Disney doesn’t have a great track record with diversity. When I was young, the only character that possibly represented me was Princess Jasmine, and she wasn’t even Indian, not to mention severely stereotyped. Growing up, I hated that teachers always mispronounced my name or that kids would say my lunch looked gross. I wanted to see the classic Disney story with an Indian heroine rising above all obstacles and getting her “happily ever after”, mostly so I could see that there was one for me too.
When I heard that I was going to be reviewing a Disney movie about an Indian-American girl, just two years older than me, and interviewing the cast and crew, I was ecstatic. I have a long history with traditional Hindustani music, so the element of Indian music being incorporated in this film resonated with me.
And then I proceeded to watch a typical Disney movie in which Indian culture was lazily thrown about in the film just so Disney could fulfill their quota of representing Asian-Americans.
For those who haven’t watched it, Spin is about Rhea (Avantika), an Indian-American high school student who is introduced to the world of DJ-ing by British transfer student Max (Michael Bishop), while simultaneously waitressing in her family restaurant run by her widower father Arvind (Abhay Deol). The restaurant is also staffed by her supportive grandmother (Meera Syal) and her younger brother (Aryan Simhadri). Arvind is not supportive of Rhea’s DJ interest and wants her to commit her time to his restaurant.
One thing that became glaringly obvious as I watched the movie was that the script was not made for Indian-Americans. The setting, the characters, their interactions, and their challenges showcase a version of Indian culture as perceived by western eyes and ears. For instance, in the movie, Rhea’s friends (none of whom are Indian by the way or seem to be acquainted with Hindu culture) throw a school dance “inspired” by the Hindu festival of Holi. Yet, other than Rhea and Arvind, everyone refers to it as “The Festival of Color”.
“Everyone gets Festival of Color,” says director Manjari Makijany. I’d argue, the onus isn’t on Indian-Americans to make our culture acceptable to a mainstream audience by renaming it into something more comfortable. Also, the Festival of Color dance thrown by the school is an extremely white-washed version of Holi. The only details retained were the white clothes and color powders. The music played by the DJ (who is a white British-American, which feels like a problem in itself) had no Indian inspiration, although the movie claimed it was about a girl mixing her cultures.
The setting also has a utopian feel about it. Even though Rhea is the only Indian-American in the school and freely expresses her culture, there is no commentary on how the non-Indian classmates feel or react to this choice.
Makijany comments, “It was very important to make sure that Rhea’s character was not completely Western or American.”
While it is great that Rhea feels comfortable wearing her kurti to school, it is not realistic. Indian-American teenagers are still teenagers and are into the same trends that other teenagers like. It’s more complicated than just choosing a side or wearing clothes — it is about finding the balance between our Indian heritage and Western culture.
This film also failed in the one thing it promised to do. Marketed as a film about a girl finding the mixture of Indian music and DJ beats, there was no effort to delve into the complexity of Indian music. Instead, the film relies on sounds that Western audiences have stereotyped to sound “Indian”. India has beautiful regional sounds and systems of music that have lived many years, having been being finely carved into beautiful compositions. What better way to educate a large audience on intricate music styles that a new generation might carry on and keep alive? It was a missed opportunity for Disney, who is also known for creating songs for the next generation.
So why? What happened?
The film has an Indian director, a strong majority Indian-American cast, Disney’s funding, and the ability to use countless resources for an authentic story. What went wrong?
I believe the answer lies in the two white writers of the movie, Josh Cagan and Carley Steiner. The script was written by two non-Indians who have no background in Indian culture, much less any knowledge of being an ethnic minority. Disney didn’t even bother to recruit Indian-American or even Indian writers to write a movie about Indian Americans.
“They did a great job doing their research and their homework,” Makijany notes, “and having an Indian filmmaker come in and add in the details and nuances and I made sure that that happened.”
While Makijany is to blame for a lot of the directorial choices the film made, it’s not her fault that Disney chose to make a show of an Indian cast and crew while shielding the fact that the people in the writer’s room were the exact opposite of that.
The acting was probably the best part of the movie. Abhay Deol’s performance gave a character, that the writers didn’t give a good presence or story, a deep and complex history. Avantika did well with her character, especially during the scenes where she interacted with music. Despite needing to work on her dialogue delivery, she is immensely talented and I can see a great future for her career. Meera Syal makes a great character in Abha and does a wonderful job of creating a mother figure for the protagonist Rhea.
This movie had everything to be successful. Disney had a chance to make Indian representation healthy and influential. Ravi from the Disney show Jessie had an Indian accent, a pet lizard, spoke Sanskrit and Hindi even though he was adopted at the age of 5 by an American couple. He was also portrayed as nerdy and socially awkward.
Baljeet from Phineas and Ferb also suffers from the same portrayal being nerdy and having a thick Indian accent, despite having moved from India when he was young.
Even portrayals of Indian-Americans in shows not aimed at children have been severely wrong, with such characters as Raj from The Big Bang Theory. I just wish that I, and many other South Asian children, had an accurate Indian-American representation in media. But, alas, that may not happen.
Medha Sarkar is a Freshman at Los Gatos High School. She enjoys writing, music, and having a good laugh.