Tag Archives: Disney

Disney’s ‘Spin’ Is What Is Wrong With Indian Representation in Media

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 as other teenagers. 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 a 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 survived many years, having been 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 [they had] 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.


 

'Choices' Film Poster

Pro-Life or Pro-choice: San Jose Indian Writes a Film on Abortion

A short film about abortion written by a San Jose resident and an Indian American is an exciting prospect. Choices, a film directed by Amir Jaffer, produced by Ajit Mukundan, and written and co-acted by Puneet, is taking on the socially relevant debate surrounding abortion. The short film is about two individuals who are steadfast in their views but are forced to reckon with changed circumstances requiring them to revisit their entrenched positions on being pro-life and pro-choice, respectively. 

Though Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of a woman’s choice to seek an abortion, felt like a positive resolution, the 50-year discourse on pro-life and pro-choice continues to be contentious. This year, 165 bills banning abortion were introduced in state legislatures. Every election cycle, hopeful candidates seek a platform built on the divisive issue in an attempt to pander to their demographic. 

According to Jackie Dallas, the female lead of Choices, “Stances on abortion have become heavily politicized, with opponents citing religion or science without a true understanding of either. However, in actuality, an individual’s decision may not be based on fear of eternal damnation or a conscience against murder at all, but something as selfish as shame or deceit. This is a story that could be told by anyone, but I appreciated how it gave a voice to Asian-American representation, and by doing so, exposes a cultural taboo that is rarely discussed in such communities.”

I could not agree more! I was ready for the Indian American and, possibly, Hindu prerogative on the subject matter. A topic that is rarely discussed in Indian households would benefit from a film written from the lens of an Indian American in the Bay Area.

“As a Muslim, I believe in projecting the benevolence of the almighty towards all,” Altaf Khan (Puneet) preaches in the first scene of Choices during a book signing on his pro-life book. 

Puneet, who does not identify as a Muslim, plays into the trope of Islamic tradition (western religion) and the discourse surrounding abortion. When Puneet was questioned about his decision-making process, he responded, “Altaf Khan could have been a conservative Christian person too…[He] can be modern and orthodox. [He] could have been anyone.”

The unique viewpoint which Puneet has to offer was overlooked for generic appeal. Religion is pivotal to the plot but cultural implications of abortion within the Islamic community are left unanswered. Much like his character, Altaf Khan, Puneet chose to pinpoint religion when it was expedient to do so. 

What I knew began with good intent, seemed derailed by the many themes it ventured to address – religion, politics, career, marriage, infidelity, AND abortion. It took a bite out of the very extensive, nuanced dialogue and presented it to the viewer in 20 minutes.

And, perhaps, that bite was much too big. The film wasn’t able to do justice to any of the motifs and touched on each one in a superficial way. 

Some elements of Choices that I did appreciate were: the interracial couple, the diverse cast in every scene, the directive to approach a heavy topic, and the willingness to underscore the hypocrisy of the male approach to the female body. 

Ultimately, I wish this short film had offered more than what already existed in the media space but I do think it was worth the watch. More narratives on abortion are welcome and, potentially, the film can prove to be thought-provoking for South Asians once they see themselves represented on the screen. 

Choices is now available on Amazon in the United States and in the United Kingdom. It is also available on Disney+ Hotstar (India and other geographies). 

For the trailer, pictures and details go to: https://www.pranapictures.com/movies/choices


Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

The Legend of Hanuman: India Currents’ Exclusive Review

I light the lamp and pray to Hanuman,” Aur devta chit na dhariye. Hanumat se hi san sukh kariye.”

The phone rings. My grandson is on FaceTime. We are thousands of miles away but through the Legend of Hanuman series, we transcend the space-time continuum and are sitting side by side on a crescent moon, eating mangoes and taking turns gleaning takeaway points from each episode. 

The Legend of Hanuman is a 3D animated fantasy streaming television series based on the Hindu Epic Ramayana, created by Sharad Devarajan, Jeevan J. Kang, and Charuvi Agrawal for Disney’s Hotstar, under the banner of Graphic India. The series premiered globally on January 29, 2021, in seven Indian languages. The storyline narrated by Sharad Kelkar showcases the life of Hanuman and his metamorphosis from a mighty warrior to a legendary omnipresent powerhouse of good over evil. 

The artistic color scheme does not afford a sharp contrast but affords a vintage look akin to Amar Chitra Katha and Phantom comics. However, the animation is not as fluent as some Hollywood 2D animations like Donald Duck and Micky Mouse. Sugriv’s laughter is quixotic and Angad’s possessed evil eyes are quaint!

Everyone’s a critic in India. I think that comparisons to prior versions of Ramayana are not justifiable because Ramanand Sagar’s 1987 Ramayana was a Television phenomenon of the century. No wonder it was the most popular show during the pandemic because it conjures hope in distress. I remember life came to a standstill in the 80s, all over Inia, at 10 AM when the epic was aired. It was like an hour of holy pilgrimage. The portrayal was authentic even though the battle scenes were archaic! Legend of Hanuman is an attempt to appeal to wider global audiences who are familiar with the Avengers.

Vedic aphorisms between old Jambavan and Hanuman borrow conversation style from Kungfu Panda, Lion King, and Jungle Book. I watched it in Hindi and discussed the story with my grandson in India who calls it the “Leeegend” phonetically. The episodes that generated a lot of discussions were: “Indra’s Curse”The Mango and the Sun” and “Forgotten Truths”.

There are many easy to remember sayings:

The path of life changed in a moment.

Sometimes the egos overpower the soft relations of siblings.

Everyone shoulders their own responsibilities.

I am responsible for my own actions – Marne wale se bachane wala bada hota hai.  

Monita’s drawing of Hanuman eating a mango for her grandson.

The discussion makes it more meaningful. Although my grandchild is fluent in the Hanuman Chalisa and wears a Hanuman pendant under his SpiderMan Pajamas, the only stories he remembers are the ones where we incorporate incidents from the Avengers and relate them to our own life experiences. He confidently repeats the fables to his friends and lifts their cloud of unknowing: Hanumanji uprooted the entire mountain because his dadi had not taught him how to recognize Sanjeevani booti

My life flashes by me in a vignette. My mother chanted Hanuman Chailisa and went to the temple every Tuesday. When I was five years old, I frequented the  Durgiyana Mandir in Amritsar with my great-grandmother. When I was ten, we prayed at the Sri Hanuman temple in Jalandhar, and at fifteen, the Hanuman temple on Sion Trombay Road in Chembur was our refuge. Married at twenty and in Jaipur, I found Khole Ke Hanumanji. In my thirties, I started frequenting the Jagruteshwar temple in Vashi Gaon and the 33 feet  Bhakt Anjaneya temple in Nerul similar to the one in Thiruvananthapuram where they offer garlands of udad daal vadas as prasadam. At forty, when my mother came to visit me in the US, she dreamt of a standing Hanuman deity in Alabama. Sure enough, we found him in Birmingham Hindu Temple  When I was fifty, we found Flying Hanumanji at the Neem Karoli Ashram, in Taos, New Mexico on Hanuman Jayanti. In my sixth decade, I painted a kalamkari painting of Hanuman so that I can share the story with my grandson and ask him if the sun really tastes like a ripe mango? In my home temple, I have a small Panchmukha Hanuman idol. 

So as you can see, I did not write this review on a whim, I have spent several lifetimes preparing for this.

As far as my grandson is concerned, one day he will recognize my spin in the narrative but I hope he will comprehend that it was all in an effort to make him a devotee of Hanumanji! For this weighty reason, I give The Legend of Hanuman and A for effort!  I will certainly watch Season 2 with my family when the terrible battle ensues between Ravan, the King of darkness, and Rama, the Mahapurush.

Jai Sri Ram Jai Bajrangbali Hanuman!


Monita Soni, MD has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

Coolie No. 1, Another 2020 Disappointment

I interviewed the poised and reticent Shikha Talsania in mid-December for Coolie No 1, starring Varun Dhawan and Sara Ali Khan in the lead. Normally I would have posted the review based on her comments but she did not reveal anything about the movie other than quoting  “it’s a refreshed version” and “ a family movie”.

So, I watched the movie on Christmas Day with my family. Although I had forgotten the scene by scene roll out of the 1995 blockbuster, the raving zest of Govinda, his side-splitting interactions with Kader Khan as Hoshiarchand. The credulous “Barbie-like’ mannerisms of Karisma Kapoor had left a mental imprint. Twenty-five years ago, I remember borrowing the VCD tape from a street vendor in Manhattan over a long holiday weekend, watching it with my friends and being flabbergasted by the song “Main to ladki ghuma raha tha...Tujhe mirchi lagi toh main kya karoon?” At the same time marveling as to how the lyrics-tune beat combo “Husn hai suhana ishq hai deewana had created a cult-like appeal.

As I watched the 2020 David Dhavan remake, I was catapulted back into the frenzied hip-hop of the roaring 90s! Apart from that, the new movie was unable to cast a spell. Varun Dhavan is a handsome and talented actor who has cast a spell in Badri Ki Dulhaniya and other films. Sara Ali Khan is glammed up (though costumes are not tasteful) but her acting skills are untapped. I wish David Dhavan would have reimagined the storyline after a quarter of a century! If he is thinking of vesting money and energy in remaking other Govinda movies with Varun, he must rethink it. 

There are a myriad of stories and current real-life issues to be explored and presented to the audience in commercially successful cinema. I hope to see Varun, Sara, Shikha, and other stars cast in original socio-economic-political narratives to entertain and enlighten the audiences. If the lure of “rags to riches” theme is too hypnotic to ignore then there are stories like that of Ambani, a son of a village school teacher, and Narendra Modi selling tea at Vadnagar railway station. Although the remake has a backstory, it could have been more creative! Bollywood must come to grips with the fact that the 2020 filmgoer finds it ludicrous to believe that a change of costume can conjure a completely different identity, whether that be of twin or not.

The story is as follows: Humiliated by a mercenary hotelier, Jeffrey Rozario (Paresh Rawal), matchmaker Jai Kishan (Jaaved Jaaferi) avenges himself by introducing a railway coolie Raju (Varun Dhawan) as Kunwar Raj Pratap. Raju is smitten by the photograph of Jeffrey’s daughter Sarah (Sara Ali Khan). Sarah gullibly believes Raju’s tall tales. It might have been more interesting to see the daughter Anju (Shikha Talsania) marry Raju’s friend Deepak (Sahil Vaid) rather than team up with a fictional twin of Raju. 

If the movie was made as an homage to the original, it falls short. If it was made to erase the original from our memory, it fails hopelessly. Govinda’s unexpected words, irrational antics, and outlandish costumes are unforgettable, as are his bona fide dance moves in those loose trousers! Govinda pulled off a con in Coolie No 1 by holding the audience spellbound but Varun Dhawan’s over-rehearsed expressions and mimicry failed to tickle the funny bone. Paresh Rawal’s limericks, or Rajpal Yadav and Javed Jaffrey’s pranks did not do the trick either. I feel that the entire cast was so much in awe of Govinda’s comedic high jinks and they lacked the oomph to overshadow the original Coolie No 1. It’s like comparing an original Indian soda to the same soda in a fancier bottle but with more sugar and less fizz! Although the songs will be good for zoom zumba the movie fails to dazzle! Coolie No 1(2020) is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and Hotstar.

 


Monita Soni has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, and the other in her birth home India. Writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books: My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

Mira Solves the Case on Desi Representation

Mira, Royal Detective production team has placed an emphasis on authenticity by hiring South Asians artists, designers, and cultural consultants. Some notable people recruited are Shagorika Ghosh as the series’ cultural consultant, Nakul Dev Mahajan (“So You Think You Can Dance”) as the Bollywood dancer and choreographer, and Deepak Ramapriyan (“Basmati Blues”) as the music producer. This will be the first animated show reflecting South Asians on Disney and attention to detail is necessary. Through this show, the next generation of desi children will get a chance to embrace their roots and culture.

As royal detectiveMira (Leela Ladnier) travels throughout the kingdom helping royals and commoners alike. Along with her friend Prince Neel (Kamran Lucas), a talented inventor, creative cousin Priya (Roshni Edwards), and comical mongoose sidekicks Mikku (Kal Penn) and Chikku (Utkarsh Ambudkar), she will stop at nothing to solve a case, taking young viewers on adventures and encourage deductive reasoning. Other characters to appear in the show include Queen Shanti (Freida Pinto), Pinky (Hannah Simone), Auntie Pushpa (Jameela Jamil), Mira‘s cousin Meena (Aparna Nancherla) and Mira’s father Sahil (Aasif Mandvi). Rooted in India’s vibrant heritage, each episode will weave authentic music, dance and customs into two 11-minutes stories.

Check out the India Currents exclusive behind the scenes video to see research being done for Mira, Royal Detective.

The all-star South Asian cast reiterates the sentiment – it is novel and refreshing to see representation in such a wholesome way. Here is a sneak peek into the cast and show, Mira, Royal Detective, airing tomorrow, March 20th on Disney Junior!

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Srishti Prabha is the current Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for women and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

Children’s Classic or Colonial Fantasy

I am glad I come from that vanishing generation which actually read books in­stead of waiting for the movie. Other­wise I might have thought that The Jungle Book was the story of the romance between a young man brought up in Indian jungles and the British woman who brings him to civilization.

Actually, the book Rudyard Kipling wrote was about a boy named Mowgli brought up by wolves and his battle with a tiger named Sher Khan. But the new Walt Disney movie tosses that story to the wolves and comes up with its improved 1990s version, complete with a treasure hunt, some romantic interest, and in­evitably the Indian rope trick. The folks at Disney still call it Rudyard Kiptillg’s The Jungle Book, though Kipling would probably have not recognized the story as one he wrote.

Movie poster for Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1994)
Movie poster for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994)

He would not have recog­nized the hero either. Mowgli, the little Indian man-cub, has grown into the strapping Jason Scott Lee. While Mr. Lee’s glis­tening pectorals and flat abdo­men (developed no doubt at the Walt Disney Jungle Gym) are in­deed impressive, he is no Mow­gli-for the simple reason that he docs not look Indian despite the liberal daubs of shoe polish.

While I am aware that the studio conducted several open casting calls for Mowgli, it is un­pardonable that they could not come up with a South Asian to play the role. It is amazing that the Indian-American commu­nity–which now numbers al­most a million, a not insignificant size-has not protested this. The East Asian American community was vociferous in its condmena­tion of a similar casting mishap for MissSaigon.

What is even more unpar­donable is that this film’s produc­ers and executive producers count a few Indians among them. I believe they owe us all some answers. Would the same pro­ducers give the role of a classic American icon like Dennis the Menace to a South Asian actor? But for Mowgli, anyone with tawny skin and black hair is deemed good enough. One Asian is as good as another anyway!

The film uses real animal ac­tors (in fact, it has more animal trainers than animals in the cast). While the animals art: very ex­pressive–from the monkey hordes to the dancing bear–they cannot do as much as they could in Kipling’s imagination. So the story is changed into Mowgli’s introduction to civilization, his learning to speak, dress, and dance.

A still from the 1994 movie of Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli and the real bear used to play Baloo
A still from the 1994 movie of Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee) and the real bear used to play Baloo

As this story slowly takes cen­ter stage, we are sometimes left wondering if we are watching The Jungle Book or some curried version of My Fair Lady with Monty Python alumnus John Cleese attempting to provide some comic relief by playing Henry Higgins to Jason Scott Lee’s Eliza Doliltle.

While racist and imperial­ist overtones color much of Kipling’s work,The Jungle Book was less tainted because the original story did not have any sahibs or mern­sahibs in it. In this new version, British India comes gatecrashing into the story, and here the film­makers, perhaps unwittingly, in­troduce their own brand of ra­cism.

The Indians in the cast are the foot soldiers of the movie, the fillers in the crowd scenes. Apart from two slimy villains, we hardly meet any of them, let alone remember their names. In­terestingly, while the evil Indians have the “wery vickcd” accents, the few good ones like Mowgli’s father sound like they went to missionary schools.

But when not doing things all genuine Indians are supposed to do-like walking over burning coals or rope-charming-the In­dians in the movie sometimes do the most unlikely things. In an initial scene we see Mowgli’s widower father offering a red hi­biscus to some nameless woman and then attempting to kiss her–­in full view of everybody, includ­ing his son! Gosh, those hot­blooded natives-and in Victo­rian times, too!

A still of Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Niell) and Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee)
A still of Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Niell) and Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee)

The scenery is breathtak­ing. The deaths gory. The treasure fabulous. The Jodhpur palaces majestic. Ele­phants trumpet and tigers roar. The British maiden is winsome. And in deference to our politi­cally correct times, Mowgli deliv­ers little homilies on the evils of hunting for pleasure and asks wide-eyed soul-stiffing ques­tions like “What is hate?”

Director Stephen Sommers pulls out all stops–from a little cuddly bear cub to a dancing orangoutan to death-defying stunts. Watching little Mowgli’s edge-of-the-seat ride into the jungle on his flaming horse-carriage, I felt I was on a Disneyland ride. Perhaps next summer visitors to Disneyland will in fact get the Jungle Book ride. And with that the Jungle Book experience will be complete. You’ve seen the movie. Now experience the ride.

But once there was a man named Rudyard Kipling and he wrote a book, a very different book.