LifeStyle & Health

‘Invisible Brown Man’: A painfully-real, funny take on Hollywood’s problem with tokenism

For some time now, Hollywood’s tokenism, blatant disregard for representation, sometimes culture appropriation, misrepresentation and whitewashing has made news around the world. It is almost like it has been going through an identity crisis, a very public one, aware of a hankering for inclusivity, but too lazy to do anything about it.

So, while filmmakers continue to project their aspirations — cast in the imagery of multicultural films — the reality remains a far cry.

Remember when Priyanka Chopra Jonas was called a ‘global scam artist’ for ‘tricking’ a naive white man into marrying her just so she could forge ahead and bolster her career in Hollywood? When Chopra married singer-songwriter Nick Jonas in 2018, she was already an A-lister in Bollywood. But while trying to find a footing in the West, she had to face rejections, some purely on account of her skin colour.

In one of her interviews, she had shared that she had once lost out on a Hollywood role because she is a woman of colour. “I was out for a movie, and somebody [from the studio] called one of my agents and said, ‘She’s the wrong — what word did they use? — ‘physicality’. So in my defense as an actor, I’m like, ‘Do I need to be skinnier? Do I need to get in shape? Do I need to have abs?’ Like, what does ‘wrong physicality’ mean? And then my agent broke it down for me. Like, ‘I think, Priy, they meant that they wanted someone who’s not brown.’ It affected me,” she was quoted as telling InStyle magazine.

And that brings us to the Invisible Brown Man, which packs many problematic themes into a 13-minute film. It screened at Yellowstone International Film Festival earlier this month.

Hollywood and tokenism, brown actors in Hollywood, tokenism in Hollywood, Invisible Brown Man, short film Invisible Brown Man, Yellowstone International Film Festival, indian express news The film screened at Yellowstone International Film Festival earlier this month. (Photo: YouTube/Pritesh Shah)

Peppered with humour, the short — written by Pritesh Shah and Dennis Fallon — begins to decry Hollywood’s fallacies from the outset. Shah’s Tejas Desai is the eponymous brown man who, at 30, has given one too many auditions, without any conclusive breakthrough.

It is almost as if Tejas is acutely aware that he only gets a few minutes to tell his story. So he breaks the fourth wall often, and reminds viewers that he is not Dev Patel, because Hollywood, he alleges, can only ever reserve a seat for one brown actor, and everyone else is a “rip-off”, desperately waiting for their moment to shine.

In one of the scenes, as he auditions for the role of a doctor, he is asked by the casting agent to “dig into [his] heritage”, “call on [his] past”, and “dive deep into the suffering of [his] upbringing”.

“You mean, do an Indian accent?!” he asks, to which the agent asks him to imagine like he has “gone home”, assuming he is from India, and alluding to the ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ that first world countries associate with the Indian subcontinent.

But Tejas grew up in San Diego — an information that is of little importance to casting directors and agents.

Tokenism, he says, is so pervasive that “every time a person of colour gets cast in a role, Hollywood acts like it cured cancer”.

“#OscarsSoWhite” has been mentioned a couple of times in the film, mainly from the context of having a seemingly progressive outlook towards casting brown actors — or actors of colour — but going ahead with a white person, anyway. Or type casting and parodying a brown person. The hashtag — often used to call out the lack of diversity in nominations for the Academy Awards, or the Oscars — is believed to have been first tweeted by activist April Reign in 2015. In 2016, it had a revival of sorts, when the Academy announced acting nominations, and it exclusively comprised white actors.

Hollywood and tokenism, brown actors in Hollywood, tokenism in Hollywood, Invisible Brown Man, short film Invisible Brown Man, Yellowstone International Film Festival, indian express news In the film, Tejas, the central character, breaks the fourth wall often, to remind viewers he is not Dev Patel. (Photo: YouTube/Pritesh Shah)

While some portions of the film feel particularly embroidered — like Tejas’ very awkward lunch rendezvous with his Dilli-wali negotiating family — the film does a sincere job of pulling a constant thread of holding an industry accountable for not being diverse enough, and not utilising a crop of talented actors.

Directed by Roxy Shih, the short ends on an uplifting note, making it a must-watch; especially since it is pulled from real experiences of many aspiring South Asian actors.

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