Hollywood is a world that fascinates people from across the world. When I first moved to LA from India in 2016, I was unsure of how I was going to navigate my way in this unfamiliar world. I soon ended up getting an internship with a talent management company. It all felt so new and it was nothing like Bollywood. It was different…
I remember having access to casting websites and looking at available roles. What caught my eye were the descriptions of the open roles. Things had started changing for the Black and Asian communities in Hollywood, but it was hard to come across a substantial role for a brown person. A brown person’s character was diluted to a doctor, an engineer, or a sidekick nerd who is added to the plot simply for the sake of diversity.
Over the years, I got many opportunities that helped me get my foot in the door. I started to meet new people, build new connections, and understand the industry from the inside out. I began to develop new perspectives on the film and television space.
In a screenwriting class that I had once taken, the professor told us a harsh truth. He said that if a character’s ethnicity is not mentioned, they are usually read as white. If you want your character to be of a different color, you must mention their ethnicity. This speaks volumes about how specific you have to be when you are writing a script with a diverse cast in their story.
Truth is, everyone is struggling and hustling to get the next best project out. And among all this, the need for a “diverse” cast just seemed secondary. If there was a demand for brown actors, it would be for established ones. The focus was on big Bollywood names to garner and utilize their large social media following.
Then what could be the solution to this war between ample representation and money-making projects? In simple words — taking risks.
Mindy Kaling had the power to take risks when she created a show with an all-brown cast. Kaling had to reach a certain level of success before she could make a power move like the one she made with Netflix’s Never Have I Ever. The show is an enormous success and proves how much representation matters. The last time I felt this excited about watching a show with a brown cast was when I watched BBC One’s Citizen Khan as a kid.
While talent agents had started opening their doors for Indian-origin actors, Never Have I Ever escalated the interest. However, we still have a long way to go. For example, not every first-generation immigrant talks like Apu from The Simpsons or Raj from The Big Bang Theory. The idea that you must be dark enough, accented enough, “Indian” enough, continues to limit Indian-American representation. Such biases make it seem like the intention of a project is to pepper it with diversity instead of accepting that Hollywood has been harboring cultural stereotypes that need to be broken. One of the more recent disappointments has been the Disney movie Spin.
Actress Ria Patel talks to me about her experience with the kind of roles she has auditioned for in the last five years and how they’re different now. According to Ria, “I used to get cast as an “Indian girl”, which is fine, but now I get cast as a “Vanessa” or “Lucy”. It’s refreshing to be playing characters where my culture doesn’t brand me. I definitely think we are in the right direction, still a long way to go though…”
Today, Hollywood is welcoming projects that showcase Indian culture without stereotypes. If you’re an artist who wants to share stories about the brown culture, now is a better time than ever for you to put your project, art, and even yourself out there. The take-off might have been delayed but as we all know, according to Indian Standard Time, we are pretty much on time!
Aayushi Bhargava is a current MBA student in Los Angeles and works as a talent assistant at a well-known talent agency.