I will not be the first to say this, but I think that the public discussion around what constitutes “representation” in media is fundamentally bad. I care about having members of my race on screen insofarasmuch (real word, don’t look it up) I care about steady, well-paying work in any industry to be available to anyone of any race. I know it’s a worthwhile pursuit to include people of many races in children’s media, or media made for racist and stupid adults. But I don’t really mind, one way or another, not having someone of my demographic up there in most stuff.
I know almost every single South-Asian-in-the-West story that gets made will be sort of bad, mostly because they’re being made to fill a “representation gap.” Studios and executives are not particularly interested in what’s in our minds, they’re mostly interested in the untapped market we represent; they’re interested in filling quotas. While I’m hopeful that this is a transitionary period towards a more racially inclusive and narratively creative era of screen culture, I am also aware that the shareholder-beholden behemoth of Disney and its ilk are slowly building a perfectly racially diverse but otherwise completely staid cultural hegemony that will probably take up 90% of what’s “on screen” in the near future.
I am perfectly aware that a lot of this is deeply internalized racism, but I’ve also never thought any of the famous South Asian guys in the West were cool. South Asian women could rest easy knowing that they had Padma Lakshmi on their team, while we were relegated to the slag heap of Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani, pitiful excuses for cool guys. The coolest dudes we had would get up on stage and talk about their problems in a whiny voice. We had Kal Penn, who went to go work for Obama, who famously loved to be a big drone bomber guy. All of them were tolerable; none of them were actually dope.
But that’s all in the past, because Dev Patel is a straight up Hollywood star now, and it rocks.
Dev Patel is the ideal celebrity. He’s hot, has great hair, dresses nice, has a British accent or something, and he is not on social media. He isn’t in every movie, so he’s not overexposed, but he was in The Newsroom, which sucked ass, but I watched all of it.
Plus, he got to be David Copperfield.
When I watched this movie, I knew he’d made it. The film is sort of weirdly paced, but he’s so charming and lovely and just purely likable that I couldn’t help enjoying myself the whole time. It felt so nice to actually be represented on screen, as an Indian guy who would frequently fantasize about being in a Dickens novel, that I almost felt a pang of sympathy with people who share my background but want to see a movie about being micro-aggressed against at McKinsey.
And now he’s about to be the Green Knight. He’s got a part in the best trailer of 2021!
Maybe I’m too cynical about stuff involving my race, but in a world of desperate South Asian Americans who think nothing of selling off deep and integral parts of their background and identity just to get a tiny bit of attention in the mediasphere, I find myself with much more respect for someone like Dev Patel who shines in every role, never seemed to cash in on his identity (I’m ignoring Slumdog Millionaire, even though it ruled), and has enough talent to get cast in “white guy parts.”
Coming to this realization is weird. I think a lot of (specifically) Asian people in the US feel the same way, that entering the upper echelons and breaking free of the shackles of identity-focused work1 is sort of the long-term creative goal for Our People, but the idea that we internally measure success or creative value by proximity to whatever the white people are doing is… to say the least, extremely troubling. But I can’t help feeling the way I do; that those of us who do work that is focused on packaging up and reselling our racial identity as a product to be consumed are somehow artistically less than, less original, less courageous. It’s probably a feeling that’s worth grappling with and challenging, but I don’t think like I’ll ever come around to whatever Goatface is.
So until then: thank you, Dev Patel. I desperately hope you stay a chiller.
There’s a crucial data point missing here, and that is Dev Patel as Anwar in Skins. That’s stolen valor—playing a Muslim guy. Also whatever Aziz Ansari did by telling us a guy named Dev Shah was Muslim.
See also: M. Night Shyamalan