These days in Hollywood, the quest for ‘representation’ has found a stronger spotlight with consumers of television and film demanding to see more diversity, particularly diversity that includes them. Meaty roles (for men and women) tend to go to Caucasian actors, characters written for actors of colour tend to be whitewashed so that white actors can be cast and if a person of colour is written in, it’s usually a shallow, undeveloped and often harmful stereotype. For many years the casting of white actors in parts for people of colour was grumbled about but not really addressed; this practice has been taken to task by fans, peers in the industry and writers. Benedict Cumberbatch played Khan in Star Trek, a role traditionally meant to be played by a character from South Asia or at least the Middle East, Scarlet Johansen played a role of a woman who was without a doubt Asian in Ghost in the Shell and Ed Skrien was the first actor to publicly leave a role (his in Hellboy) because the character was of Asian descent and he was not, one which was applauded by a number of Asian and actors of colour in the industry.
For Pakistanis who pay attention to entertainment churned out of the west, a desi isn’t so hard to find anymore with the career booms of Aziz Ansari, Mindy Lahiri, and Hassan Minhaj but when looking for an actor of Pakistani descent – we have two. Kumail Nanjiani who hails from Karachi and has built a solid portfolio of work under his belt including this year’s massive hit The Big Sick and playing a tech genius on the show Silicon Valley, and Riz Ahmed, who has been churning at his craft for decades before his major break in last year’s The Night Of. And Sunday night at the Emmy’s Riz Ahmed became the first South Asian actor EVER to take an Emmy for a leading role, and needless to say, the first Muslim to ever do it either.
British Riz is unapologetically Pakistani. His recent single ‘Aja’ from the Swet Shop Boys had Ali Sethi singing the hook, the song concluded with a sample of the late Qandeel Baloch and was dedicated to people like her who were bucking their (cultural) norms to chase their dreams. The video itself took place in a predominantly South Asian neighborhood recognizable by anyone who has walked the streets of a place heavy with immigrants from our part of the world. He doesn’t represent himself as just a guy who happens to be of Pakistani descent who wants to blend in amongst his non-desi peers. He is charming on talk shows, he is an accomplished MC, he plays sexually desirable characters (such as his guest spot on Lena Dunham’s Girls), an action star in Rogue One, and now he, an actor of Pakistani descent, is an Emmy winner. It’s an emotional, proud and confidence boosting moment.
Pakistanis have been migrating west for decades on decades, and have grown up watching TV shows like Full House, Saved by the Bell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Beverly Hills 90210, The OC, so on and so forth we are absent from the conversation. There is NO representation of us present during our impressionable years in entertainment. In a world where Pakistanis are represented as hand-in-hand with terrorism in violence (at least on Fox news) positive representations of us are virtually nowhere. We are present side by side with stories about people of colour, we are often sensationalised and we are mostly cast in the same treasure trove as our neighbours from India. We did play a role in Homeland but that cut us all out as untrustworthy terrorists for the most part.
So anytime I see Riz Ahmed I am proud on a number of levels but the utmost is, there we are. There I am. I am visible and I am seen and I am heard and that’s because up there on that screen, or sitting beside Stephen Colbert on late night, or on a stage in front of Hollywood greats, Riz Ahmed – a hyphenated Pakistani like me – is winning a prestigious award for his talent; he is being spoken to because of his talent, and he is not a trope on nerdy brown kids, or a fumbling immigrant who only speaks computer and can’t get a girl. Riz Ahmed is an actualised, respected leading man. And he represents his brown skin and cultural background hard; he is an activist who works to change the perspectives of what brown skin and a Muslim name mean today. In his speech, he said, “If this show has shown a light on some of the prejudice in our society, Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system, then maybe that’s something.” His popularity and his career trajectory coming forward will hopefully lead to more Pakistanis taking the leap and joining the arts and not being afraid or unsure if there’s a space for them out there. Because now, they finally have someone like them they can look up to.