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Lena Khan

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They Say

Posted: 02/05/2013 7:37 pm

They say, "Write what you know." True art breaks all boundaries they say, and new magical realities will unfold as soon as artists bare their souls.

I'm not sure whom such wisdoms are meant for, but they are certainly not for an artist who happens to be Indian-American and Muslim. Nor are they for a filmmaker intending to get sizeable audiences to actually see her work. Such wisdoms, it seems, do not apply to me.

It's no secret that minorities are grossly underrepresented in mainstream entertainment. According to Pacific Standard, "nonwhite actors played major roles in only two of the 30 top-grossing films of 2010," and if the statistics were better last year, it would only be because of the movie Fast Five. Even then, the true lead characters were probably the cars.

With some exceptions, roles are fairly limited for minority actors. We either laugh at a bunch of funny-named Indians under a white boss on NBC, or watch Mike Chang struggle on Glee with a father who wants him to go to medical school, or some other plot directly resulting from his "Asian-ness." Chicano actors are few, we rarely get to see a smart and quirky love interest who happens to be black (gasp!), and do I see much hope for Jin and Sayid... even after they were so dang awesome on Lost?

Hollywood, of course, is extremely risk averse. According to Will Smith, Sony Pictures wouldn't cast a black love interest in Hitch because it would drive off international audiences. Monetary considerations were likely also a factor in Warner Brothers only having white actors in consideration for their upcoming film, Akira... even though it is based on a Japanese graphic novel. Inevitably, I'm sure they at least considered, "What Asian actors can sell this film?" Go ahead: Try naming five Asian actors. How many did you get?

I weighed similar issues when it came to my film, The Tiger Hunter. My movie's character is Sami Malik, an Indian who comes to 1970s America on a crazy quest for success and to impress a girl. While the bulk of the film involves his escapades with several misfit roommates, I still put the idea aside. Who wants to see a movie with brown people?

But times changed. Slumdog Millionaire is hot, and Aziz Ansari has comedy tours where he frequently jokes about his heritage. Kal Penn could play an immigrant's son in The Namesake and, in what gives me great respect for him as an actor, could just as easily play a regular guy on Harold and Kumar or How I Met Your Mother -- one who only happened to be Indian-American, but wasn't limited to it. And, one look at a "brown girl" named Mindy Kaling fronting her own sitcom, and my project moved forward.

Even then, profits are always a factor. We were confident the film could sell, but wanted to be more confident. We already had a Caucasian female role, but also inserted a lead Caucasian in the ensemble, and strengthened the role of the Caucasian antagonist -- and you can be sure their pretty faces will all grace our movie poster. Sure, actors like Kal and Dev could probably market our film as well, but having worked in both the independent film scene as well as Hollywood production companies, I know risk aversion is everywhere. As idealistic as young artists are, movie seats do not sell themselves.

And the choices went deeper. In applying, "Write what you know," my film was loosely inspired by stories of my father. Since my father was Muslim, so was Sami. When it came to thinking of what films sell in the market (aka Muslims can only be in terrorist roles), however, I made changes. We no longer saw the mosque Sami went to on Fridays, the one next to the amazing taco place that made him the famed "taco guy" at work. He didn't say "Salam" to his brother. Even when it was organic and poignant, I made sure to never show him pray.

While I raised the bulk of my film's financing from investors, and am still committed to making their investment worthwhile, recently I launched a crowd-sourcing campaign on the popular site Kickstarter. Why? Sure, to get some of the end financing. But it's also more than that.

If there is going to be any meaningful change in the representation of minorities on screen, it's going to start from the communities and independent films. Just look at Amreeka, Bend it Like Beckham, Precious, or The Kids are All Right -- all done by filmmakers who told stories of their respective communities, and then had their films bought and widely distributed. On another level, even films like Slumdog Millionaire and Crash were independently financed. Yes, Hollywood may be risk averse -- but if you make it, they will come.

To succeed in telling our stories, the films must be good, of course... but we also have to make them. For my part, I still have to cater to a market, but there is slightly more leniency than I think. And I'm going to take advantage of it. We still have our Caucasian "anchors," but I also have a non-stereotypical Hindu character in my film and hope to cast an Asian character, in roles that have nothing to do with their faith or ethnicities. We made one character Pakistani because there's honestly no reason Pakistanis are so demonized (having grown up in both Indian and Pakistani communities I can assure you they are extremely similar). And recently, we snuck back some Muslim references into Sami's story. Not too many, but enough. It's a start.

I turned to Kickstarter because it's way for people to get involved, and join together in making a movie happen. Making films that actually represent the diversity of reality is something we should all get behind. IF we make it, we can see it on screens. In my case, I'm just hoping -- if you join me, that we can make it together.

Learn about Lena's film, The Tiger Hunter.

 
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