Asian representation in Hollywood: Better now than later

Written By: Pallabi Dey Purkayastha WION Web Team
New Delhi Updated: Jul 18, 2021, 07:55 PM(IST)

Asians in cinema: Riz Ahmed, Alan Kim and Jackie Chan Photograph:( Instagram )

Story highlights

Although some of us are puffed with pride for making Asian artists—and rightly so—a part of the global fabric that forms the very essence of cinema, a question that needs to be pondered upon: If #OscarsSoWhite triggered more nominations, and subsequent wins, for the black community, then has the unfortunate #stopasianhate played a catalyst in putting Asians on a pedestal?

On hoardings, Instagram, sister’s WhatsApp Status, an acquaintance’s Facebook Story… a sensuous—but within the acceptable limits of Indian sensibilities—Deepika Padukone rollicking to ‘Koi Yahan Aha Naache Naache’ in the basement of some abandoned establishment, caught my attention. The fact that it is an ad for the global brand Levi’s—then in troubled waters in India, financially—dawned on me about 30 seconds later. Curious, I hurriedly searched for the company’s IG handle to see more of her; the new global brand ambassador. While scrolling through pictures of the lady in jeans of all shapes and sizes—boyfriend, skinny and what not—I chanced upon Levi’s rather untimely—to me, at the time—‘Stop Asian Hate’ campaign. “Why would they promote this now? What’s the context,” I thought to myself. The date was February 26, I vividly remember. Well, Asians were about to be left gob-smacked even further with what was to follow—good, bad and the ugly.

In a parallel universe, a little film called ‘Minari’ was making big noise—142 nominations across award shows, big and small—and people couldn’t stop gushing over Alan Kim’s ‘I'm not pretty, I'm good looking’ shenanigan or the fact that he sobbed uncontrollably after having won the Best Young Actor at Critic’s Choice Awards. The boy was all of eight and the last time white folks mollycoddled a (white) kid on the internet was when Oscar-winning ‘Room’ presented a raw, fine actor, Jacob Tremblay. But this is a Japanese-American boy with epicanthic folds. So, what happened? Turns out, a lot!

‘Minari’ was also the doorway to a ‘sweet, sweet’ revelation in grandma Youn Yuh-jung. The actress’s late-blooming appeal of the 'Wild West' is evident when the mere sight of Glenn Close leaves her trembling with joy, in the middle of a red-carpet interview, “Oh! It’s Glenn Close!” she screams with excitement. At 73, Hollywood must really look like a spaceship showing up, unannounced, and Glenn Close, a goddess of an alien.

Childlike glee is Jackie Chan’s forte, and the famous alter ego that gets him instant recognition. Somehow ‘the funny man’ image stuck, not his body of work. On Google, there are numerous listicles on his ‘Ten Most Brutal Injuries’ or ‘Five Most Brutal Injuries’. And yet, it is only in 2016, Chan’s boundless contribution to cinema and his world of kicks-and-punches was finally recognized by Oscars Honorary Award committee. The award was bestowed upon him for ‘charming audiences with his dazzling athleticism, inventive stunt work and boundless charisma’. "I'd like to say a heartfelt thank you to the Oscars for giving me this award of encouragement and recognizing my achievements while I'm still 'young'. I'm absolutely honoured to be the first Chinese in history to receive this award," Chan had said in response. If he was being sarcastic, they had it coming. Jackie Chan began his career in 1962, he is  67 now. You do the math.

Just two days ago, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ matriarch—Mama Young, played by Michelle Yeoh—landed a mainstream role in James Cameron’s ‘Avatar 2’. No, she did not bag this role like a Hollywood royalty would—she is 58, not that it’s relevant here—and had self-admittedly made desperate pleas to Cameron to cast her. “I said to James, 'I don't (know) why I'm here, I'm here because you're a genius and I am your biggest fan. I mean, I would be your coffee lady. I would just come here and sit down and watch you (sic).’” Understandable; after all, why would James Cameron hire a ‘Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur’ awardee for his money-devouring ‘Avatar’ franchise. Of course, she had to beg!

Straight out of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ muzzle is the jaw-droppingly beautiful Gemma Chan. If good looks—slender, glossy, expensive—sells in Hollywood, Gemma should have been ‘sold out’ by now. Yes, for those of you frowning, Chan has appeared in ‘a brief role’ in one of the Marvel projects and has flashed her pretty smile a few times at Cannes and this fashion show and that red carpet event. But God forbid an Asian actor gets a full-length, meaty, central role in whitewashed Hollywood…


My theory on selective representation of desi distinction in cinema stems from these ideas: it is an offshoot of prejudices against immigrants, a brainchild of the propagators of ‘our land, our rent, our jobs’ dogma. “Oh, yes, I do know him. That dude… ‘Sound Of Metal’, right?” was someone’s social media reaction to a post on Riz Ahmed. It is appalling that Ahmed, a longtime British-Pakistani actor-rapper, a Primetime Emmy Award winner, and this, in 2021—Oscars nomination for ‘Best Actor In A Leading Role’— is his only claim to fame? A line from Ahmed’s own song—‘Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)' from ‘The Hamilton Mixtape’—lingers on my mind as I try to put a fitting conclusion to his segment:

 “It's a hard line when you're an import/ The credit is only borrowed/ Look how far I come.”  Isn’t that always the case, eh?

There’s a fresh wave of zeal for being global stars in Bollywood—‘the world is your stage’, like they say—which is marvelous, in all honesty. The Priyankas, and maybe even the Deepikas, of India will hold the black ladies and golden statues of America someday—hey, Nick Jonas has made that prediction about his wife already, and a flurry of GenZ material will suit, too. But is it worth the agent fees and expensive tickets and all that jazz for being, let’s say for example, a taxi driver in some future installment of ‘Deadpool’ where South-East Asians are a Karan Soni, and Ryan Reynolds, still the Deadpool?

There’s a joke among my peers about Dev Patel every time an Indian or Pakistani role goes to some actor that is not Mr. Patel himself—which, between us, is rarely the case. “Abbe, Dev Patel busy hogaAbbe, Dev Patel zyada charge kar rahaan hoga… (Man, Dev Patel must be busy…. Dev Patel must be charging more). Actors from this side of the globe have been synonymous to small, insignificant, nameless characters in Hollywood for so long that even Indians struggle to comprehend how—on Earth—did a new, promising actor even make it to Hollywood, or just Netflix? Isn’t that just brutally sad?

Probably the least known controversy surrounding Steven Spielberg—and we get why; the man, the mystery, the whole shebang—is that he lifted the basic idea of ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ from Indian masterpiece-deliverer, the late Satyajit Ray’s unreleased film ‘The Alien’. Like Chan, Ray did get an honorary Oscar in 1992 for his outstanding contribution to cinema—but he was given the award in haste, while on his death bed, and not half as ‘young’ as Chan. Even in death, Ray’s thunder was stolen by a white man—it is believed that Spielberg, along with his other high-brow industry friends, pushed for Ray’s honorary award. For obvious reasons, you get it. 


Although some of us are puffed with pride for making Asian artists—and rightly so—a part of the global fabric that forms the very essence of cinema, a question that needs to be pondered upon: If #OscarsSoWhite triggered more nominations, and subsequent wins, for the black community, then has the unfortunate #stopasianhate played a catalyst in putting Asians on a pedestal?

True, between haters ‘busting bindis’ (South-East Asian reference) and #IAMNOTAVIRUS  hashtags, Asians have broken many artistic barriers. But, has recognition become the new form of appeasement? Hope not. No, after all these years, this better not be a fad.  

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

Pallabi Dey Purkayastha


I write about movies, TV shows, relationships, trips I did or did not take, goals I am yet to realise. One day I will write a book, till then let’s go along with the madness called life.

Read in App