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A History of South Asian Representation at the Oscars

By: Nishtha Aggarwal

Abstract: The recent awards season sweep by Daniels’ Everything, Everywhere All at Once and
RRR’s upbeat track “Naatu Naatu” has brought the complex debate surrounding South Asian
representation in Hollywood to the forefront. This article will dive into the complex history of
South Asian representation in Hollywood, and analyze whether these recent victories are truly
symbolic of the progress and inclusion of South Asian cinema in Hollywood

“This is history in the making”, said Michelle Yeoh, as she accepted her Oscar for Best
Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Everything, Everywhere All at Once. She went

on to express her joy at being recognized for her work and how this moment marks a significant
step forward for South Asian representation in Hollywood. On the same stage, MM Keeravaani
exclaimed, “There was only one wish on my mind…RRR has to win …the pride of every
Indian…and it must put me on the top of the world,” as he accepted the award for Best Original
Score RRR’s Naatu Naatu. Yeoh and the entire team of EEAAO, along with RRR’s “Naatu
Naatu” and Guneet Monga’s documentary The Elephant Whisperers, created strides for South
Asian representation at the Oscars this year. These achievements have been viewed as “a bold,
unconventional bet by the Academy” and a beacon of progress and inclusivity of South Asians
by Hollywood.

A deep dive into the history of South Asian representation in Hollywood, however, paints
a complex picture of this representation. South Asians have often been type-casted as awkward,
geeky, and asexual or perverted in the case of men and either highly submissive or highly
cunning sex objects in the case of women. Hollywood’s representation of South Asians has been
extremely prejudiced over the years, and this has not gone unnoticed. The most famously
misrepresented South Asian in the US comes in the form of Apu from the Simpsons, voiced by
the white actor, Hank Azaria, who does a stereotypical imitation of the Indian accent. On the
other hand, we have Raj Koothrapali from The Big Bang Theory, portrayed by British-Indian
actor Kunal Nayyar, fitting the awkward asexual Asian trope throughout the show. The situation
looks even worse for women, as they have been stereotypically cast as hypersexualized objects,
serving as either submissive to the white man or cunning in their demeanour. Think Princess
Ling Moy in Daughter of the Dragon and the titular character of Suzie Wong in The World of
Suzie Wong. Tajima-Peña, an Asian-American filmmaker, calls this typecasting a parallel to

what are still the main myths and imagery of Asian Americans- the model minority or the
perpetual foreigner: “The lotus blossom being a submissive, compliant sex object. The dragon
lady being an evil, threatening sex object. In both cases, the sex object.”

Perhaps the most ignored aspect of South Asian representation in Hollywood has been
how South Asians have not been able to represent themselves. The Hollywood practice of white-
washing, i.e. white actors playing non-white characters can be traced back to the very beginnings
of film. Through the use of makeup and special effects, white actors have been indulging in
yellowface, and giving themselves stereotypically Asian looks to pass for roles that depict these
characters. A wide variety of examples of yellowface are available in Hollywood: Mickey
Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, and Scarlett Johannson in
Ghost in the Shell. This practice of yellowface has been met with widespread criticism from
arduous consumers of film, especially those belonging to Asian communities themselves. For
example, April 2016 saw a Twitter trend #StarringJohnCho of photoshopping Korean-American
actor John Cho on numerous white leading actor movie posters. Such trends and movements
have tried to garner attention towards the issue of misrepresentation and create demand for more
movies in Hollywood that cast Asian-origin actors in protagonist roles.

Apart from being excluded from roles that are primarily Asian, these actors have been
excluded from fair recognition of their talent at award shows in Hollywood over the years as
well. The Oscars have time and again been criticized for a lack of non-white nominees across all
categories. For instance, the Academy saw a major backlash in 2015 for having zero non-white
nominees across all major categories. In 2016, this criticism took the shape of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, a movement meant to call out the Hollywood practice of whitewashing. However, it is notable that even this campaign primarily focused on the underrepresentation of African-American actors in the Academy, again leading to exclusion of Asian actors from the conversation. It is important to note that this lack of representation in the awards circuit combined with stereotypical depictions of Asians in Hollywood movies can have a profound impact on the viewers, especially the younger ones who are still developing their sense of self-identity. By not seeing themselves represented on screen, these viewers may feel marginalized and excluded from the larger society.

While the 2023 Academy Awards have been highly praised for their representation of
Asian actors and filmmakers, there remain areas of improvement to make it truly a perfect win
for the Asian community. For instance, the Best Original Score-winning Indian song, “Naatu
Naatu”, was performed on stage by a set of non-Indian and primarily White dancers. This move
has been harshly criticized by the audience and marked as a gross misrepresentation of the
talented brown dancers who choreographed the song, and it would have been better if the
performance had been done by Indian dancers. Another drawback is seen in the reporting of
Asian representation at the Oscars by major white publications such as the Guardian, Time, etc.
that do not even recognize the Indian victories of RRR and The Elephant Whisperers as
representations of Asian talent, and only recognize the victory of Everything, Everywhere, All at
Once. This is a significant oversight that undermines the value of the Indian victories and their
contribution to the representation of Asian talent at the Oscars.

The underrepresentation of minorities in mainstream cinema has been a long-standing
issue, and although the Oscars recognized numerous Asian artists this year, it is still far from
enough. The recognition of these artists is commendable, but it should be viewed with caution, as
it does not necessarily mean that the Oscars are inclusive and progressive. If we take a closer
look at the representation of South Asians in Hollywood, it becomes clear that there is a lack of
authentic representation. For example, the cast of EEAAO, RRR, and Guneet Monga, the director
of The Elephant Whisperers, are excellent starting points for even greater recognition of
authentic representations of South Asians in Hollywood. Hollywood must take a closer look at
the way it represents Asian actors in movies and award shows. By including more diverse and
nuanced stories, the industry can ensure that all actors, regardless of their race, get a fair chance
at showcasing their talent and achieving recognition for their work. This is not only important for
the actors themselves, but also for the viewers who want to see more diverse and inclusive
representations on screen. Furthermore, Hollywood needs to recognize that diversity is not just a
buzzword, but a necessary step toward creating a more equitable and just society.


Nishtha Aggarwal is a second-year Economics and Psychology student at Ashoka

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