South Asian culture is rich in dance, theatre, music and film. For South Asian communities across the subcontinent and the ones formed around the world, the arts is the basis for entertainment as much as it is ingrained in age-old traditions, holidays and religion. Film is a cornerstone industry in some countries; teledramas are all the rage. Everything from weddings, to prayers and cultural festivals involves a rhythm and song. But despite its vibrancy and place in the culture, many families do not consider the viability of a career in the arts; in fact, it is often discouraged.
I count myself as a very lucky person to have grown up in a home that not only thrived on the arts and entertainment, but also valued it deeply. My parents, former vinyl chasers and regular concert-goers, shared their deep love of film and music in our home by constantly playing cassettes and CDs or forcing family get togethers to occur in front of a television screen. Whether it be Kenyan music, Michael Jackson’s video anthology, a Bollywood film or Jurassic Park, there was always something being played in my house. That constant presence shaped my passion in a profound way, and is still encouraged in my home today.
But I also went through my childhood and adolescent years not seeing many South Asian faces in North American productions and live events; somehow, it only felt like those faces were familiar in Bollywood, but never present in Hollywood. I was never consciously looking out for people who shared my ethnic background, but as I grew older, the lack of South Asians on red carpets and in magazines during award seasons found their way into my lens of popular culture (you can read a bit more about that in my reaction post to The Mindy Project‘s cancellation last year.)
At this year’s Academy Awards, there were a few familiar and new faces who made their way onto the red carpet and stage, including Mindy Kaling (a voice actor in the Best Animated Film winner, Inside Out), Priyanka Chopra (presenter and lead of ABC’s hit show Quantico) and Dev Patel (presenter and star of 2008 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire). While many will argue that the relevancy of the Academy Awards is minimal, I say otherwise; as one of the of the biggest award shows in the world, the people and works presented and celebrated impact the perception of those watching. It brought me tremendous joy to think of all the people tuning in to see these individuals interviewed, honoured and awarded, people who may not have previously seen many who share their heritage on this kind of platform.
Although it was not the first time that a South Asian centric-film/production made its way to the Academy Awards (see: Lagaan, Caravan, Gandhi, Mother India, Salaam Bombay, and Water amongst others), two such productions were amongst the nominations. The first was Sanjay’s Super Team, a Pixar production directed by Pixar animator Sanjay Patel nominated for Best Animated Short. Inspired by Patel’s own Hindu upbringing and his relationship with his father, Sanjay’s Super Team brought together Hindu deities in a colourful production celebrating heritage and familial love. Though it did not win (the award went to Bear Story, the first Academy Award for Chile), critics and audiences alike were touched by the intimacy and cultural notes of the story.
The second came from Canadian-Pakistani Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who previously won an Academy Award in 2012 for her documentary Saving Face, which focused on acid attacks in Pakistan. This year, she received the Academy Award for Best Short Subject Documentary in recognition of her documentary tackling honour killings, A Girl in the River. The poignancy of her work is as important as her speech at this year’s ceremony, an easy highlight that pointed out the importance of gender equality, mutual gender support, women in film and diversity in film; words that mattered to those in the audience and the teenagers watching with their parents at home.
Let’s not forget Asif Kapadia, director of this year’s Best Documentary, Amy. A British born-and-raised filmmaker of Pakistani heritage, Kapadia drove the story of famed singer Amy Winehouse in his emotional and controversial piece. He led the campaign from last year’s Cannes Film Festival all the way to the Oscars, receiving near-universal critical acclaim while simultaneously carving a place in music storytelling. The reach of his, Obaid-Chinoy and Patel’s work differ greatly from one another, but their works also indicate a critical place for diverse approaches and voices in global filmmaking.
The increasing visibility of South Asians in the North American film industry is important because it will help normalize the concept of being a part of it for today’s generation; it will inspire them to dream those same big screen dreams and believe that careers in film, the arts and entertainment can be successful and respectable; it will show that creative works need different voices in order to continue to transform the world through the power of cinema. As both the popular and unsung heroes work extremely hard to overcome the cultural and industry obstacles to pursue their passion, they are also opening the door for more kids who will identify the value and place of their voice in an industry struggling with inclusiveness, diversity and representation; that the possibility exists, that the presence matters, and that the stories they can tell, and the ways that they tell them, are as dynamic, critical and engaging as anyone else’s.