“What do you do when someone says, “Your color skin is not what we’re looking for?” said America Ferrara to NY Times. Probably the same thing was said in 1970s by Bollywood aspirant, Smita Patil. The newsreader whose emotive eyes caught the attention of a film producer, Smita was of a color not seen on the screens of Bollywood cinema. The perfect adivasi (tribal) girl of art cinema, Smita went on to break the Punjabi good looks barrier in Bollywood films and much to her horror found her self gyrating in a rain dance with the megastar of the time, Amitabh Bachchan. Amitabh, himself with the wrong skin color and unconventional looks, had stormed into the stronghold of the oh-so-English-white, gora-chita Kapoor and Khanna dominated film industry, not so long ago.
The viewers sat up and cheered. Smita Patil became a beacon of hope for all dark-skinned Indian girls. Mills Boon romance novels had done their work in making girls yearn for a TDH (Tall, Dark, Handsome) man but no one had made dark skinned women desirable till Smita came along. Bollywood was having a rare lapse of fair and lovely moments.
Around the same time, in Hollywood, Eddie Murphy rolled out his comic routines. He was maybe the first one to register his protest against the #OscarsSoWhite. When Eddie Murphy presented the Oscar for Best Picture at the 1988 ceremony, in the guise of a joke, he explained why he was initially reluctant to make an appearance on the show. “I just feel that we have to be recognized as a people,” he told the Oscars audience. “I just want you to know that I’m going to give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society, and we will not bring up the rear anymore. I want you [the Academy] to recognize us.” After he had agreed to come, Eddie said, ‘Now when do I have to be there?’ and his manager said, ‘You don’t have to get there until 9 or 10 because it’s the last award of the evening.’”
He drew a chuckle from the crowd but the point that a black actor gets an Oscar only every twenty years was made. Is it any coincidence that actors or actresses of a different color, like Eddie Murphy, Smita Patil and Nandita Das, must also be social activists?
“My role is not just artist. It’s also activist because of the way I look,” tweeted actress Mindy Kaling who first came through the NBC diversity program. In her first season, the show, “The Office”, therefore didn’t have to pay for a diversity writer, the network paid. Mindy said to NY Times, “On so many shows and movies, race was a gesture, and in mine it’s the premise. I can’t ignore that what a lot of people see is an Indian woman who doesn’t look like a Bollywood star…I want to fill my desire to write vibrant, flawed characters, but then also be a role model to young people. It’s stuff that I think about all the time. Some people don’t have to think about this at all.”
Actress and star of the show “Quantico”, Priyanka Chopra said, “I do feel extremely proud when I have people of the South Asian community coming up to me and saying, thankfully we’re seeing a non-stereotyped Indian. This girl hugged me and started crying. She said, thank you for making us relevant.”
We cannot deny we have come a long way when actresses have crossed the continental bridge and made a name for themselves in Bollywood and Hollywood. And we can’t deny that the protests against #OscarsSoWhite have picked up a crescendo not seen in previous years. However warns The Hindu it is not just a black-and-white issue. “But it’s also pure economics. Most movies are made for the mainstream, so that the largest numbers of people will buy tickets. And to get these numbers, you have to have a star (or an actor) who is popular with audiences across races, across nations.” For instance if a northeastern actress had played Mary Kom instead of Priyanka Chopra the receipts for the movie may have been lower. “This is just to say that the majority of movies that end up being considered for the Oscars have mainstream actors, and due to the sheer numbers of these frontline white actors, many of them heavily promoted by their studios, it’s inevitable that some worthy performances slip through the cracks. For each “snub” of a black actor, you can find one of a non-black actor as well.” (The Hindu)
Whether we agree with the Hindu or not, before the Oscar night dawns or dusks on us, this coming Sunday, here is our Oscar homework. The top nominees that can be streamed online are Five Mad Max Fury Road; Bridge of Spies, The Martian, Room and Spotlight. Watching these before Sunday will make viewing the Oscars ceremony more rewarding.
Ritu Marwah is Social Media Editor at India Currents.