Me in Media: Little Scope Beyond Little Mosque

Me in Media: Little Scope Beyond Little Mosque

Once, a very long time ago, I had a dream. I was going to be an actor. And not just an actor in school plays, even though my breakout lead role was in Grade 6 as the Velveteen Rabbit in my elementary school annual play. No, I had bigger plans. I was going to get a role on my favourite childhood program of all time, The Facts of Life. (Hey, don't knock it, George Clooney got his big break there!)

Well, the unfortunate reality of most great aspirations is that they fade over time, strangled by the crushing weight of pragmatism.  So I did what all good kids do, I listened to my parents and became a professional – a lawyer – while only occasionally flirting with my first true love.

Today, through the lens of grownup, I look back wistfully and sometimes find myself playing a retrospective game of “what if” and I wonder about my chances of success if I had pursued my dream, talent notwithstanding.

I realize this is a bit of an odd statement, so let me explain the game.  Forget talent as a factor in success for just a moment.  In other words, let’s presume for a moment that I simply oozed talent.  Yes, I like that.  Then the real question becomes:  Would I, as a South Asian woman, have had an opportunity to succeed as an actor?  Does the media embrace people like me?

Fortunately for me, I live in the city of Toronto, arguably the most multicultural city in the world and with one of the largest South Asian diasporas in the world, in the country of Canada, a progressive and egalitarian-minded nation which long ago forged a path by embracing an official policy of multiculturalism … so many of the necessary ingredients for a land of equal opportunity.  You would think that there would be a plethora of acting roles available to someone like me.

And you would be wrong.

Let’s for a moment examine some Canadian productions (this is not exhaustive, just to illustrate the point).  There’s Corner GasFlashpoint?  Though never overtly stated, Toronto is undeniably the backdrop for the tactical squad team's weekly dramas.
I fear that my chances would have fared no better on Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC.  Recent family entertainment programmes such as Sophie and 18 to Life, both filmed in Montreal, pay token homage to visible minorities at best. And as much as I love the hit show Being Erica, which is not only filmed in Toronto but which virtually celebrates that fact, there are only two Black actors cast in occasional supporting roles.  To give you some perspective, in Toronto, there are currently 720,000 South Asians compared to 370,000 Black people.  That’s an almost 2 to 1 ratio, yet Black actors somehow do not seem as obscure on the acting scene as South Asians.  Granted that Shaun Majumder has a key role on This Hour has 22 Minutes, but that really seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Conclusion?  While there are virtually no major roles for visible minorities generally, there are fewer still for aspiring South Asian actors.

And then there is Little Mosque on the Prairie, CBC’s internationally-acclaimed hit sitcom about Muslims and Christians attempting to live in harmony with each other in the small town of Mercy.  Zarqa Nawaz, the visionary creator behind the show, cut through all the racial fear-mongering at a time when perceptions of Muslims and the Islamic faith were highly suspect by many, and attempted to build bridges of understanding through humour and wit.  In doing so, she also generated more leading roles for visible minorities of all stripes than ever before seen on Canadian television.  Bravo!  I, without reservation, applaud the remarkable success of the program.
But there is one thing that troubles me.  (Quelle surprise!)

Why, for the most part, are the only roles in which South Asians are cast those in which South Asians play South Asians?  By its very nature, acting presumes that real people assume personas other than their own.  Yet, it seems to me that South Asian actors will get a role when casting directors are specifically looking for a South Asian to fill the role, but not if the casting description is more general, such as “female character, early thirties, to play the role of Erica Strange’s best friend.”  I find it difficult to believe that in a diaspora of this size, the pool of South Asian actors is too small from which to draw talent for just about any acting role.  We are typecast in certain roles and under-represented in others, and where we do occasionally appear in peripheral roles, it sometimes smacks of tokenism.

One day, when I wistfully look back, I would like to believe in “what could have been.”  But for that to happen, we need a post-racial society where, in the acting world, roles aren’t written for “types” but rather awarded by merit.
I’m game for that, are you?