A Rising Tide

Lifts all boats, they say. But can it also overwhelm and drown those little imaginary people on the boats, in a huge crushing wave of assumptions?

Optimistic, right? Well. When Slumdog Millionaire came out, everyone suddenly “got” what it is I’m trying to do with my life. Ah, you’re a director? Do you know M. Night Shyamalan? Do you shoot your movies in English? Won’t it be easier for you to get your movies made, now that Indians are in the spotlight? If I was making a movie about slum kids in India riding trains and falling in love, perhaps. But that’s not what I’m doing.

We brownies are indeed everywhere, but what does it really mean for our power in ascending the ranks? We’ve always had bastions like Sir Gandhi Kingsley (woe to you if you forget the SIR) and then Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, and Gurinder Chadha, who broke down many barriers without ignoring their Indian roots. On TV, we had the Outsourced gang, Danny Pudi on Community (my favorite show in years), and the untouchable Archie Punjabi and Mindy Kaling. I keep noticing Indian names in the credits, too, behind the scenes as editors, designers, and sometimes even as writers and directors. So yes, the tide seems to be rising. All sorts of mainstream shows are casting diverse actors and they’re not always cast as stereotypes, which warms the cockles of my heart.

In the meantime, though, let’s not just assume that because a few desi names are sprinkled throughout primetime and in select theaters, that it’ll be smooth sailing (how awesome are my boat metaphors today?). Take me, for instance, sitting in front of my computer right now, and striving to do absolutely anything rather than get back to the script I’m trying to revise. I originally wrote it with the lead woman named Sharmila Mukherjee. Then, I reconsidered. The script didn’t insist on an Indian being in that role, so why was I insisting? Okay. So Sharmila Mukherjee is now Shar Shaw. That name can go many ways and many ethnicities. So, I’m being realistic in that it’ll probably be easier to get mainstream attention if I don’t limit myself to an Indian in the lead role. Beyond that, I’m doing what I wish everyone did – keeping the role open to whoever’s the best, not just whoever’s a certain race.

I’ll be thinking about this every time I write something. I have enough brown actor friends who are always looking for meaty roles, but who are often not called in for auditions, because the role is written for “James Manchester” or what-have-you. It’s changing, yes! It’s changing for the better. It’ll take more time, though, and more of us in positions of power, to really make a sea change (I’m on FIRE). And in the meantime, I wonder if I’ll always be aware of choosing the race of my main characters. Is this guy Indian? Is he African-American? Is he white? Will it matter when we get to casting? Does it matter for the actual character and backstory? What about later on, when I’m trying to fundraise?

I remember a long time ago when I worked for Showbiz India, I had the opportunity to interview the two writers behind the Harold and Kumar franchise. They said they’d insisted on the two leads being Indian and Asian, and that they had tons of meetings where they were asked to change those names. Why did they have to be two minorities? Couldn’t that film have easily been just another stoner comedy with two white guys, and a few random details changed?

Sure. Easily. And by the same token, a million films that came out this year could have easily starred minorities in the lead roles, too. I’m constantly torn between pushing for my fellow Indians and wanted to keep my own head color-bias-free. It’s like I’m in OPEN WATER and can’t SEE THE SHORE, or at least a BUOY.

All right, the quality of metaphors are rapidly declining. Back to revising.

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