3 South Asian Actors and Directors Share the Challenges They've Faced Breaking Into the Industry

Rishi Nair / Mike Marsland

Image Source: Everett Collection

Diversity and representation on television and film has long been a work in progress. In light of national discourse on race and creating an equitable system, there’s currently a greater push to improve on a systemic level. For the South Asian community, the conversation has just begun. Though there has been an increased number of shows and films like Never Have I Ever and Disney’s Spin that represent the South Asian diaspora, and efforts to highlight and celebrate the work of industry creatives, there is still more to be done. In fact, a content analysis report by Ofcom about peak-time programmes on BBC One and BBC Two showed that people from South Asian ethnic backgrounds only made up 3.4% of the onscreen population as of 2018. More networks are realising the obvious gap on screen; and in response Channel 4 launched a strategy in June 2021 to boost disability and diversity inclusion on its network.

A lack of representation or misconstrued representation on TV can be alienating and discouraging, especially for aspiring actors of colour who are trying to find their way in. Actor Riz Ahmed, who made history in 2020 for being nominated for an Oscar for his work in Sound of Metal, has been very vocal about the toxic ways in which Muslims in particular are viewed on screen and is fighting to change that portrayal. He has also teamed up with The Ford Foundation, Pillars Fund, and Ahmed’s Left Handed Films to launch a fellowship (amounting to $25,000) to support Muslim directors and screenwriters, and provide mentorship and professional development.

The finish line is still far away. The following actors and directors tell us about the challenges they faced as South Asians breaking into the industry and what advice they have for newcomers.

Rishi Nair

On Hollyoaks, Sami Maalik, who is played by actor Rishi Nair, has become a household name. The soap opera has been on screen since 1995 and has steadily incorporated current affairs including a plot line highlighting racial abuse experienced by the Maalik family. Nair has been a part of the movement towards greater South Asian representation for the past four years.

Playing a high-flying lawyer instead of the stereotypical computer geek, doctor, or accented taxi driver, Nair is relieved to land a role that allows him to work on his craft and improve as an actor. Eight years ago when he first started auditioning, he only had a limited number of roles that did not accurately reflect South Asians in society. He refused to be type casted.

“It was frustrating to memorise lines and research roles only to know that a South Asian actor would never get the job. Even while auditioning for the role of Sami, I saw there were four other Asians who got casted so I thought there’s no way they would hire me too. This mental process is damaging.”

Getting an audition is a gatekeeping hurdle that South Asian actors face. Nair was committed to making sure Sami connected to the audience and was not boxed into the stereotypes of what a South Asian man is expected to be.

“I don’t want Sami to be defined only by his religion or skin colour. I want fans to see him and think ‘that’s me!’ We are not on TV to say what is right or wrong, we are just there to represent real life and the people that make it.”

For those entering the industry, Nair’s biggest piece of advice is not to pigeonhole themselves into taking on roles they don’t want. He aspires for a day where seeing South Asians in the media is no longer shocking, but a normal viewing experience.

Harvey Virdi

Industry veteran Harvey Virdi (as seen in Coronation Street, Citizen Khan, and Bend it Like Beckham) has been acting for nearly 25 years. Also known as Dr Misbah Maalik, Sami’s stepmum on Hollyoaks, Virdi has witnessed how representation has evolved from the perspective of a woman of colour.

Virdi took a leap of faith and started her professional acting career in her late 20s. When she first graduated from drama school, it was hard for her to be cast in leading roles for theatre classics unless the play was set in India or had a South Asian angle. The emergence of new writers and South Asian actresses have caused a shift, but not as quickly as she hoped. There are producers and production companies who have yet to catch up with diverse representation on screen.

As a woman of colour in the industry, change will only occur as a result of advocacy. “The onus is on us to push ourselves and our work forward so that it speaks for itself. Just because there is a glass ceiling doesn’t mean I have to accept it. There are many ways to smash a piece of glass, isn’t there?”

Virdi has tips for newcomers too, especially those trying to break in as a South Asian. “Stay strong and trust your instincts. There are many knock-backs and rejections, but create the actor that you want to be.”

Isher Sahota

South Asian representation on television and film isn’t limited to actors, but also to the writers, directors, and producers behind the scenes. Isher Sahota is paving the way for those entering the world of behind the scenes. He directs self-written films centred around stories from his community like the Vice World News documentary about the pandemic’s effect on the Indian community of Southall. He also directs television shows like BBC’s Father Brown. In both types of directing, he is able to bring his own experiences and point of view.

Outside of Bollywood, the number of South Asian directors continue to be limited. As a South Asian writer and director entering the industry at a prime time, Sahota recognises the skill he has to give a voice to people and stories that haven’t been portrayed yet or portrayed well. “It’s true that often I’m the only person of colour in the room. Certain story themes call for a responsibility, and you have to be assertive to be heard.”

His advice for newcomers is to keep making films, build a team of collaborators around you who you value and who value you, and keep working together. “Find the stories only you can tell, in a way that only you can tell.”

The lessons learned by South Asian industry professionals show how far representation has come, but also where to go next.

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