Why we need more South Asian representation in film

by Yethmie Goonatilleke, Staff Writer

Want to go to the movies? There are so many compelling films playing right now – what would you like to see? Last Christmas is playing, as well as Joker, Maleficent, Terminator: Dark Fate, and Frozen 2.

Like most people, I too enjoy a good movie. I would love to see any of the movies listed above. But as much as I appreciate these movies, I have a considerable grudge against them and Hollywood.

There isn’t enough South Asian representation.

According to South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), there are nearly 5.4 million South Asians living in the United States. This number is comprised of people from many countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, and the Maldives.

It’s no surprise that South Asians are a minority group in America, but millions of South Asians still live in the United States. It’s a small number compared to other racial groups, yet ever so present. 

That being said, I find it absurd that there is a lack of South Asian representation in Hollywood. Of the 19 Hollywood movies currently playing in AMC theatres, two movies have a South Asian actor/actress in the cast. In comparison, all of these movies have white actors.

There are millions of South Asians living in the United States, yet they’re severely underrepresented in film. But why does representation even matter in film?

Representation matters so much to me because I want to see people who look like me on screen. 

My parents were born in Sri Lanka. I will always take pride in my roots and of the fact that I’m South Asian, but I was born in Ridgewood, NJ. I’ve lived in Glen Rock my entire life. I never grew up watching Sri Lankan movies and teledramas or Bollywood films. I grew up watching movies such as The Little Mermaid, Camp Rock, Tangled, and High School Musical. 

Though I love those movies, I never fully resonated with characters due to this racial barrier. Everyone deserves to see themselves in their favorite on-screen characters, no matter how much of a minority you are. When films constantly fail to represent select groups of people, it creates a decline in self-esteem. At one point, being unique turns into feeling like an outsider. 

Even in the few cases where more racial groups have had a spotlight in film, there are still some flaws. In 2018, the film Crazy Rich Asians was praised for having an all-Asian cast. This was a historic and memorable moment for many underrepresented people, yet it still lacked South Asians as the majority of the cast was East Asian. 

Though Crazy Rich Asians is a step in the right direction, I find it subpar that the entire plot and title is solely based around the fact that they’re Asian. This is also similar to the movie Black Panther, which was praised for having a predominantly black cast. Black Panther, which is based on the Marvel Comics, is set in a fictitious African country, so it makes sense to have a predominantly black cast. 

These movies relate minorities to characters, but new movies should be made where minorities can play characters that don’t specifically pertain to race and stereotypical characters. For instance, in the upcoming reboot of Charlie’s Angels, Naomi Scott, an actress of Indian descent, will star alongside Kristen Stewart and Ella Ballinska. The three main characters in Charlie’s Angels aren’t limited to race.

There’s a way to fix this significant problem of underrepresentation: integrate South Asian characters and casts into film. It’s really that simple. If movies cast diverse characters or created new movies, so many groups of people would finally become represented.

America is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, and different people. Just because a group is a minority doesn’t mean they should be underrepresented. If you’re a minority in any way, you deserve representation and role models who look like you.