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Photo courtesy of Amair Javaid

Spill the Chai: On diversifying the entertainment industry

By Aymen Sherwani, October 4, 2020—

Growing up, almost every person of colour is told that they’ll have to work twice as hard just to be equal to everyone else. Fast forward years later, the rudest awakening someone will receive is understanding they’ll actually have to work four times harder than that, only to get half as far as everyone else in the rat race we all call the “pursuit of happiness.” A lot of it has to do with the way our ethnicity “typecasts” us in a way that never happens with white people who, more often than not, are told that they can be whatever they want to be if they put their mind to it. The versatility of the white face is something that most people of colour simply don’t have, because of how often we are labelled as “criminals,” “terrorists” and “nerds” — it really depends across ethnicities. That’s why we have to hustle harder to validate our existence in a workplace in which we feel like we don’t belong to because no one looks like us, on top of the fact that so many people think we don’t “fit the part.” 

University of Calgary alumnus, Omar Javaid, puts all of our anxieties into perspective, igniting a conversation with the Gauntlet about his experiences as a South Asian man trying to get into the film industry here in Canada, and why, as a person of colour, it’s so hard to enter an unconventional career because of the lack of mentorship present. 

“I feel like I missed out on a lot of things that ‘western’ kids grew up having naturally come to them,” he says. “I didn’t know how to write a resume at all or even audition for a role. I had to go seek that mentorship out. I’ve worked at convenience stores, while filming for movies, like Hafiz. I would go to my day job at the airport as a security officer, and at night I would come and shoot Hafiz. I would work eight hours, I would shoot for another eight, and then have maybe two hours of sleep. Sometimes I would shoot projects before work too. People like me don’t really have a safety net. It’s do or die.” 

Something that many first and second-generation immigrants know all too well is the fear of making it in “the new world,” where getting a job comes easily to someone that has their parents’ connections. For the children of immigrants, a lot of whose parents are taxi drivers and convenience store owners, connections in industries like acting, or even the corporate world, are hard to come by. On top of that is the constant added pressure of “becoming someone,” particularly becoming someone financially strong enough to support their family so when it comes to following your dreams, most of us are told to get our head out of the clouds and into medicine, engineering, or law —  maybe even into commerce if your parents are lenient. Omar, who chose the bold acting route, adds that he, like many children of immigrants, had virtually no home support in his alternate path.

“My parents didn’t support my career choice and have always been attracted to careers that bring money to the table because they crave stability,” he said. “It’s easy to get that as a doctor, or engineer, but as an actor, it’s hard to imagine. But on the other hand, the industry doesn’t really want us either. You really have to work to prove yourself on both ends of things. It’s up to us to lift up other people in our community and to be that change, just so they don’t end up quitting. There were so many times where I’ve wanted to quit myself, even though I’ve devoted my whole life to this.”

There is an overwhelming push towards following your heart, and independence in the “west,” as Javaid calls it, and kids are encouraged to take the risk of potential financial hardship by following their heart. A lot of children of immigrants aren’t indoctrinated in the same way, because poverty is something that is known all too well. Minority children, who come from lower-middle-class families, have a huge burden placed upon them and feel financially accountable to their parents, who worked so hard to raise them in a country disconnected from all of their comfort and memories of their motherland. So when it comes to freedom to choose their path, guilt for choosing something that won’t guarantee economic prosperity overshadows the hope that they’ll succeed in industries where the odds are stacked up against them from the start.

Watching TV and going to the movies are two staples for our society, and the lack of diversity on the big screen heavily contributes to how people of colour are seen on and off-screen. Growing up it was rare to see a black and brown superhero or romantic interest, and it’s hard to determine whether audiences genuinely think People of Colour (POC) can’t be the main characters because they lack the qualities to play them, or whether directors with internalized racism project these microaggressions through cinema. Either way, movies are a major contributor to how POC are treated — just ask any Asian lady approached by some creepy guy with yellow fever who just watched Memoirs of a Geisha and thinks Japanese women are “cute and submissive.” Just ask any Indian man who has repeatedly explained to Karen at work that, no, he doesn’t eat monkey brains like from Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom

Javaid has consistently taken the activist stance on speaking up for people of colour, and the representation they deserve, especially in acting, and how hard it is to break free from the shackles of constantly being known only for your ethnicity. 

“The lack of representation, acting and any other industry is dehumanizing,” said Javaid “Nowadays casting calls will say ‘open ethnicity’ but in the minds of directors, more often than not, there’s a certain image that is in their minds, and it’s a white actor. I think it’s because when you look at a white actor you’re often conditioned to think that they’re a neutral person, and can fit in anywhere, in any industry, and any role. But in every role with a person of colour, it’s always so hard to separate the character from that pre-imposed identity, and more often than not, the accent. I wish there was a South Asian actor playing a role that had absolutely nothing to do with their heritage for once because that typecasts us into that same limited role. We don’t really have that much opportunity, unless ever so often when production needs a South Asian actor.” 

What do young black and brown kids think of themselves when they can never look up to someone like them? Why are we consistently cast as the villains, comedic relief, or die in the first 15 minutes of the movie? Why is it that when we are main characters, that the plot of the said film revolves around breaking free from the shackles of our “confining” culture? Why can’t the faces of POC be attributed to normal experiences?

It only gets worse with the issue of directors and producers contributing to the erasure of stories that are meant to be played by POC. While a lot of acting is about stepping out of your own shoes and pretending you’re someone else, it matters a lot more that an actor is actually qualified to portray a cultural story with as much authenticity as someone who has the background can. You can’t accurately play a person of colour without fully grasping the reality of what it means to be a minority, and without fully understanding what they go through. That is something you will never learn in acting school or improv classes. You will never learn it in the industry either because culture is something that is inherited. The only people who have the right to represent it are people who actually belong to it. I know no one thought Emma Stone was a convincing Chinese-Hawaiian in Aloha, a movie meant to portray the rich Polynesian culture in Hawaii. Javaid adds that a large reason why minorities aren’t cast for roles that are practically meant for them is the idea that brown faces simply don’t do as well at the box office, in comparison to A-List white faces. It’s happened in the past with Christian Bale playing Moses in Exodus, and the director of the film deflecting his mistakes by saying ‘I can’t mount a film of this budget, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.’ 

This is baseless. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen the overwhelming success of movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, both of which had casts that authentically represented the stories and experiences exhibited in the films. Black Panther has become the most successful superhero film of all time, and Crazy Rich Asians did just as well in collecting all the awards and nominations after it’s release. It’s time that the entertainment industry removed itself from the idea that representation comes second to financing a movie and using an A-List white face to do it because the reality of the situation is that diversity sells, and people of colour have a lot of stories to tell. 

Omair Javaid’s film Hafiz will be available to stream for the public on October 3rd, 2020. Check out his Instagram @omarjava for updates about the film. 

Spill the Chai is a weekly column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is a part of our Voices section.

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