Said Taghmaoui, the French-American actor of Moroccan descent, plays a possibly Indian character named Sameer in the global smash hit Wonder Woman. Sameer admires the beauty of the titular character, played by Gal Gadot (should I be frightened or aroused, he asks) but confesses many reels later that he wanted to be an actor, but was denied his chance in the spotlight due to his skin colour.
If Sameer were a real life character, he could have auditioned for Guy Ritchie’s upcoming live-action adaptation of the Aladdin folk tale. A casting company’s audition call for the roles of the film’s lead characters Aladdin and Jasmine specifies, “Please apply ONLY if you have Middle Eastern Heritage OR Indian Heritage (from the country India). This is a requirement.”
The adaptation comes more than two decades after Disney’s animation feature Aladdin. The 1992 film was set in a fictional kingdom in the Middle East, and wasn’t without its share of problems. Its all-American voice cast included Scott Weinger as Aladdin and Robin Williams as the Genie, and its music was deemed as racist about Arabs. (Sample lyrics: “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”)
The Aladdin casting call seems to be a response to allegations of whitewashing of Asian characters that have been increasingly levelled at Hollywood over the past few years. The casting of Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan mystic in Doctor Strange (2016) and Scarlett Johansson as the lead in the 2017 adaptation of the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell have been roundly criticised. In Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), the Indian character Venkat Kapoor in the source novel by Andy Weir is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian origin.
Whitewashing and its corollary, blackface, have dogged Hollywood since the earliest days of cinema. The first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), features a blackface musical theatre performer. In George Stevens’s 1939 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Gunga Din, American actor Sam Jaffe, who was of Russian descent, plays Gunga Din, a traditional water carrier.
The trend continued well into the decades when more Indian actors were available to appear in Hollywood productions. In the science fiction comedy Short Circuit 2 (1987), the protagonist, an Indian scientist named Benjamin Jarhvi, is played by Fisher Stevens. “Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an ‘everyman,’ what it really wants is a straight white guy,” American comedian Aziz Ansari wrote in The New York Times.
American films are also awash with inauthentic casting. Selva Rasalingam, a British actor of Indian and Sri Lankan extraction, raised eyebrows when he was cast as Jesus in the Netflix/BBC Television film The Gospel of John (2014). The actor also made an appearance as the Persian captain in Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), a film that was also slammed for casting American actor Jake Gyllenhall as the Persian prince.
Rasalingam will be seen as the Egyptian king Menehptre in the Tom Cruise starrer The Mummy.
Hollywood has reached the point where it has begun casting non-Caucasian actors in non-Caucasian roles. The casting call for Aladdin promises a course correction, even though the earliest versions of the story suggest that the character was most probably from China.