HT Brunch cover story (India Exclusive): Hollywood’s newest breakout star, Himesh Patel is proof that Brown is indeed the new Black!
Until a few years ago, Hollywood would only acknowledge Indians as under-researched one-dimensional stock characters – IT-nerds, call centre employees, taxi drivers or terrorists, and the benchmark for the ‘authentic Indian accent’ was that of The Simpsons’ Apu – a white man’s version of an Indian, voiced by an American actor. Kal Penn once tweeted snapshots of old scripts he had received when starting out as an actor: Indians required in those scripts were to be “snake charmers” and “Gandhi look-alikes”.
But today, a brown revolution is brewing. Not only are Indian characters becoming more nuanced and layered, but ethnically ambiguous roles that earlier used to go to African-American actors or Chinese or Japanese actors are now open to South-Asian/Indian actors as well. And in a first, an Indian-origin actor plays the lead in a mainstream Hollywood movie that is not poverty porn or peddling the exotic Indian stereotype.
Himesh Patel, a 28-year-old Cambridgeshire-born Indian-origin debutant actor, is being touted as the ‘breakout star’ of the year owing to his role as Jack Malik, the protagonist of Danny Boyle’s rom-com Yesterday. The film is probably a turning point for not only Himesh but all South Asian actors in Hollywood, and is another giant and much-needed step towards diversity and inclusion after Black Panther, the first superhero of colour and of African descent in the Marvel Universe. What is even more remarkable is that Himesh’s character, although not ethnically ambiguous like Priyanka Chopra’s Alex Parrish in Quantico, isn’t written as an Indian, but as a person from anywhere.
“My character could have been played by a blonde as well! The background of the character is immaterial in the context of the film. The fact that we can finally pass as regular Americans and play mainstream roles without highlighting our individual cultural or ethnic background is a strong step towards the right direction,” says Himesh when we catch him for a real quick interview.
When Himesh made his stage debut playing a 68-year-old white man, it was a school play and he was just 11. Hollywood then was hardly inclusive and for kids like Himesh, it was rare to find Indian faces in mainstream pop culture.
“My parents spent most of their childhood in India and came to the UK in their early 20s. I was born in the UK. You live in two worlds and you try to share one with the other. But it is never easy. It was a challenging and confusing time. I definitely faced the gap,” he recollects.
Stuck between two equally powerful worlds, Himesh would listen to Arctic Monkeys, Muse and Kasabian while with his friends, and come back home to Bollywood film songs. Although his sister introduced him to the music of Nitin Sawhney and Niraj Chag, his friends showed zero interest in such music just as he found no takers for his enthusiasm about Bollywood films. In order to fit in at that point, it was essential for him to dilute his Indianness.
“Whenever I tried to talk about my Indian references, the conversations would become awkward, nobody was interested,” says Himesh. So eventually, being Indian became a very personal part of Himesh’s life, which he rarely shared with anyone else. So much so, that even his Wikipedia page mentions his parents merely as ‘South Asians from Africa (of Indian origin)…. Prior to his birth, his parents moved to England via India’. Himesh insists that we are probably reading too much into it. But he admits: “It was always a balancing act growing up an Indian in the UK. It still is. But with time you tend to figure it out a bit.”
Earning the lead
Indeed he has figured it out quite a bit in a rather short time. Having started his professional acting career when he was just 16, he has travelled a long way. In 2007, Himesh landed the role of Tamwar Masood on the BBC soap opera EastEnders, a character he would continue to play for nine years. It was, however, while doing a stage play in New York that he was asked to send an audition tape for “an untitled Danny Boyle project with musical elements” with a monologue from a play and a short performance of a Coldplay song on acoustic guitar. The film he auditioned for was Yesterday.
Things are definitely changing for brown people like Himesh. His casting as the lead in Yesterday was not a blip. The entertainment industry is making a conscious attempt to be more inclusive, and the inclusivity is now not limited to African-Americans.
Last year, Riz Ahmed played a supervillain in the American superhero film Venom. His character Carlton Drake was originally written as a Caucasian. He also had a starring role in Jacques Audiard’s western, The Sisters Brothers. Westerns usually see white guys in cowboy hats riding through arid landscapes shooting people at will, and Ahmed’s character of Hermann Kermit Warm was again originally that of a Caucasian.
In another milestone move, Dev Patel plays the ‘rosy-cheeked and blue-eyed’ David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, a movie set to release this year. Himesh will follow this up with Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts, where he stars along with Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne.
“It is really great that mainstream roles are opening up to actors of all ethnicity. I am also starring in The Luminaries, a six-part BBC2 drama based on Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel. These kinds of roles wouldn’t have been open to South Asian actors even a few years back,” says Himesh.
Not only are brown actors being cast in mainstream Hollywood movies, but characters with pronounced ethnic backgrounds are becoming more nuanced. Last year, in an exclusive interview with HT Brunch, actor Tiya Sircar who has been part of shows like Master Of None and The Mindy Project had called out Hollywood’s culture of stereotyping South Asians. “The character would invariably be a computer scientist or a nerd, or a doctor delivering bad news,” she had said, adding that well-rounded Indian and South Asian characters being written into scripts is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining momentum over the past three years.
Hollywood has come a long way from the Simpsons’ stereotypes, says Himesh. “Today voices are given to people of all ethnicity, especially South Asians. There are writers who are writing our stories as they are. It is indeed an interesting time!”
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From HT Brunch, August 25, 2019
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