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India’s soft power in Kazakhstan gives rise to questions

The Hindu, an Indian daily newspaper, in a report by Sandeep Dikshit entitled “In Almaty, new Raj Kapoors wield soft power”, said the following: “India’s soft power in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan, the largest of the five stans, is enjoying a revival thanks to a new breed of Indian entrepreneurs”.

The Kazakh spectator is a grateful spectator. The popularity of Indian movies in Kazakhstan has been an undeniable reality since the Soviet period. But many of our nationals are still unaware that there’s no room for people like us, Kazakhs, (i.e. people similar in appearance to Mongolians) in Bollywood. And that’s not a surprise. The same approach existed in Hollywood until quite recently.
Gryphon, a British weekly student newspaper, in an article by its Web Editor entitled “The Favouritism of White Actors in Non-White Roles”, said: “Since the birth of film, white actors have been prioritized in Hollywood. The Hayes Code, a set of rules governing Hollywood films after 1930, banned depictions of interracial relationships. This enshrined the widespread discrimination of non-white actors in law…The once common practice of casting white actors as characters of black African descent has for decades been seen as extremely racist… Acting, by its very nature, means to pretend. Actors are not the characters they embody on screen.  If racial discrimination became a thing of the past, race-blind casting might become ethically acceptable. However, the reality now is that the casting of white actors as non-white characters is generally the product of continuing racism”.
We are not going to question such a conclusion, and that’s that! Hollywood had been accused of whitewashing Asians for decades, i.e. casting Caucasian (white) actors in Asian roles. Such practices had been condemned and, therefore, curbed quite a long time ago. A lot of progress has been made since then.
Nowadays, clearly racist casting choices are hardly possible in America and Europe. It is more appropriate to talk about race-blind or colour-blind casting (also known as non-traditional casting), which, as matter of fact, is not relevant to a problem that we are going to raise.
Here we go. So, practice of casting Caucasian (white) actors as characters of Asian (Mongoloid) descent has long been considered as defiantly racist in America and Western Europe. In India, however, using Indian actors (with Caucasian features) for East Asian roles apparently remains a relatively common practice.
Examples are not far to seek. Let’s take just one case for the moment. An Indian biographical sports drama film called “Mary Kom” appeared in 2014. It is “about the Indian Boxer and Olympic Bronze medallist MC Mary Kom, her life, struggles, family and her perseverance to be the best”.
Mary Kom is the only woman to have won a medal at six consecutive world boxing championships. She is 5 time amateur World Boxing Champion. Her fame is earned through hard work and courage.
Mary Kom, who became the first Indian woman boxer to get a gold medal in the Asian Games in 2014 in Incheon, South Korea, is from Manipur state, where people are unique. They do have features similar to Southeast Asian.
So do Mangte Chungneijang Mery­kom (aka Mary Kom or MC Merykom) and her husband, Karung Onkholer Kom.
Priyanka Chopra, who was picked to play Mary Kom, looks like a Caucasian woman, and Darshan Kumar, who was picked to play Karung Onkholer Kom, looks like a Caucasian man, too. They have nothing in common with their prototypes in the abovementioned film.
But boxing champ M.C. Mary Kom says that “the movie would not have been a hit if any look-alike had played her role”. She “is happy with Omung Kumar’s directorial venture “Mary Kom” and says that the biopic has captured the true essence of his her life”. Her enthusiasm is understandable.
But we should proceed from the particular to the general. In this case, we have, volens nolens, to face the overall reality which “now is that the casting of actors” with Caucasian features “as non-white characters is generally the product of continuing racism”.
Bollywood can, of course, claim that the casting of Indian actors (with Caucasian features) for East Asian roles is, first of all, a matter of economic reality.
According to Lisa Nakamura, a professor of American culture at the University of Michigan, even if such a strategy is profitable, Caucasian actors playing Asian roles are not convincing, effectively breaking the movie’s “fourth wall”.

Danish AZIM


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