Escaping the Mould - I

Khadijah Ahmad on how far Hollywood has come in its representation of brown people - and how far it has yet to go

Escaping the Mould - I
I think every non-Western community feels a certain thrill at the prospect of being represented on a platform as major – and integral to the pop culture era of today – as Hollywood.

Naturally, being a brown Muslim from Pakistan, I, too, succumbed to the sheepish sweetness of that thrill when Riz Ahmed, a British-Pakistani, became the first South Asian to win an acting Emmy or when Mahershala Ali was announced as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. It was as if all their ventures of success had been projected on to me. As if their trophies could somehow validate the potential success of any dreams that I should strive for.

It was foolish – I was well aware of that fact – to celebrate an individual win at a communal level; but it was a foolery we have all participated in. And to some extent, perhaps we are even entitled to it.

While it is true that talent plays a huge part in making it to the big leagues, it is often superseded by the favour of chance.
Representation isn't a mathematical equation that you can simply resolve through a formula; as if carrying three people of colour to the right will equate us to the multitudes of white people on the left

Hollywood has a formula: there is only room for a limited selection of POC (people of color) actors in the industry. And for all the innumerable Riz Ahmeds – each equally talented, if not more – who were not lucky enough to stumble upon the same opportunity as him, those few who actually do make it are left with the responsibility of being the mouthpieces of the ones that they have surpassed.

Which is why it angers me so greatly when those very mouthpieces fall into a regressive framework, one that limits the identity of an entire race or religion to a model which is least threatening to the preservation of – what is still – the white man’s story.

After years of struggling against the on-screen stereotype of the ‘brown nerd’, the ‘overly conservative Asian’ or, especially, one as offensive and humiliating as the ‘terrorist Muslim’, Hollywood attempts to appease us by creating an antithetical cliche: ‘excessively crass/quirky brown person’, a new image, which will break away from the old and let us reinvent our portrayal as a community. As if practicing what lies on the opposite end of the spectrum would negate years of undermining our cinematic performances!

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick

Representation isn’t a mathematical equation that you can simply resolve through a formula; as if carrying three people of colour to the right will equate us to the multitudes of white people on the left.

What Hollywood doesn’t understand is that we don’t want an image, a stereotype, a recycled routine.

What we want is a complete rejection of them.

Let me be the first to admit: I was extremely excited for The Big Sick, a romantic comedy film, written and produced by Kumail Nanjiani and Judd Apatow, respectively. Of course, the latter had always been a big household name but, despite being lesser known, Nanjiani’s name was – for personal reasons – the bigger of the two.

There was a strange kinship I felt towards Nanjiani, a successful standup comedian, actor and writer from Karachi, Pakistan. For someone who grew up watching a predominantly white cast in nearly all Western productions, it was difficult to fathom that the former and latter half of that statement were actually being used together. In a way, Nanjiani became a pillar of hope, a bold statement that truly anyone could make a name for themselves in Hollywood.

Before I dive into my analysis of regressive racial tropes in Western cinema, I would like to formally state that mismanaged diversity does not a ‘bad’ movie make. Simply because the exploration of our ethnic contribution is still riding out its learning curve does not translate into the fact that we are incapable of enjoying anything short of an unabashedly realistic portrayal.

The Big Sick was humorous, quirky and vaguely relatable. Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, highlighting the difficulties of pursuing a career in standup comedy while belonging to an ethnic minority. He simultaneously faces the trials of coming out as an atheist to his staunch Muslim parents and embarking on an interracial romance with a white woman despite his family’s wishes to set him up with a suitable Pakistani bride.

However, if we are to aim for a bigger stage for ourselves then we must address the faults of such films. In his quest to find love, Kumail Nanjiani – a regular standup comedian at the club whose go-to pickup tactic is showing a woman how her name is spelt in Urdu – unveils an almost disturbing fixation with avoiding a romantic relationship with a brown person at all costs and instead, focusing his attention on a white love interest.

While audiences were familiar with the poor-immigrant-boy-getting trapped-into-a-loveless-marriage-by-his-parents trope, it was Nanjiani’s active avoidance of marrying within his own type that implied satisfaction could not be found in anything pertaining to a brown person’s world; that fulfillment and true purpose could only be navigated in a white man’s world.

It wasn’t his choice to pursue a relationship with a white woman over a brown one which irked me; it was the subtle implication that conceding to a marriage with a brown person would somehow automatically break the criteria whose very design favoured the white woman.

Kumail Nanjiani donned himself the token brown character in his film: someone whose skin colour was only overlooked due to them being ambassadors of white customs. Nanjiani becomes the honourary white man. Because in a platform with a racial deficit such as that of Hollywood, the only ethnic minority capable of being accepted was one who had done their absolute best to replicate the role of any other white character.

Nanjiani, a talented standup comedian on the path to skyrocketing to fame, shares a blissful romance – despite their hardships, the romance itself was portrayed to be perfect and only threatened by the clash of both participants’ equally weird quirks – with a blond, stick-thin white woman.

All of these were traits designed for the white man. And the fact that someone from a different racial background was embodying them didn’t necessarily mean that we had achieved representation; it only meant that Hollywood was merely capable of narrowly accepting the inclusion of ethnic types.

The only brown people we see in The Big Sick are Nanjiani’s family and the women he was to be set up with. Each of their identities becomes subservient to the development of Nanjiani’s character. As if they have no purpose but to highlight the meagerness of a quintessentially brown life. In the pursuit of his own character development, Nanjiani committed the one crime a person of his ethnicity could not afford to be guilty of: the one mistake, which had been repeatedly made by white writers –he converted brown people into caricatures.

Nanjiani’s parents represented the ever oppressive and demanding attitudes of brown parents, whereas the rest of his marriage candidates fell into a category of unintelligent and uncultured submissive females who did not know better than the confines of their own household and their parents’ whims.

Khadijah Ahmad is a student and freelance writer based in Lahore