The status of South Asians in America has always been problematic. We are a silent minority, distinct from the African American and Hispanic communities, and notable for our lack of representations in mainstream American media. Our history in this country stretches back to the 19th century when Punjabis started arriving in the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley after braving a 30 day journey by sea from the subcontinent Over a century, we haven’t had a crystallizing movement like Civil Rights or the Harlem Renaissance and so the community hasn’t been inscribed with a distinct consciousness and an identity (at least one that isn’t conditioned by nostalgia or a return-to-homeland narrative). I’ve talked to Indian actors who still see their ethnicity as a burden and live in hope that they can pass for other races. After all this time, we haven’t had a single leading role for a South Asian in a major American film that didn’t define its character entirely by his or her ethnicity. What that means is that they remain trapped in an ethnic frame that denies them psychological complexity, the ability to engage with the world fully and to be recognized as free agents.
As a filmmaker, I’ve spent the last couple of years on a new American film, Silhouettes, that tries to place South Asians outside the reductionism of ethnicity.
Our multicultural crew and cast have set ourselves to introducing a new kind of minority to American screens — characters who are cosmopolitan, with lots of cultural capital and political agency. In addition, it was important, in the wake of anti-Islamic rhetoric in the States, to create an ambitious Muslim character — a woman of extraordinary confidence wordliness, humor and yet deep connection to her Muslim roots. The story of a retired Indian executive and a Pakistani lawyer who spend a day in Chicago, Silhouettes confronts taboo issues like the fetishism around skin color but does it from the perspective of characters who have enormous freedom and the capacity to reflect on their experience.
I think South Asian films and filmmakers have to be careful about employing the same tropes and themes in dealing with the subcontinent as Western filmmakers (stories about arranged marriages or dire poverty, for example) because across time it becomes confining; it makes the subcontinental subject an aestheticised, exoticised other. And where are the great roles for women? Invariably, Desi women come across as submissive or petulant or naive. Consider that even a lauded film like Gandhi doesnt have a substantial Indian woman character in it — not even the monumental independence leader, Sarojini Naidu, who become the President of the Indian National Congress. The same is true of otherwise fine films like Avi Nesher’s Turn Left at the End of the World or Hanif Kuresihi’s My Son, The Terrorist where the Indian wives seem inchoate next to the Western women. Considering the remarkable accomplishments of women like Gayatri Spivak, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Arundhati Roy, we need to project their complexity and intelligence in our films.
Ultimately, we are making a bet that Indians and Pakistanis can function as universal characters who can embody the human experience — just as English and American characters do — and as victors not victims in an age of globalization.
Tom Silva is a film director and musician based in Chicago. A native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, his first feature film, The Quiet, premiered at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center and was named Best Independent Film by Chicago Screen Magazine. He is also lead singer and songwriter of the rock band, Clara May. He is currently part of the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where his focus is the South Asian diaspora.