Nik Dodani, Sujata Day, Kiran Deol on the evolving space for Indian-origin creatives in western cinema

Where once, being brown brought with it stereotypes and typecasting, now a new generation of creatives of Indian origin, including Sujata Day, Kiran Deol, Nik Dodani and Avantika Vandanapu, is effecting change in western cinema — with diaspora narratives and creating their own support structures

“The producers actually asked if I’m ‘100% Indian’,” recalls Sujata Day about an unfortunate audition experience for a major sitcom in 2018. The actor-filmmaker, along with four other Indian-American actors, was vying for the role of the fiancée of one of the show’s lead characters. “In response to the producers’ query as to whether or not I was ‘100% Indian’, I said, ‘My parents are from Kolkata and I speak fluent Bengali, so yes.’ But the fact that I had to defend my Indianness was very strange. I know I didn’t book the role because I clearly didn’t look ‘Indian enough’ to them.”

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Day, during a video call with The Hindu Weekend, shakes her head as she talks about the then-and-now of South Asian representation in western film spaces. But she is not alone in her views of a culturally-stagnant cinema industry in the West. The industry boxed its South Asian actors and filmmakers into what they deemed acceptable. But in the past five years, creatives have continually expressed their dissent, announcing on social media, as well as during roundtables, protests and even stand-up routines that they are tired of the ‘identikit Indian’ roles.

More South Asian-origin actors, such as Dev Patel, Janina Gavankar, Rahul Kohli, Geraldine Viswanathan, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Kuhoo Verma, and Anya Chalotra, are shunning reductive roles in favour of fully-rounded characters that had long been reserved for only a few actors of colour.

For example, in Hulu’s Plan B, Kuhoo Verma’s portrayal as a sexually-curious teen who has to come to terms with the reproductive rights in her conservative state of South Dakota as she tries to purchase Plan B (morning-after pill) resonated with many women of colour. Prior to this, Indian girls were the one-dimensional personification of purity culture across western cinema. More recently, Dev Patel’s casting as the historically assumed-white Sir Gawain in The Green Knight turned the tables on the scope of open ethnicities.

Still Of Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) And Lupe (Natalie Moroles) In Hulu Comedy-Drama ‘Plan B’ (2021)

Still of Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) and Lupe (Natalie Moroles) in Hulu comedy-drama ‘Plan B’ (2021)
 
| Photo Credit: Hulu

The identity struggle is never easily reconciled. Take that episode of The Mindy Project where Mindy (Mindy Kaling) goes on a date with the ‘ideal Indian man’ but he, unimpressed by her lack of knowledge about India, says he “could never date a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside”. This lights a flare to the tough dichotomy the diaspora tackles every day while forging their identity; embracing their surrounding culture and holding onto tradition.

Some address this by not taking on the ‘Indian-origin’ tag. Verma identifies as a woman of colour, as her family moved to the United States from South India but, without dismissing her heritage entirely, prefers to be known as ‘just an actor’ in the industry.

Nik Dodani Attends As Universal Pictures Presents The Premiere Of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ At The Walt Disney Concert Hall On Wednesday, September 22, 2021. Dodani Is Wearing A Look By Indian Designer Kunal Rawal.

Nik Dodani attends as Universal Pictures presents the premiere of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday, September 22, 2021. Dodani is wearing a look by Indian designer Kunal Rawal.
 
| Photo Credit: Ben Shmikler / ABImages

Meanwhile, actors and filmmakers including Nik Dodani, Day and Kiran Deol are also taking matters into their own hands — by either creating their own support structures for South Asian actors or producing their own films and taking them to international stages such as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Festivals matter

Festivals have become a cornerstone for Indian filmmakers and actors. It is not just a networking opportunity but a platform for visibility. In mid-September, actor-filmmaker Deol’s short I Would Never premiered at TIFF as well as Dodani’s Dear Evan Hansen.

“Massive festivals like TIFF really help to legitimise a filmmaker and their support really helps to bring up international talent,” says Deol, who has received support from Sundance and TIFF in the past to get her short film made. “I hope that these festivals continue to be as inclusive. Big film festivals like Cannes and TIFF have been some of the places where I’ve discovered some of my favourite filmmakers, so it’s no small thing.”

Read More | Kiran Deol on ‘I Would Never’, a film for the #MeToo ages

A Still From The 2020 Short Film ‘I Would Never’ Starring And Directed By Kiran Deol

A still from the 2020 short film ‘I Would Never’ starring and directed by Kiran Deol
 
| Photo Credit: Kiran Deol

Meanwhile, Dodani, a deep admirer of Day’s “hustle” through the contentious industry, shares the festival circuit this year certainly feels different as well. “We are seeing more incredible filmmakers of colour; it’s a reflection of the power of our communities to get our stuff made and insert them into the conversation. The indie world has always been exciting because that’s where the films that push the boundaries exist, so we’re finally starting to see the financing start to follow the Black and Brown creators.”

Creating a community

The changes, however, are slow and not simultaneous; some generations of creatives will reap the rewards of those who have toiled for years in the murky industry. Things now could be looking up for casting as well as attention to details in South Asian roles and script. Avantika Vandanapu plays a young Gujarati high school student who is an ace coder and who, through a happenstance crush on a boy at school, discovers and nurtures talent for DJing.

Avantika Vandanapu As Rhea, In Disney Channel Movie ‘Spin’

Avantika Vandanapu as Rhea, in Disney Channel movie ‘Spin’
 
| Photo Credit: Kharen Hill / Disney

Vandanapu’s Telugu roots have seen her appear in 2015’s Brahmotsavam alongside Mahesh Babu and 2016’s Premam with Naga Chaitanya and Shruti Haasan.

The 16-year-old says her auditioning process for Spin was a far cry from the horror stories minority actors have experienced, and she owes it all to their resistance and perseverance over the years. “From the moment I saw the script, I was so glad Disney had not generalised the Indian ethnicity, but had narrowed on the specificities of the Gujarati culture,” she says. “Seeing an Indian girl written as someone who is comfortable in her identity rather than having an identity crisis was exciting.”

Of course, Vandanapu understands identity conflicts are a prevalent matter, but she hopes it is not the only narrative for people of the Indian diaspora.

Speaking on what catalysed change across the industry changing, he says, “This industry is white-dominated, and the Black and Latinx communities in Hollywood have organised and supported each other in ways that are so inspiring; we hope to replicate that. The conversation around inclusion and equity has been changing for a few years now, but has accelerated immensely after last summer. The Black Lives Movement is directly responsible for that; every community of colour in the US is benefiting from the work the activists have done over the years. The real test, if the industry starts walking the walk, is in the next five to ten years.”

Still Of Evan (Ben Platt) And Jared (Nik Dodani) In Universal Pictures’ ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ (2021)

Still of Evan (Ben Platt) and Jared (Nik Dodani) in Universal Pictures’ ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ (2021)
 
| Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

On their own terms

One of the happy results of this movement is The Salon, co-founded in 2019 by Atypical and Escape Room actor Dodani, along with Bash Naran and Vinny Chhibber. “It started out as an informal way for us to connect,” says the 27-year-old. “Vinny, Bash and I were chatting and we found we all knew different folks in the South Asian film industry but not everyone knew everyone. For the first year, our goal was to just get people in the same room, to have the most basic form of community. Our vision is to help the next generation of South Asian talent.”

Read More | Nik Dodani on his cultural identity, and working on ‘Escape Room’ and ‘Atypical’

Day is not blind to the industry’s flaws either, one of the most prominent being its unwillingness to change. “Green-lighters in the film community were, and still are, slow, but now we are giving ourselves the green light,” she says.

So, the filmmaker pooled her money and directed, wrote and starred in comedy-drama Definition Please, which has been a favourite on the festival circuit in the US, having won ‘Outstanding Directorial Debut for a Feature Film’ at the South Asian Film Festival in America, and Best Narrative Feature at CAAMFest.

A Production Still Of ‘Definition Please’ With Sujata Day And Ritesh Rajan

Told through the Indian female gaze, the indie film follows an Indian-origin woman who is living in the past glory of her spelling bee champion days while trying to move forward and dealing with her grief-stricken family. The film, which also stars Ritesh Rajan, succinctly explores themes of female friendships, familial pressures, mental health, and toxic masculinity in the Indian community.

Read More | Sujata Day on pushing through Hollywood bureaucracy and making ‘Definition Please’

Day was inspired by her long-time Awkward Black Girl and Insecure collaborator Issa Rae, explaining, “Very few people know of her first two web series; everyone thinks Awkward Black Girl was her first. But she never gave up and never let the system stop her from creating. And neither should we!”

Nik Dodani, Sujata Day, Kiran Deol On The Evolving Space For Indian-Origin Creatives In Western Cinema

The OTT problem

Day is currently in chats with streamers and distributors worldwide for Definition Please, and she confides with a laugh, “They feel that if they have Bollywood movies on their platform, they don’t need diaspora films. They think we are being represented already, which is wild to me because as much as I love the stars, that’s not our lives in the diaspora. We have very specific and interesting stories to tell.

Nik Dodani, Sujata Day, Kiran Deol On The Evolving Space For Indian-Origin Creatives In Western Cinema

During Asian-American Heritage Month (May) in the US, she noticed that streaming companies were putting out lists of Asian content on special servers and many were subtitled and foreign, but not a lot were content out of the US (or the UK). “They are handling Asian inclusion in a global sense that doesn’t make sense to folks in the diaspora. We should be able to hold them accountable and we bring these grievances up in meetings and they’re hearing us. Hopefully, they make some changes to shift their thinking.”

Money talks

Having travelled to many film festivals when it came out in 2017, Day’s eight-minute short, Cowboy and Indian (a drama-thriller about a Bengali bride who collapses in the street and is rescued by a cowboy) is now being made into a television series — made possible by a South Asian film executive reaching out to her. “It absolutely matters who’s also buying stories for production. We need representation there too!” she says.

Agreeing with her, actor-filmmaker Deol elaborates, “I feel like funding for filmmakers is always the 21-million-dollar question. This is true for folks of any colour trying to get their projects made.”

Actor-Filmmaker-Comedian Kiran Deol

A growing space that is increasingly getting more funding is book-to-screen adaptations. Diksha Basu’s Destination Wedding, which was shortlisted for the Wodehouse Prize, is currently being adapted to a series. Meanwhile, Rakesh Satyal and Dodani have long been working on an adaptation of Satyal’s 2009 bestseller Blue Boy, which tells the story of a young gay Indian-American boy who is bullied through his school years. Dodani, who found the book to be a “full body experience” when he first read it, turns screenwriter for the film. “We’re trying to find the right home and financing for it. We want to make sure it’s done right and gets the right budget and talent,” he says.

So, while many creatives are more than happy to bid goodbye to ‘brownface’, casting appropriation and tokenism — as Deol sees it, this farewell is rather fresh — there is still a lot to look forward to and to demand in terms of inclusion.

“The changes showcase for me both how far we have come, and how far we have to go,” Deol sums up, adding, “I’d love to get to a place in representation where we have the room to tell extremely specific stories that don’t have to speak for the entire diaspora because there is enough variety in the shows and movies that get airtime, that there is a multiplicity of voices and points of view to choose from.”

It will be a frustrating wait for this level of change and some unfortunate barriers are inevitable. But as more creatives of colour vocalise their needs and rights, and also hold studios and casting agencies accountable, things are bound to change.

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