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Opinion || Indians, Asians and ‘The Martian’

Chiwetel Ejiofor in ‘The Martian’

The advent of globalization has ensured that one Sabu, an exotic man of strength or a bumbling Indian buffoon essayed by a criminally talented Peter Sellers is not enough to outline one of the most diverse races in world culture.

Even if one excused the glaring alacrity and pathetic lack of research while writing Indian characters, generalizing them into a ‘type’ that would be ill-suited to find a home anywhere in the concerned nation, it had been downright insulting to see colonial conceptions rearing its ugly head through the artistic medium that, selectively enough, only chose to live up to its label ‘entertainment’.

Although it is necessary to criticize, cultural superiority in the world of popular entertainment is a truth in any and every part of the globe. One is liable to find the glaring lack of, say, Buddhists in the popular mediums such as film or TV in the largest democracy in the world which also happens to be the birthplace of Buddhism. Also noticeable is the sheer lack of Mongoloid eyes in the leading men and women of Bollywood, even as people from the North-Eastern states sharing such features have been living in India since time immemorial.

Irrfan Khan

Such perception of superiority may be ‘natural’ to a certain degree before time brings an element of normalcy to the flow to correct the state of affairs in such cases.

One such case being the ‘Indian presence’ in Hollywood, the process  was kick-started in the 21st century by television, rather than films, which ultimately rebranded the community to gift its worldwide audiences characters such as the long-running stint of Kunal Nayyar as Rajesh Koothrappali in the sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Not as benign as Apu from ‘The Simpsons’, Nayyar’s often-critiqued but hugely popular of Koothrappali is filled with racist jabs, digs at the nation which smell old and rank but is inversely justified by the fact that he is an exception to the typical notion of an Indian immigrant coming to change his luck in the land of opportunities – him being a pampered but brilliant son of a uber-rich doctor in the nation’s capital who doesn’t have the grassroot experience or the cultural upbringing required to inculcate any sense of (dramatic) patriotism.

Although stripped of any referential Indianness, Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) from ‘The Good Wife’ contributed in a similar fashion to the mainstream ‘brand India’, portraying the gritty, bisexual investigator of a law firm. The writing and Panjabi’s sincere portrayal made her character carve a niche in a brilliant pool of talent that is the (ironically enough) Ridley Scott-produced legal drama.

Archie Panjabi in ‘The Good Wife’

The intermittent Slumdog Millionaire, effectively sending the concept of India backwards by a good couple of decades, managed to participate in the ‘familiarization’ nonetheless thanks to its huge Oscar buzz. The rise of Irrfan Khan as a bankable mainstream star, grabbing eyeballs in a ‘Jurassic World’ or an upcoming ‘Inferno’ by Ron Howard, ushered in the age of familiarity the sizeable Indian-origin population of the US and worldwide Indian audiences had always hoped for.

That is why criticism is not only justified but necessary, that in the very year an A-list Bollywood actress is heading a primetime network show in the US (Priyanka Chopra as FBI Agent Alex Parrish in ‘Quantico), a character author-made for an Indian, Venkat Kapoor, a senior NASA engineer in Andy Weir’s book ‘The Martian’, was conveniently turned into the half-Hindu half-Baptist Vincent Kapoor, which was not played by an actor of Indian origin but by the British black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Priyanka Chopra in ‘Quantico’

Upon encountering criticism from MANAA, a media overseer group monitoring the featuring of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the media, for killing both Venkat Kapoor’s role and that of the Korean character Mindy Park who was ultimately played by Mackenzie Davis, a white, blonde actress. The mindset contributing to these actions can be summed up from the way director Ridley Scott defended his position, not for The Martian though, but for ‘whitewashing’ his previous big budget endeavour set in the middle east ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, transferring the blame on the studio executive and ‘public taste’ instead: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”  

The process of blame being a cycle in effect, it is futile to debate exactly who is to be castigated for this great snub for India as well as Korea and Asia as a whole. All we do need to remember, however, is to raise that voice loud and clear and express vehement displeasure at best. At a time when the Indian origin populace is finally getting their cultural     representation, any effort or act to turn back the clock or stall an opportunity must be condemned. Let us hope that the mere admission that it has not gone down well with a large number of people will be enough for entertainment moguls like Fox and Scott to reach, with renewed interest, for the people’s pulse.  []


First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue Two: November 2015

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