Film inclusion has long since served as a barometer for racial ethics, social change and the caste revolution. While films have been a form of entertainment and enjoyment, today they are held accountable for much more. A film can spin the world around its little finger and cause a storm in the socio-cultural reels. Add to this an angle that has been prodded and poked and questioned time and again by anthropologists, film critics, the people at the movies and the audience that loves anything that stirs a buzz - ethnicity in casting. Is it something real or a distant reality? With the news of Dev Patel starring in PVR’s new release - The Personal History of David Copperfield, the question we ask is if cinema is finally ready to ignore ethnicity in casting.
What does non-traditional casting mean?
Integrated casting - an alien term to some people of the film industry, essentially implies that caste or race does not matter as long as someone fits the bill, plays the role, and brings a whole lot of new energy to the table. Others, however, see much truth in believing that it is one’s ethnicity that determines the roles one fits into.
In the golden era of casting, are the scales tipping towards a more open approach, one where ethnicity has little or no role to play? It seems like. With Dev Patel of Indian origin finding himself playing a character that many would have assumed would be played by a British, the scene is certainly changing.
What is colour-conscious casting?
A certain some are not offered particular roles in films solely due to their colour. Contrary to this approach is something termed ‘colourblind casting’ - selecting actors for roles irrespective of their skin tone, race or any other factor. While Indians are beginning to be approached for roles overseas, colourblind casting is yet to make its mark in the industry at large.
Speaking of the selection of Dev Patel for the film, producer of the film Kevin Loader says, “Armando Iannucci - the film director, always knew he wanted Dev. Once you realise that, then you’re making a statement about the fact that you’re going to cast actors who are capable of embodying the character as perfectly as possible, regardless of their ethnicity. I was standing on the side of the set the other day, watching a scene between three of the younger characters. I suddenly realised I was watching three young black British actors in a Dickens adaptation, none of which were written as black characters. And it didn’t seem odd. It’s just another scene in the film.”
This mix of culture is happening in London. Has it been inspired by theatre and its amalgamation of different racial talents? That does seem a likely possibility.
The Indian film industry is devoid of racism today
India has been recognised and acclaimed for the melange of culture that bubbles within its films. We spoke to different persona from the film industry and while they do believe the scene is changing, they say the evolution of this is slow.
Binu Sadanandan, a film director who had his big break with his first film Ithihasa (2014), says the industry has come a long way. “I am unable today, to find even so much as a trace of racism or ethnicity playing a role in casting for movies. The era has changed and undergone a radical switch. Today the industry has had to move and make space for digital releases, and if you watch them you’ll see. There are newcomers with a thirst to prove themselves, and boy! The energy is outstanding.”
With an upcoming film in the pipeline, this director is positive that people too are becoming more accepting and open to seeing the fresh talent that is from overseas, in films.
Digital films see a mix of cultures
The ingenuity of the internet and the flood of digital movies that are now reigning over our Friday nights have certainly caused an uproar of sorts. In an age where a cinephile would associate movies only with the names of people who belonged to his country, the digital move concept has caused us to shift our perception and flush stereotypes down the drain.
As digital and OTT platforms continually surprise us with their releases, are we shocked anymore when we fail to see known faces or those from our ‘familiar’ backgrounds on screen? Like hell no. “Indians have stopped batting an eyelid when they see people of different ethnicities and races on screen,” says Kapil Matlani - an actor.
“The Indian film body is ready, finally, to ignore the ethnicity and the stereotypes that once were a big part of the casting procedure. In fact today, culture is promoted like crazy on OTT platforms. In my opinion, the digital era sparked this revolution and it is now spilling over into mainstream cinema too.”
Ignoring ethnicity in casting has made movies more authentic
A phenomenon or rather a glitch that many movie buffs and critics alike have often pointed out is that when actors are assigned roles that they have not in actual lived, it does feel strange or foreign, to say the least. Citing the example of The Personal History of David Copperfield, the character that Dev plays is in fact very close to his previous roles and life experiences. A lad who goes on to make his way in the world, and craft out his niche. Does it ring a bell? This was in fact the very story of the Slumdog Millionaire boy.
Ankur Sharma, an actor who has worked extensively for stage and screen in India and the United Kingdom speaks of how seeing directors bring in people from different ethnicities to play roles in movies is refreshing. “Ethnicity is being celebrated now in cinemas to bring authentic cultural texture,” he says.
While this has broadened the boundaries of socio-cultural norms, it has also formed a remarkable style. “Ignoring ethnicity in casting has not only made performances more authentic but also immensely relatable.” Casting directors have in fact begun to look for those who closely would identify with the role, someone who has lived through it. “They have started to ask about hometown and languages known to actors along with their other details. To polish things further, dialect coaches are also being introduced to film sets to further support this idea of believability.”
Sharing his own experience, Ankur says his multilingualism has gotten him a fair share of projects. He is of the idea that people no longer wish to see a personification of something when the real version would be much more interesting and relatable.
Ethnicity in casting cannot be ignored in certain cases
Yes, there is a majority who believe that Indian cinema is finally stepping out of its shoes of the belief that ethnicity is the most important factor when it comes to casting. But there are few who think this may not hold true for certain cases. Divya Unny is one of them.
As an actor, a filmmaker and a scriptwriter for over a decade, she thinks ethnicity does still play a role when it comes to making a decision about the cast. “Casting directors are not yet ready to ignore this factor. This especially holds true for character actors and actors who aren’t that popular.”
To support her statement she says when the script is written and a character sketch is done, most filmmakers do it with an idea in mind - an idea of a place, mannerisms, personality, language, accent and a whole lot of other things that form one’s identity. “When a film has scenes that portray nurses, it is a common belief that Kerala and Maharashtra are the two states that churn out the most number of nurses in the country. Thus a casting director would aim to have people from these backgrounds to feature in his film. The personalities of these actors are already imbibed by virtue of where they come from.”
Divya identifies with this. She often gets called for roles that are to do with the south and those which portray rural persons. “This is because of the way I look and my roots. I look like a South-Indian girl and thus casting directors approach me for such roles. While this does have an upside in the sense that I am able to give the role my best, the downside is that these directors then fail to see that I am capable of playing roles that are not close to my ethnicity. I am confined to my space.”
On a final note, Divya adds that Indian cinema has not yet gotten to a point where we are ready to see that actors can play parts away from their ethnicity. “For known actors though, ethnicity is not a factor. They are chosen purely for their talent. Thus I’d say as actors when we work towards our skill and gain popularity, we can then break out of the ‘ethnicity’ mode.