My Oscar Dreams For Brown-Skinned Kids

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Hollywood is obsessed with poor, lost brown people in slums or jungles. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I like Dev Patel, and not just because he has brown skin. Though, if I’m being honest, that was the main reason I woke up before the sun while on vacation, to watch the live announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees. As the actor himself has said, “I want there to be people that look like me represented on screen.” And Patel’s success has always promised to create more opportunities for people of South Asian descent to appear in Hollywood films. So, yes, I was rooting for him on the morning of January 24th, and held my breath in anticipation as the names under “Best Supporting Actor” appeared on screen.

And suddenly there it was, between “Hedges” and “Shannon” — “Patel.” It was only the third time a South Asian actor of any background has had their name called by the Academy Awards, after Ben Kingsley (the lone winner, in 1983, for Gandhi) and Merle Oberon, who was nominated in 1935. Yet Kingsley, who has a white mother and a father of Indian descent, has played characters who aren’t South Asian in the past, and Oberon, who was part Sri Lankan and Irish, was actually thought to be white her entire career. Patel, on the other hand, could not pass if he tried. And of the three, his shade of brown is closest to my own.

His shade of brown is closest to my own.

His performance as Saroo Brierley, the Indian-born Australian man in Lion — who miraculously finds his way back home decades after getting lost on a train — was recognized alongside Nicole Kidman’s turn as his adoptive mother Sue. And there’s this moment near the end of the film, which is based on a true story, where Kidman’s character explains to her son why they became a family, referencing a prophetic dream she had as a young girl, which included a vision of a “brown-skinned boy.” Contrary to Saroo’s worst fears, he and his adopted brother were a choice she always wanted to make. A dream come true.

Saroo’s hurtful assumption that he was a burden to his mother, as Kyle Turner writes on Slate, reflects the film’s seeming disinterest “in the complexities and nuances of adoption.” But I found myself returning to this odd scene throughout the rest of Lion, and again on that recent early morning, for slightly different reasons. I kept wondering, what did that brown-skinned boy in Nicole Kidman’s dream look like, exactly?

Did he look like I did as a 5-year-old in Springfield, Illinois? With my wild mane of hair and my favorite Who Framed Roger Rabbit? sweatshirt? Did he maybe look like a young Dev Patel, growing up in England, with an interest in theater and martial arts? Something told me no, not exactly. The familiar implication the film makes is that this white woman’s vision of “brown” looked something more like Jamaal running across the trains in Slumdog Millionaire, or a shirtless Mowgli, talking to animals in The Jungle Book. Beautiful, lost, poor kids like Saroo.

The existence of brown-skinned boys in places that aren’t slums (or jungles) isn’t something Hollywood film studios are typically very interested in.

The existence of brown-skinned boys in places that aren’t slums (or jungles) — whether they are Indo-Caribbean, South American, Sudanese-American, or otherwise — isn’t something Hollywood film studios are typically very interested in. Never mind brown-skinned kids of other genders. Yet, it would seem, that the elites of American cinema do have a particular love for impoverished brown boys who live “over there.” In fact, the London-born Patel, one of the most famous actors of South Asian descent working in movies outside of South Asia, is widely known for playing characters born in South Asia. And his most “prestigious” roles have come in films which are specifically about poor Indian boys.

So when Kidman’s character talks wistfully about her “dream” child, it’s not a stretch to think she’s conjuring the shirtless Suraj Sharma in the Oscar-nominated Life of Pi, rather than someone who might look like Patel himself did when he attended Longfield Middle School in Harrow. This is probably true for the vast majority of Lion’s viewers in the United States as well.

The elites of American cinema do have a particular love for impoverished brown boys who live “over there.”

Eighty years after Merle Oberon felt forced to keep herself hidden — pretending to be a white woman from Tasmania — the people in power in Hollywood still very rarely acknowledge the existence of people like her in their own neighborhoods. In the late ‘70s Krishna Bhanji changed his name to Ben Kingsley, and in 2017 the late (white) Peter Sellers still has more leading roles as an Indian person on his resume than Mindy Kaling. If South Asians show up at all in our most acclaimed movies today — especially if they are dark-skinned — they often remain exoticized, mystical others.

That being said, my feelings about Lion remain complicated. Because while the scenes between the young Saroo (played by Sunny Parwar) and his family in India are somewhat reductive, it is also true that Patel gets the chance here to play a man who does not have a Hank Azarian accent, and does indeed live outside of South Asia (coincidentally, in Tasmania). He gets to attend hotel management school, but isn’t limited to running an “exotic” business. And he doesn’t have to prove to white people in France that the food he cooks is delicious, or that he isn’t a terrorist.

Credit: flickr/Dominick D

When Patel accepted his BAFTA award for this part, he stood on stage, on live TV, and called himself an “Indian dude.” This is the kind of mainstream role, and recognition, that is so rare in Hollywood that last year the Wall Street Journal’s white film critic, while reviewing Lion, actually confused Patel with actor Kal Penn — who starred in Mira Nair’s 2006 family drama The Namesake (about an Indian-American who returns to his parent’s homeland to learn more about himself).

Yet as much as I’m rooting for Patel and his brown co-stars, it’s hard to see Lion itself as a transgressive representation of the lives of South Asian people. Especially when there’s really only one sequence where Saroo interacts with people of color outside of India, other than his brother Mantosh. Inside the home of some South Asian friends, while at a party in Melbourne, he tastes a jalebi for the first time — a sweet which suddenly recalls a poignant memory from his childhood. After this he opens up to his white girlfriend (played by Rooney Mara) and begins to obsess about understanding his past. It’s a touching sequence, but also odd given its placement in the story. It’s as if Saroo hasn’t been faced with the reality of his identity prior to becoming a 20-something, or as Turner observes, that he “hasn’t so much as been to an Indian restaurant.”

As teenagers, did Saroo and Mantosh not see other brown-skinned kids? There are, in fact, South Asians in Tasmania, and certainly other people of color. It’s also a place with a well known history of colonialism, where indigenous people were slaughtered by white Europeans. Surely Saroo at least learned some part of this history, or witnessed the lingering effects of it at school? While using Google Earth to peer into his Indian past did he never google India’s history as a country — its own experience with colonialism, colorism, and anti-blackness? And if his parents truly prevented him from ever interacting with brown people, is the halo which the film hangs over them justified? You start to wonder what exactly John and Sue Brierley think about the brown-skinned boys born in their own country.

Saroo’s motivation for finding home in the film is centered almost exclusively on the personal, and the traumatic way in which he was torn from his family.

These types of questions are left mostly unanswered in Lion, which was written by Luke Davies and directed by Garth Davis — both of whom are white. Saroo’s motivation for finding home in the film is centered almost exclusively on the personal, and the traumatic way in which he was torn from his family. This is a narrowing of the memoir upon which the film is based, originally titled A Long Way Home, where the real Saroo actually does recount the way the Brierleys made an effort to connect him to the local Indian Cultural Society, how people at school in Tasmania would call him a “black bastard,” and how impactful it was to occasionally speak with an Indian couple in the neighborhood (where he did indeed eat a home-cooked meal). At one point he describes what it felt like when his parents took him to Melbourne, to meet other brown-skinned kids from the same orphanage he and his brother came from:

“Talking enthusiastically in Hindi to my fellow adoptees inevitably brought back the past very vividly. For the first time, I told Mum that the place I was from was called ‘Ginestlay.’”

All of these details may not have been possible to include in the film, and all adaptations take liberties in how they compress events, but the series of choices made in Lion downplay the impact of race and ethnicity in the lives of brown-skinned people. As if the only reason a person of color might not feel at home in the West is because they were dramatically separated from their family.

But to be honest, when I watched Saroo finally board that plane to India — to find Kamla, his biological mother — I wasn’t really thinking of these gaps in the narrative. As is the power of cinematic representation, seeing Patel on that journey took me into my own memories of flying to Bangladesh, with my own family. Or, to be more precise, I started to think about how I wrote about these experiences as a teenager, in my college admission essays.

As is the power of cinematic representation, seeing Patel on that journey took me into my own memories of flying to Bangladesh, with my own family.

In those applications I focused on the poverty I saw; spoke eloquently of the rows of tent homes we passed exiting the airport in Dhaka. I remember detailing the pity I felt. I told them how being faced with that onslaught of suffering made me a “better” person.

At the end of Lion I was overwhelmed, but it wasn’t just because Saroo was embracing Kamla (played by Priyanka Bose) after more than 20 years of being apart. I kept wondering, why did I write those essays in such a paternalistic way? Why didn’t I also write about my own mother — my big, beautiful family? All the fun I had playing cricket with my cousins, or visiting the beach in Cox’s Bazar? The way my conception of self began to change during those trips?

What was the vision of Bangladesh within which I was trying to contextualize my experience? Why did I tell such a narrow version of my own story to these people? Perhaps it was because, after all, I was pining for their acceptance. I wanted them — those people behind the curtain — to take me into their institutions.

This is of course the worst aspect of being annihilated by the media. When the plane lands in the place where your family is from, you also see it and its people — and yourself standing there — through the lens of The Jungle Book. You cannot otherwise picture your own face in a place called Bangladesh; it is something you can’t quite conjure. What does a young Bangladeshi-American on vacation in Dhaka look like, exactly? How do they feel, for the first time they can remember, amongst crowds of brown-skinned people on the streets? Removing their sandals to step onto a marble-floored mosque on a Friday afternoon? Or watching a version of Back to the Future on TV, badly dubbed in Bengali?

When Saroo views India on a map — with that ever present Google logo in the corner — he gets about as much context about the country as Hollywood ever gives its audiences. According to the movies which reach most American viewers, to be born in South Asia is to be born into difficulty, squalor. Films like Lion present the “real India” — a phrase Roger Ebert once used to describe Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire — as an extreme mix of poverty, sex slavery, filth, and corruption. A place where all the “bad guys” have brown skin and the only salvation comes from white rescuers, or the products of capitalism.

Patel himself has talked about his own stereotypical (and sexist) view of India, admitting that before auditioning for Slumdog Millionaire he assumed all women there “were going to have these little bindi marks and have coconut oil in their hair and wear saris and a cow would be outside walking by.” He credits starring in that film as a turning point in his own life, and his own ideas about the country. Yet Patel has actually been to India and he has brown skin himself — watching films directed by white men is not a substitute for these experiences. If anything, his comments exemplify what happens when you learn about South Asia mostly through limited representations in Western media.

In a critique of the film, Sohinee Roy writes that Slumdog Millionaire “makes luck the solution of poverty.” Roy also posits that the frenetic camera movements used, while entertaining, leave the actual “reasons behind poverty and slum formation” obscured. In a similar way, in Lion it is luck which lands Saroo in Tasmania, luck which guides him to taste that jalebi, and the innovative technologies of Western capitalism which luckily help him remember his home. And what was it that got him lost anyway? Was it bad luck, or the disorganized and backwards sprawl of India — the scary mass of brown skin?

Yes, Lion is based in truth, but it is not told on screen by Saroo himself. The story is always viewed through a lens of whiteness, and ultimately intended for a white Western audience. Would it have made a difference if different people were behind it? I think so, though I’m not sure we would be talking about it during awards season.

In 88 years, no film directed by a person of South Asian descent has ever been nominated for best picture.

In 88 years, no film directed by a person of South Asian descent has ever been nominated for best picture, and only three, all from India, have been up for best foreign language film: Mother India, Lagaan, and Nair’s Salaam Bombay! And though she has gone on to make many gorgeous films, it’s not a surprise that Nair’s highest recognition has come for a movie about neglected children living on the streets. Which is not to say that Salaam Bombay! isn’t a beautiful film too — it really is — or that I don’t think we should face the reality of income inequality and oppression in South Asia (Brierley specifically mentions recognizing his experience in Nair’s film.) But just that it doesn’t seem coincidental that the white-directed Born into Brothels, which tells the story of how the children of sex workers in Calcutta have their lives transformed by a gift from a white photographer, is the only feature documentary about South Asia to ever win an Oscar.

‘Slumdog’ is a phrase invented by the white screenwriter of a movie which Hollywood holds above every film ever made by people of South Asian descent.

The film industries in India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere in the region undoubtedly have their own issues — including colorism, classism, and misogyny — but that doesn’t change the fact that “slumdog” is a phrase invented by the white screenwriter of that movie which Hollywood holds above every film ever made by people of South Asian descent. The director of Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi, recently defended his own decision to invent a white savior in his Oscar-nominated biopic about three Black women by saying, “there needs to be white people who do the right thing” on screen too. As if white people haven’t been given a position of moral superiority in film for over one hundred years already. But then again, after all that training, perhaps white people need to imagine a role of importance for themselves in order to connect to a film.

In other words, even films about brown and Black people must often find a way to exalt whiteness. So you can understand why I wanted more from Garth Davis and Lion — why I noticed when the script gave the white mother a bigger arc than the brown one. Why I think it matters that it avoids questions of history and context, while continuing a fascination with the childhood of helpless brown boys in foreign places.

When Viola Davis recently won a Screen Actors Guild award for her supporting performance in Fences — a movie made by and about Black people — in her acceptance speech she praised playwright August Wilson for honoring “the average man who happened to be a man of color.” She said, “we deserve to be at the center of any narrative.”

Her description of Wilson reminded me of Satyajit Ray, the Bengali filmmaker who rose to fame in the 1950s. Ray is the only South Asian to ever receive a lifetime achievement award from the Academy Awards, and he got it in 1992, largely for the lasting impact of The Apu Trilogy, three films chronicling the life of a poor boy in India (when the films were originally released, they were not nominated). Ritesh Batra, director of The Lunchbox, once wrote that what made Ray a great storyteller was his ability “to capture a time and a place, and show how ordinary people were getting on with their lives.” Ray directed a lot of wonderful films that could be described in this way, but he is most celebrated in the West for capturing the life of Apu. The character has been so influential that he even inspired the naming of that famously racist Simpsons’ caricature.

But, of course, Apur Sansar is one of my favorite movies too. It has been from the moment I saw it at my uncle’s house in Connecticut; with its deeply-drawn characters, beautifully composed shots, and soaring music. The way it centers poor Bengali people in a story about massive social change in India.

It’s true though that over time my love has been complicated, especially when viewed through an intersectional feminist lens, but there are particular questions in my head which I resent even having to contend with. There’s this nagging doubt about my own ability to see — have Kipling and Disney permanently altered me? Narrowed my view? I try to remember though that my eyes are different, and that they have always had that capability. That I can see things in this film that they never will.

There’s this nagging doubt about my own ability to see — have Kipling and Disney permanently altered me?

A few years ago I went back to Bangladesh, reconnected with family, and visited India for the first time. I rode the trains and thought of Apu, visited the Taj Mahal with my brother and thought of Gogol Ganguli. I saw kids playing cricket and ate delicious mangoes in Dhaka. I noticed the way opulent hotels stood next to crowds of homeless people of color in the streets, and how rampant gender inequity plagued everyday life. These things moved me, troubled me, and reminded me of home. I read Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story on the journey back, and my thoughts kept drifting to Springfield, the Bay Area, and New York City. To other train rides, other families, and those places in America where I have been surrounded by white people and felt invisible.

The Western obsession with poverty in South Asia was not created by South Asian artists, but rather a very old system of othering, exploitation, and oppression. It is maintained now by the white studios, distributors, and producers who choose which films about South Asia to mount Oscar campaigns around, and which to ignore. Which memoirs to spend millions on adapting, and who to pay to write the adaptation. It’s perpetuated by the white men who have little empathy for the brown-skinned kids in their own cities, and a vested interest in keeping them at an exotic distance.

Dev Patel has said he thinks comparisons between his previous work and Lion are unfair, but it’s impossible to avoid these comparisons in a world designed to make them. In 2013, when the BBC first reported on the true life story of Saroo Brierley, before he had even written his memoir, it was already being placed within that larger cinematic narrative about poor people of color in that part of the world:

“…with memories of Slumdog Millionaire still fresh, publishers and film producers are getting interested in his incredible story.”

Yes, there has been some progress in Hollywood’s representations of the South Asian diaspora, especially on TV and for straight middle-class men who look like Aziz Ansari or Riz Ahmed. But large groups of brown and Black people remain left out entirely, and the Oscars, which each year canonize a new slate of films, are still mostly off-limits.

So Patel’s nomination matters, but as a Bangladeshi-American who was raised Muslim, watching Lion in a Trump-ruled country, these days I’m less concerned with acceptance, and more concerned with how the films we’re most likely to see teach us to see ourselves. I wonder how brown-skinned kids will write their own essays this year. What kinds of new pressures the children of immigrants have to contend with, from classmates, teachers, and the towns they live in. How they picture, in their own imaginations, the countries they are from.

My guess is, many are better writers than I was, with greater access to the rest of the world. They may have heard Beyoncé’s words at the Grammys, and might stumble upon the poetry of Alok Vaid-Menon someday.

Regardless, they all deserve to know, again and again, that their stories matter, and that their community is beautiful and filled with multitudes of experiences beyond what the Oscars show them. I hope they see that living “over there” is not just one thing, and neither is being here. That we exist beyond the colonizer’s gaze.

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