The groundbreaking rise of Indians in Hollywood films

The groundbreaking rise of Indians in Hollywood films

By Varun Sharma | 3 April, 2017
Hollywood films, Western movies, Dev Patel, Asian leads, Sir Ben Kingsley, Slumdog Millionaire, Gandhi, Rogue One
Varun Sharma as the changeling boy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mountview Academy of Thearte Arts. Photo: Katherine Leedale
For as long as I can remember, a trip to the cinema has always had a certain magic surrounding it. There was something special about seeing stories of heroes and villains, hope and despair being defined and deciphered in the space of a few hours. However, as I grew older and started developing ideas of pursuing a career in the arts, it became more apparent that something was missing from Western movies. I couldn’t see how I was going to possibly succeed, in an industry where there was no representation for Asians through the stories being told or through the roles that were available. There was no bridge between actors (male and female) of Asian ethnicity and Hollywood itself, a situation that left me feeling disconnected from the industry.

When you think of Hollywood and Indians, the image which springs to mind is of a bare-chested, eagle feathered brave proudly perched on a palomino. However, on Tuesday, 24 January 2017, the Oscar nominations were announced and this was challenged. For the Asian demographic, especially Indians, the nominations were ground-breaking. A thirteen- year Asian absence from the ceremony seen as the peak of the actor’s Olympus, was broken in spectacular style by Dev Patel when Patel became the third only Indian-origin actor in history to be nominated for an award.

During this lengthy absence, the commercial backdrop behind the film/theatre industry has changed greatly with the spotlight on diversity rising to the surface of mainstream media. However, it’s too easy to point a finger at the studios and the “powers that be” and complain that there aren’t ‘enough actors of Asian ethnicity in prominent roles’ or riding the “white-washing”wave and demanding change…

Change is something that can’t be asked for outright with an expectation of change actually occurring. It has to be shown to have merit and worth through understanding. When an infant has done something wrong, it’s pointless to ask for change and expect it to happen immediately if the infant doesn’t understand the wrong he has committed. In this way, business leaders, studio execs and producers in the “showbiz” industry aren’t completely accustomed to the idea of true diversity through storytelling from a whole host of the Asian cultures at this moment in time. Could it be that there is not enough realisation about what can be gained from the wealth of Asian history and stories, and perhaps they don’t realise that it does now make business sense?

These are three examples of films pre-dominantly set in India. The short list of these eastern-based business/critical successes provides more evidence of encouraging box office returns with Asian leads. 

To all creators, producers, studios and money-makers if your maiden tongue is one of money, let’s talk business: The first actor of Asian origin who made a breakthrough on the Oscar awards scene, by taking the Best Actor award, was Sir Ben Kingsley in the critically acclaimed Gandhi (1982) in the titular role. The film was made on a budget of $22 million dollars. The final gross worldwide box office figure was $127,767,889, a profit of over $105 million dollars. Looks like good business to me. Next we had Slumdog Millionaire (2008), in which Dev Patel was the lead, again critically acclaimed at the Oscars. The budget was estimated at $15 million and grossed $377,910,544, a giant profit of over $350 million. Again, looks like breath-taking business to me. Finally the most current example of where business makes sense is the recently released Lion (2017). The film reportedly took $12 million to make but has already grossed over $32,132,825 in the short time it has been released and that number will surely rise. Looks like stunningly good business to me.

These are three examples of films pre-dominantly set in India. The short list of these eastern-based business/critical successes provides more evidence of encouraging box office returns with Asian leads. The numbers clearly add up. It then becomes a case of a group of vested interests resisting the inevitable move towards real globalisation. As Riz Ahmed, star of Rogue One and Jason Bourne put it, “Some people are screaming or dragging their feet. Some people are sprinting”.

The Oscar nod and BAFTA win of Best Supporting Actor for Dev Patel is more than just the individual recognition of one performance (as excellent as it was), but also the recognition of the diverse stories surrounding a host of fascinating cultures and histories. The nomination is an indication of the direction the industry is moving. But with Dev being the only Asian actor nominated and Lion being the only Asian mainstream film nominated, it yet remains to be seen whether the hurdle of institutionalised lethargy has begun to crumble.

 

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