next Cut and White Famous, Ambudkar said he pitched his own vision to the directors.
“I rarely go in and book a role for an Indian character, because Hollywood’s idea of Indian men is very nerdy, emasculated, and safe,” Ambudkar said. “When a dude [like me] comes in with diamond studs and has clearly had sex… I’m constantly having to prove something different.”
There is very little data on the number of South Asians in Hollywood or the entertainment industry today, and even less from past decades. A UCLA report published earlier this year said Asians made up a measly 3.1 percent of all top film roles in 2016, despite making up around 6 percent of the US population.
The South Asian trajectory in US entertainment has lagged behind other minority groups. Aseem Chhabra, an entertainment writer, told me over the phone that The Jeffersons and the Cosby Show marked a kind of silver screen revolution for African Americans in the late 1970s and 80s. According to Chhabra, the reason South Asian are having their moment right now is due to our social and political climate. The #MeToo movement has amplified more women and minority voices, while the election of Donald Trump has ignited a new conversation about race and identity.
“The fact that Hasan Minhaj was invited to give the keynote address at the White House Correspondent dinner… South Asian actors, comedians are being recognized, their voice is carrying much more influence,” he said. “The time is absolutely perfectly right, because America is getting more and more sensitive on race.”
Ambudkar agreed. He said more industry executives are aware that audiences want diversity and representation and are trying to deliver. But that doesn’t always play out behind the scenes. “It’s either we do it completely alone or we’re part of a narrative—a white narrative, or in my case, many times, a black narrative,” he said. “We’re so used to being tokens.” He said it’s easier for established actors—like Kumail Nanjiani or Aziz Ansari—to resist that narrative and start conversations that move the industry forward, which is why they’re speaking up.
“There are people who don’t have that luxury—people gotta eat. They play the terrorists, or stereotyped characters, and do accents for the sake of doing accents,” he said. “I think people who have the luxury, the financial stability, the creativity stability, [have] a responsibility to recognize how hard we’ve worked to get to this far.”
One indicator of progress is the amount of money that the industry is investing in the work of South Asians, largely to attract new audiences—like the approximately four million Indians and 500,000 Pakistanis in the US. Amazon Prime has looked to Indian performers for new talent. Netflix launched Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, multiple seasons of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, and specials by comedians like Vir Das and Aparna Nancherla. Fox and Hulu broadcast The Mindy Project, while NBC bought the Mindy Kaling-produced show, Champions.
“Netflix has been strategic about finding pockets of underserved communities and viewers across all demographics,” said Shaheen Sayani, a former Netflix employee who had acquired South Asian titles for the company. “Supporting both South Asians who have had success (Hasan Minhaj) as well as other up and comers (Aparna Nancherla in The Standups) is helping pave the way for more diverse creators by drafting off of each other’s successes.”
Meanwhile, everyone I talked to agreed that there is still a long way to go. There still aren’t any South Asian-dominant sitcoms on TV—though Priyanka Chopra is developing one. And actors still struggle to get lead roles in mainstream films or work alongside another South Asian actor. And while the critiques by performers like Kondabolu have made waves, it still hasn’t been enough to takedown one of the most racist characters on mainstream television.
Shah said this is partly due to the South Asian entertainment community’s failure to organize collectively against the discrimination it experiences. Ambudkar agreed. “I think there’s a lot of support and a lot of love,” he said, between South Asians in entertainment. But there’s also a lot of different perspectives. “That’s a challenge. None of us have come together and tried to do something.”
For him, and many other South Asian performers, there is a sense of responsibility to the next generation to keep creating spaces where more South Asians can thrive.
“Anytime I’m looking at scripts, I’m looking at lines, I want to show young brown boys they don’t need to hide in whiteness or blackness,” he said. “Everything I do is with the mindset of moving my community forward.”
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article incorrectly stated that The Problem with Apu first aired on Netflix.