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Color-Blind Casting And The Changing Face Of South Asian Representation In Hollywood

4 min read

In , for decades, the only South Asian representation we knew of was the character Apu from The Simpsons. Voiced by an actor who isn't even Indian, Apu was in many ways a demeaning, belittling representation of . As years passed, Indian representation in Hollywood increased gradually with increased viewership, with many South Asian-Americans and Bollywood celebrities starring in films and TV. There came movies like Harold and Kumar, a film franchise to have an Indian name in its title, The Pink Panther 2, which had an Indian antagonist, and a few other notable films with South Asian leads.


However, brown actors are often stereotyped and are confined to the roles of Shopkeepers, IT guys, or doctors. Though these professions are way better than snake charmers or hot yoga teachers, confining brown talent to a particular box is disheartening and humiliating.


Also, the increase in the number of brown actors led to a new stereotype altogether, as funny guys. Most of the South Asians who are big names in Hollywood are in the field of comedy. Just as Trevor Noah once said, “Indians can never play villains,” comedic roles became Indian actors' forté.


Nevertheless, Indian roles in sitcoms gained a broader reach and significantly contributed to showcasing the Indian diaspora, such as in The Office, Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory, and in Parks and Recreation.


Moreover, though Indians comprise one-fifth of the world's population. Yet, the country and the culture is often misrepresented in mainstream media. It is important for filmmakers to remember that India is not all marigold flowers and slums, it is often home to picturesque locations and technologically advanced cities. For example, Hollywood movies often show Mumbai's slums and poverty but not its skyscrapers and monuments.


Regardless, we have come a long way from Apu. South Asian-origin actors and Riz Ahmed are reigning as lead actors and secured Oscar nods. 's coming-of-age show Never Have I Ever emerged as a pathbreaker by casting a South Asian teenager as its lead, also garnering global viewership.


However, in the case of biopics or book adaptations, finding South Asians had been next to impossible. When Parvati and Padma Patil showed up in the ballroom wearing Ghagras in Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire, it was a major moment for South Asian representation. Most of the time actors not of South Asian origin played Indian roles such as Max Minghella in The Social Network or Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Martian.


Hollywood's recent focus on inclusivity helped increase South Asian representation, especially in period dramas and fantasy series, where finding South Asians was next to impossible before. The one formula that catalysed this change is colour-blind casting.


Colour-blind casting is a practice where talent is cast regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. This approach not only helped bring the best talent onto the big screen but also provided a great platform for Asian actors to shine. People of colour could now see themselves in historical/period genres, a welcome change from white domination.


is an infamous novel by Charles Dickens in the 19th century based on his own life. For the film adaptation of this novel, the makes followed the colour-blind approach and chose Dev Patel, a British-Indian actor, as its lead, along with several actors of varying ethnicities. The film garnered great reviews upon its release.


Similarly, a 2021 film based on the famous Arthurian folklore written in the 14th century, surprisingly had Dev Patel as its protagonist. The film received great reviews but ended up an Oscar snub.

, Netflix's coming-of-age film adaptation based on the fictional character of the same name, followed the Colour-blind approach. Set in the 19th century, the film revolves around Enola, sister of Sherlock Holmes, an intelligent teenager set to defy the social norms. It was refreshing to see Adeel Akhtar, an actor of Indian descent, portraying the iconic character of inspector Greg Lestrade.


is one of the most-watched shows in the history of television. Set in 18th century London, during the regency era, this Netflix show garnered popularity all over the world. The makers made a pathbreaking decision of casting people of all ethnicities for the show. The show upped a notch this season by taking the creative liberty to change Sheffield to Sharma and casting two Tamil girls as its leads. Bridgerton is such a historic milestone in Indian representation. While Bollywood is still obsessed with fair-skinned ladies, watching two dusky-skinned beautiful young ladies in dreamy outfits and magnificent palaces helped brown girls finally see themselves represented. Listening to an instrumental Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, watching Haldi ki rasam, and protagonists drinking masala chai are little but significant moments on the show. It is, in fact, a matter of pride because Bridgerton season 2 made history with over 193 million hours watched within the first three days of its release.



and  are some of the shows where Indian actors got to star in period pieces. Moreover, Netflix's upcoming adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has added a brown girl as its lead. The experimental and path-breaking approach of colour-blind casting is making new rules in Hollywood. This is just the beginning. Let us hope that more content creators will follow this approach and continue to shatter stereotypes and promote inclusivity.