- Viknesh Silvalingam
We need more South Asian American films
"My role is not just artist. It’s also activist because of the way I look. On so many shows and movies, race was a gesture, and in mine it’s the premise. I can’t ignore that what a lot of people see is an Indian woman who doesn’t look like a Bollywood star. It piques their interest, and they’re not bad for wanting me to tell stories about it, and I’m not wrong for not wanting to. I want to fill my desire to write vibrant, flawed characters, but then also be a role model to young people. It’s stuff that I think about all the time. Some people don’t have to think about this at all." - Mindy Kaling(1*)
What is Asian American Cinema:
The definition of what is "Asian" outside of Asia varies. For example, in the United Kingdom due to the historical context of the British Empire, "Asians" are people from the Indian Subcontinent, and those from China, Korea, or Japan, are considered East Asians, whereas in the United States it's the opposite, "Asians" are people from East Asia and South Asians are from India. (2*)
Asian American cinema is broadly defined as all films produced by filmmakers of Asian descent in the United States. Often such films are independently produced which reflects Asian American perspective and subject matter. (3*) However, only a small fraction of Asian American films achieve commercial box office success: the vast majority are exhibited at film festivals, broadcast on public television, and increasingly are sold directly to streaming platforms. The reason could be the lack of a targeted marketing strategy. The Asian community makes up 5.6% (20 million) of the population(4*), but the groups within the community are extremely diverse. For example, an Asian American with Fillino origin will have a totally different experience or preference compared to an Asian American of Indian origin.
The South Asian Diaspora, encompasses approximately 20 million people (and their ancestry) who have emigrated during the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries from South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) to the Caribbean (Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad & Tobago), North America, Fiji, South America, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa (Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda) and other parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands (Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore; where I'm from) Yes, South Asians are everywhere!
With its rich history and diversity, it comes as no surprise that films from the South Asian diaspora are always unique and vibrant. Unfortunately, they are often overshadowed by the mega influence of Bollywood and Kollywood(5*) cinema. Films from those two industries from India flood the market with such ferocity that other South Asian films face a mammoth task in getting any screentime.
So in order to find their audience, they will have to be grouped with the other films from South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, and North Asia, and to be labeled generally as Asian cinema, which is a huge disservice to everyone involved.
Why South Asian American cinema:
There are nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the United States. This includes both individuals with ancestry to the South Asia region and the South Asian diaspora. (6*)
However, the community is far from homogeneous. As mentioned at the beginning, South Asians come from different nationalities. They also possess a variety of ethnic, religious, and linguistic characteristics. The community is comprised of individuals who practice distinct religions and speak different languages, yet share similar immigration histories. For example, South Asians practice Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism. The most common languages other than English spoken by South Asians in the United States include Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu.
South Asians are also diverse in terms of immigration and socioeconomic status. The majority of South Asians who live in the United States are foreign-born, with over 75% of the population born outside of the United States. South Asians possess a range of immigration statuses including undocumented immigrants; student and worker visa holders and their dependents; legal permanent residents; and naturalized citizens. With respect to employment, many South Asians have careers in the technology and medical fields; many within the community are also employed in lower-wage jobs as cashiers, taxi workers, and restaurant workers.
As you can tell, South Asians are an extremely vivid demographic; but there is an underwhelming number of films about the South Asian American experience being produced. We can consider the 2017 movie, The Big Sick (7*) as the last true South Asian American film. According to the Rotten Tomatoes list of the Best Asian American movies of all time(8*), only 2 films representing South Asian culture are on the top 25.
Representation! A word that is currently the buzz in the film and television industry. People want to see themselves in the movie theatre and on their television screens. They want to be able to resonate with a character that looks like them, acts like them, and holds some of the same characteristics as them.
Who benefits from representation:
Personally, growing up as a South Asian (but we generally call ourselves Singaporean Indians) in multicultural - multiracial Singapore, in the late 90s and early 2000s, I rarely saw people who looked like me in the locally produced films. Even if they do have a South Asian, it will be a token role, a character with no bearing to the plot. This is one of the main reasons why I got involved in filmmaking. I wanted to tell stories that highlight the sentiments and thoughts about my community to the general audience thus in my first feature film, True Love (9*), both the antagonist and protagonist were Singaporean Indian characters.
When I arrived in the United States, I received the opportunity to direct Cold Pressed(10*). The movie, set in the Bay area is about an illegal olive oil trader. When I first received the script, it was a very predictable story with all of the characters being White. But after living in the Bay Area for a few years, I understood my surroundings better and was inspired to change the racial identity of the characters to reflect the region more accurately. I even managed to justify why the protagonist should be a South Asian character.
According to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates(11*), the nation’s population is nearly 40 percent non-white. By 2055, the country’s racial makeup is expected to change dramatically, the U.S. will not have one racial or ethnic majority group by 2055, the Pew Research Center estimated(12*).
For the 2nd or 3rd generation South Asian Americans, it is important that they see portrayals of themselves in the media, as it affects not only how they are viewed by others but also how they see themselves (13*). As such its is incredibly important that we encourage filmmakers to make more diverse stories about the South Asian American community. There is also a financial incentive for the production studios. In a report by UCLA, it has been stated that diversity sells(14*) Back in 2017, the median global box office has been the highest for films featuring casts that were more than 20-percent minority, making nearly $450 million. This amount will only get higher in the years to come.