Her presence at the Grammy Awards in an ivory kimono dress earlier this year may have turned heads for all the wrong reasons but there was way more to Priyanka Chopra Jonas attending one of the four biggest annual entertainment awards in the US.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the first South Asian to headline an American network drama series when she starred in ABC thriller Quantico in 2015, is reflective of the slow evolution in the representation of Indians in US cinema and television. The change, though not entirely remarkable, is evident both in the token presence of Bollywood stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and Deepika Padukone in Hollywood films and Indian-born foreigners such as Mindy Kaling, Dev Patel, and Hasan Minhaj making waves.
The well-known trope to include an Asian character, often unnecessarily, as part of the broader narrative of American films and series, goes back to the fairness doctrine introduced by the United States Federal Communications Commission in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licences to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable, and balanced manner, thus requiring the mandatory presence of ethnic minorities.
“I have always felt that in addition to a mandatory black face and then a Hispanic one, they (Hollywood films) have a mandatory Asian too, in their bid to look inclusive,” film critic Bharathi Pradhan said. The earliest depictions of Asians were as greedy, illiterate foreigners though they did evolve into doctors, professionals, and more educated immigrants by the 1980s.
However, the inherent Orientalism refuses to die. The first American company to recruit Indian faces for its projects was Merchant Ivory Productions where actor Shashi Kapoor was a regular with films such as The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah in the 1960s. Over the years, several Bollywood actors have crossed over to Hollywood, such as Amitabh Bachchan (The Great Gatsby), Anil Kapoor (Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol), Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (The Last Legion, The Pink Panther 2), and Deepika Padukone (xXx: Return of Xander Cage).
“They are all quite unidimensional characters and a classic example of tokenism as far as social representation goes,” said Uma Vangal, filmmaker and professor at the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy. It is disappointing to see such talented actors being reduced to caricatures in a narrative to which their presence or absence would not make a difference, said Vangal.