Oct 23, 2016

Casting choice

Tom Hanks returned as Robert Langdon in Inferno and I was intrigued enough to watch the movie last weekend. More than the graphic visuals of Dante’s version of hell, what struck me was the casting choices. I was pleasantly surprised to see Irrfan Khan as the provost and though I didn’t quite remember the character Bouchard from the book, I was equally happy to see a black actor portray the character. The #oscarsowhite and other recent coverage about the casting of white actors for non-white parts in Hollywood have been educational for me and has sensitized me to such casting choices.

I must admit it wasn’t very apparent to me at first. When I heard Benedict Cumberbatch say on screen that John Harrison was a smoke screen and that his name was Khan, in ‘Star Trek Into Darkness,’ I wasn’t particularly thinking about a British actor playing a Sikh warrior.  I was drooling over the possibility of Cumberbatch quoting Milton or Melville. In retrospect, it should have felt like a particularly low blow that a British actor was playing Khan. But it didn’t. It was almost like I was preconditioned to accept a non-Indian actor playing an Indian character in a major Hollywood movie. 

In the movie “The Passage to India”, the prominent role of the Sanskrit professor was played by a non-Indian actor. Surely they had enough Indian actors to play all the Indian roles and even if they didn’t why this role? The role of an intelligent, stand-out character in the book that needed to be played by a white actor? Perhaps there has been a dearth of Indian actors in Hollywood until now that they had had to choose actors of other races to portray a Kapoor [Martian] or a Gupta [Princess Diaries, Tomorrow Never Dies]. Or perhaps it was a celebration that a Black man is a Kapoor and an Asian woman is Gupta.

As long as there is no pattern of subtle or overt racism, I suppose in an idealistic world it’d be great to have any actor play any role. When I read Kunal Nayyar say that the race of Raj Koothrapalli was not predetermined and that the part was made Indian after he was cast, it felt heartening. But I cringe as the TV Series continues to play to the 'Indian nerd with no girlfriend' stereotype.

It is surprising how even a seemingly inclusive cast can speak of our bias. Peter Brooks ‘Mahabaratha’ is a case in point.  When I first saw the movie, I thought it was novel to see Krishna being portrayed by a middle-aged white man full of casual friendliness. In retrospect though, I wonder how I could have possibly missed the strong racial bias?

If one was looking to cast an international ensemble, why wasn’t it a black actor playing Krishna?  After all, he is Shyam, the dark lord. The Pandavas are mostly white, except for Bhima. But it does cause some unease that Bhima is the character that rips his opponent apart and lathers himself in his blood. And Dronacharya the teacher is an Asian actor who is, wait for it, the martial arts expert. And the only Indian is the woman.

There must be some truth to the argument that market forces determine some of these decisions, though it feels like a cowardly evasion. With Hollywood movies making a lot of money on worldwide box office, perhaps things will change or at least that argument won't hold good for long.   
Maybe the India market is a reason we have Priyanka Chopra and Irrfan Khan making waves in Hollywood. Either way, it was an absolute delight to see Irrfan Khan deliver some of the best lines in the movie with such nonchalant elegance. 

October 23, 2016