TNKR Media is pleased to welcome Toronto-based host and producer Niru Kumar to the team. Niru is a former lawyer and CBC broadcaster whose podcast “The Desi Project” (working title) will debut in early 2019.
Once, a very long time ago, I had a dream. I was going to be an actor.
And this wasn’t just an idle childhood fantasy, even though my breakout lead role was the Velveteen Rabbit in my elementary school’s annual play. No, I had bigger plans. I was going to get a role on my favourite childhood program of all time, The Facts of Life.
The unfortunate reality of most great aspirations is that they fade over time, strangled by the crushing weight of pragmatism. I did what all good kids do, I listened to my parents and became a professional – a lawyer – while only occasionally flirting with my first true love.
Through the lens of a grownup, I look back wistfully and sometimes find myself playing the “what if” game and wonder about my chances of success if had I pursued my dream, talent notwithstanding.
In other words, the real question is: Could I, as a South Asian woman, have had a fair shot at success as an actor? Does the entertainment world create spaces for people like me?
In North America, there are really only a handful of prominent South Asian actors. My A-list of names would include Aziz Ansari, Priyanka Chopra, Kunal Nayyar, Archie Panjabi and, yes, Apu from The Simpsons. It’s not a long list. You may have come up with a few more, but let’s be honest: there are very few ‘brown’ acting successes in Hollywood or its Canadian equivalent.
The roles for which these actors get cast tells a story of its own: Aziz Ansari became famous for his portrayal on Parks and Recreation of ‘Tom Haverford’. In Quantico, one of our biggest Bollywood stars played ‘Alex Parrish’. In The Good Wife, Archie Panjabi became ‘Kalinda Sharma’. All three of these characters had the “right accent”, the “right look” and fit comfortably into mainstream society, so any connection to their cultural identity was essentially white-washed. Yes, acting is all about assuming other identities, but why the total cover up?!
Then, there’s the opposite extreme. Kunal Nayyar plays the role of Raj Ramayan Koothrappali, the brilliant astrophysicist, complete with an Indian accent and mannerisms. Although enjoyably done, the character did play up Indian stereotypes. And when we think of Indian stereotypes, who can help but think of the quintessential Kwik-e-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on the long running hit show The Simpsons?
Apu is (or maybe by now, was) a delightful character – intelligent and talented, courteous and virtuous – so why the controversy? It stems from an ongoing perpetuation of the unidimensional cultural way in which South Asians are portrayed; and, to add insult to injury, the role wasn’t even given to an Indian to play! Hank Azaria has been the voice of Apu and, while I don’t hold him responsible for the stereotyping, it speaks volumes about where casting directors look for talent.
Even when it would be completely logical to cast South Asians, it seems for too long that an extra effort was made to avoid casting brown. Think of all the TV doctors, tech bros and sci-fi scientists on screen – and how few are brown – when in real life, South Asians are actually overrepresented in these industries and professions!
So, in the US, it seems that my acting choices would’ve generally forced me to either eliminate all traces to my heritage (except the colour of my skin), or take on roles specifically meant to mock my culture for the entertainment of others. Casting a ‘non-ethno specific, general role’ with a character who has an overtly Indian name and allowing for a dual South Asian-North American identity has been a huge challenge, and continues to be for brown actors.
But I live in Canada, a country that long ago forged a progressive path by embracing multiculturalism, in the city of Toronto, arguably the most multicultural city in the world. You would be right to think that this is a utopia, a land of opportunity where there would be a plethora of acting roles written for women like me. But can you name a single program by a private or public broadcaster that features a South Asian actor prominently?
No matter how you slice it or dice it, the pickings are slim. There are still too few roles for South Asian actors; we are vastly and disproportionately underrepresented in the entertainment industry. And when we do get roles, we typically either have to hide our ethnicity altogether, or exaggerate it for comic value. All or nothing.
But I am not that. I am both Canadian and Indian. I am a mom, lawyer, writer, journalist, host…and I don’t have an accent! One day, when I do wistfully look back and wonder what could have been, I’d love to see roles that aren’t written for “types,” but rather reflect the colourful, beautiful nuances in South Asian diaspora communities.
Maybe then, knowing the door is open just a bit wider for my kids, I won’t dread playing the “what if” game so much.
Niru Kumar is a contributor to TNKR Media, a Toronto-based producer and host of a forthcoming podcast on North America’s South Asian diaspora.