South Asian representation in film is having an unprecedented moment in the United States

Mindy Kaling and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on the sets of ‘Never Have I Ever’.
Photo: Videograb via YouTube

When Parvesh Cheena landed his first feature film role in “Barbershop” (2002), the United States was just beginning to heal from the 9/11 attacks, which devastated American morale and forever reshaped the country’s politics.

“For a little, gay musical-theater major in Chicago, that shifted everything,” said the Indian American actor. “We were no longer the good, White-adjacent, model-minority, Asian American kids that we had grown up being.”

Instead, he added, the only roles available for South Asian Americans were broad stereotypes like “Terrorist Number Four.” He’s performed an Indian accent for the camera countless times, which he jokes was “good enough for the White people” but not for Bollywood.

It took a decade and a half before Cheena began playing more multifaceted roles, such as a musical-theater nerd in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and a gay Indian American dad on the 2020 NBC show “Connecting.” Finally, he felt seen as an actual South Asian American, not some tired stereotype – though these coveted opportunities remain sparse.

“The authenticity and representation of stories today is so important,” Cheena said, adding that 20 years ago, he could have never imagined playing a character who is both Indian American and something else.

LOS ANGELES – MAR 7: Parvesh Cheena at the Premiere Of Disney Junior`s `Mira, Royal Detective` at the Disney Studios on March 7, 2020 in Burbank, CA . Photo: Editorial Stock – Dreamstime

South Asian representation in film is having an unprecedented moment in the United States, which includes a run of mainstream attention and historic Oscar wins – “The Elephant Whisperers” became the first Indian film to win best documentary short and “Naatu Naatu” in “RRR” became the first Indian winner of best original song. “Wedding Season” (2022) and “RRR” both landed in the U.S. Top 10 on Netflix, and the latter grossed more than $160 million worldwide. The Sundance Film Festival held the first dedicated South Asian lineup of film screenings and panels in January, 20 years after the festival debut of “Bend It Like Beckham.”

NTR Jr. and Ram Charan enact Naatu naatu from S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR, eligible for Best Original Song at the 95th Oscars. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

The floodgates began to open last year when the Riz Ahmed vehicle “The Long Goodbye” won the Oscar for best live-action short film and “Summer of Soul,” produced by Joseph Patel, took home best documentary feature.

Shilpa Davé, a media studies assistant professor at the University of Virginia, said the fact that South Asians led the movies contrasted with popular movies about Indians of yesteryear, such as the eight-Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), which was “a British film,” said Davé, who noted that White men largely helmed the film.

Suraj Sharma, left, as Ravi, and Pallavi Sharda as Asha in “Wedding Season.” MUST CREDIT: Ken Woroner/Netflix

Films from the subcontinent are also beginning to find success outside the Oscars’ “international” category – known as “best foreign language film” before 2020.

Ahmed, a British Pakistani actor who also co-wrote “The Long Goodbye,” has played a major role in the watershed moment South Asian creatives are having in the industry, previously breaking a barrier when he became the second person of South Asian descent – and the first Muslim – to be nominated for best actor in 2021 for his role in “Sound of Metal.”

While these stories are finally gaining mainstream recognition, they lingered in the shadows for decades. Even in the 1990s, when some of the first major South Asian diaspora films such as “Mississippi Masala” (1991) were being made, most, like “Chutney Popcorn” (1999) and “Bhaji on the Beach” (1993), were relegated to the art house.

“This [representation] is not all new,” said Davé, author of “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film.” “It’s just that social media has suddenly alerted people to the presence of these films.”

She pointed to how movies such as “Mississippi Masala,” about a relationship between a South Asian woman and a Black man, and “Chutney Popcorn,” which chronicled an Indian American lesbian woman’s decision to bear a child as a surrogate for her elder sister, explored narratives not often discussed in the public sphere. The former broke through partially thanks to Oscar winner Denzel Washington leading the movie.

Mira Nair, director of “Mississippi Masala,” calls her movie “a radical film because no one has thought, even in 30 years, about Black-Brown relationships in the way that we did.”

That isn’t to say that commercially successful South Asian diaspora movies are completely free from stereotypes. “Bend It Like Beckham,” “Mississippi Masala” and even the Netflix film “Wedding Season” all feature an extravagant wedding scene – which experts say is indicative of Western audiences’ fascination with South Asian wedding culture, specifically the concept of arranged marriage.

Oscar winners for Best Documentary The Elephant Whisperers, on stage, Kartiki, Guneet Monga, March 12, 2023. Photo: Twitter @GuneetM

“The theme of arranged marriage is one that is seen as constraining. . . . It’s a way to paint South Asians as different,” said Davé. “It’s usually seen as an object of curiosity. It’s depicted as anti-romantic love.”

Some contemporary films, such as Ravi Patel’s documentary “Meet the Patels” (2014) and Kumail Nanjiani’s Oscar-nominated romantic comedy “The Big Sick” (2017), examine the concept, which Davé said can help elevate the movies’ appeal to U.S. audiences.

“It’s a universal theme of, how do people come together in relationships, and how does dating operate?” she said. “More and more, we’re seeing the wedding narrative, the parents worried that their children aren’t finding anyone. And that’s universal, too.”

Unlike in past decades, though, an extravagant wedding scene doesn’t feel necessary to getting a green light. Geeta Malik’s romantic comedy “India Sweets and Spices” (2021), about class divisions among Indian Americans, is a perfect example.

“I wanted to see the mother [in the film] really come into her own and give her a life outside of the family . . . just sort of galvanize that character in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen in a lot of diasporic films,” the Indian American filmmaker said, adding she believes South Asian film has historically cast women in traditional roles, such as those of housewives and “aunties,” without exploring their characters fully.

In her film, two of the main characters are mothers, but they spent their college days shaving their heads to protest sexual assault and getting arrested, and decades later, one plans to leave her cheating husband, despite the stigma of separation and divorce in the Indian community.

Rish Shah, left, and Sophia Ali in “India Sweets and Spices.” MUST CREDIT: SK Global Entertainment photo by Eliza Morse

British Indian actor Rish Shah, who starred in “India Sweets and Spices” and is only three years on the Hollywood scene, has played overtly South Asian characters, such as Kamran in last year’s “Ms. Marvel” miniseries. But his most recent role, in Netflix’s “Do Revenge,” found him as a leather-jacketed, blue-haired, ethnically undefined character named Russ.

“It’s great that there are open-ethnicity castings,” he said. “I think it’s also allowed for me to, then and now, be in a position where I’m telling stories that aren’t necessarily about my ethnicity or race at the forefront of the character, which I think is equally as important.”

That has extended to East Asian filmmakers as well. Chloé Zhao became the first Asian woman to win a best directing Oscar in 2021 for “Nomadland,” a movie about the mostly White working class. And Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee won the same award in 2013 for “Life of Pi,” about a young Indian man lost at sea with a tiger.

“I think it’s myopic to expect storytellers to only tell their own stories,” said Tanya Selvaratnam, a Sri Lankan American filmmaker who co-convened the inaugural South Asian lodge at Sundance. “It’s important for us to be able to expand our imagination.”

Cheena, the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” actor, suggested that broadening the American imagination – specifically, through more nuanced and diverse storytelling – should be the goal of today’s South Asian creative output. He fondly remembers how his “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” character improvised with the show’s protagonist about Broadway – a moment he calls his “musical-theater dream.”

Iman Vellani stars as a teenage superhero in “Ms. Marvel.” MUST CREDIT: Marvel Studios

“We’re finally getting room in the industry, where [U.S. audiences recognize] there’s a big difference between chicken tikka masala and . . . idli-sambar, let alone the religion, let alone the color,” he said. “So I’m very grateful that we’re getting this nuance, this specificity.”

Cheena hopes that one day, he’ll get to play a character who is as three-dimensional and memorable as some of the most well-known protagonists in Western lore, such as James Bond, Sherlock Holmes or Wonder Woman.

“I don’t know what the equivalent of King Lear, of Willy Loman is yet to an Indian American,” Cheena joked. “We’re just getting to that diverse representation where you can be the dumb one, you can be the gay one.

“I really do believe that for a lot of us Brown folks and people of color, our ideal character hasn’t been written yet,” he added. “I think we’re getting closer, but there just isn’t one yet.”



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