Utpal Borpujari

July 28, 2009

Colouring Hollywood: Immigrant Success Stories

By Utpal Borpujari

As the world becomes more and more of a global village, Hollywood is being increasingly forced to give meaty roles to actors whose mother tongue is not English. And these roles are not for the sake of just exotic value, though exoticisation of peoples and locales from outside the English-speaking world continue to remain a bane in Hollywood to a large extent even now. But times are clearly changing in Hollywood, where a Kalpen Suresh Modi – Kal Penn to the world – can be found eligible enough to join the Obama administration’s public liaison office on the strength of his popularity on screen as well as his political belief, and where a Penelope Cruz, with her Spanish-accented English, can become a superstar worldwide.

Like Bollywood has been the dream world for aspiring actors from nooks and corners of India, who descend in Mumbai with stars in their eyes and dreams in their heart, Hollywood for long has been the ultimate seduction for actors from the world over. And this world need not necessarily be the English-speaking one.

Take the example of someone who answers to the name Arnol Aloi Schwarzenegger. Born in a small Austrian village called Thal, this giant of a man first dominated the world of bodybuilding and then came to Hollywood to try his luck. His English was atrocious in those initial days, and his acting prowess questionable, but sheer hard work saw him become one of the hottest action stars of all time, so much so that the state of California even made him its governor.

Or take the example of a Spaniard called Antonio Banderas, who, after earning critical acclaim in Spanish master Pablo Almodovar’s earlier films back home, shifted to Hollywood and shot to the big league through “Desperado”, which costarred another immigrant success story, Mexican Salma Hayek. Some of the hottest sex symbols have all been European imports – Gina Lollobrigida,  Sophia Loren to name two – and so has been some of the beauties talked more about for their acting – Catherine Deneuve being a prime example.

Now, the world of Hollwood is cluttered with immigrant success stories. If you have one Javier Bardem here, you have a Chow Yun-Fat there, if here’s a Jet Li or a Jackie Chan, there’s a Daniel Bruhl or a Christoph Waltz (wait for these two German stars to burst upon the world when Quentin Tarantino’s war-meets-Spaghetti Western caper “Inglourious Basterds” opens).

The South Asians, mostly Indians, too are making their presence felt in Hollywood more and more, and they are getting mainstream. Kal Penn is, of course, a big example, and so are Mira Nair and Shekhar Kapoor, who are not based in Hollywood per se, but are counted among the very respectable directors there. Manoj Night Shyamalan is already part of the big league in Hollywood, even though his recent films have left both the Box Office and critics quite cold. Art Malik, of Pakistani origin, is another name who has made it big, growing out of the South Asian identity.  But it has not been easy, and it still not is, for immigrant actors, particularly those from South Asia, to grab a mainstream role. Kal Penn, son of Gujarati immigrant parents, pointed out to the stereotyping South Asians face while sharing his experiences on the Jay Leno Show sometime back of being asked during an audition why he was not wearing a turban if he was a South Asian.

But apparently, that has not been able to daunt the hopefuls, especially with quite a few of them making a mark, even though that has happened within the limitations of “Brown skin” characters. Among them is Deepak Rao, whose roots lie in Karnataka. Rao, in his mid-20s, is playing an important role in James Cameron’s under-production digital 3D venture “Avatar”, reportedly one of the costliest movies ever made, thanks to the high-end technology it is using. Rao has already acted in Spider-Man director Sam Raimi’s horror flick “Drag Me to Hell” that was part of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival’s official selection. Naveen Andrews, Aasif Mandvi, Samrat Chakraborti, Purva Bedi, Ajay Naidu, Ajay Mehta, Sanjay Madhav, Sakina Jaffrey, Kavita Patil, Parminder Nagra, Tanveer Atwall and even Anil Kapoor now  – the list is growing longer and longer with each passing day, as these and many others grab more and more prominent roles at least on mainstream television in America, if not in big ticket films.

But as Penn and Mandvi have said in separate interviews, it will still take long before South Asian actors get big roles written for them. For Penn, it is more than just the accent, as there are issues relating to racial understanding, while Mandvi has said that South Asian actors would be able to make it only if there are South Asian writers in Hollywood, who would understand the complexities of being a Brown skin in the world of Hollywood. Quite clearly, Indians and rest of the South Asians still have a long way to go before they can even be at the striking distance of widespread mainstream acceptance, something that to some extent the Chinese and Taiwanese actors have been able to do in recent times.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 26-07-2009)


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