Why Bollywood movies are better than racist Hollywood movies like The Last Airbender

The cable TV network Nickelodeon airs a popular animation series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. Last week, The Last Airbender, a cinematic version directed by Indian-American M. Night Shayamalan, hit theaters worldwide to nearly universal derision. Besides being critically panned for content, the film also ran into a storm because of the casting of white actors in characters that were non-white in the original series.

As Floating World notes in a lengthy write-up on race-bending in films:

Perhaps the greatest offense that the “heroic” characters are portrayed by lily white actors while the “villainous” characters are portrayed dark-skinned Indian actors in lieu of the fact that all the characters have distinctly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Inuit characteristics regardless of their “good” or “badness.”

I felt bad reading that M. Night Shayamalan was a racist. He used to be the pride of the global Indian community. Which desi doesn’t remember when Sixth Sense was nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director at the 1999 Academy Awards? Shame on you, Mr Shayamalan for putting us through The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, and now for becoming a race-bender! You are a disgrace to the entire global desi community.

Real Chinese actors in a Hindi film

In any case, I don’t usually read up on the machinations of Hollywood media moguls. I get most of my entertainment from Bollywood Hindi films. It is lighter fare, yes, but in the Indian tradition of multiculturalism and tolerance towards all races, it is free from preferential treatment towards any particular community or race.

Real African actors in a Hindi film

In terms of casting, Bollywood films always cast the best actors for the best roles. Our films don’t indulge in the despicable act of whitewashing for audiences. Say what you will about Hindi films not being as polished as Hollywood blockbusters. At least the Hindi film industry is free from  racism.

White actors in a Hindi film

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution and used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free alternative does not exist.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban


46 thoughts on “Why Bollywood movies are better than racist Hollywood movies like The Last Airbender

  1. I honestly don’t think he’s racist at all. In the movie, every nation had a different nationality. Earth-Asian, Fire-Indian, Water-caucasian. Why would someone partially Indian be racist against Indians??

    1. This post is tongue-in-cheek. I agree that he probably isn’t racist at all, only an out-of-touch director.

      Thanks for reading, Emily.

  2. Can I just say, I think this charge of racism against Shyamalan is ridiculous. He gets a lot of criticism constantly in the US. My view is that the way they want to bring him down is somewhat racist in nature.

    Desi blogs like yours should be trying to support him, as he is pretty much the only successful asian director in hollywood today.

    Instead of being tongue in cheek, why don’t you get a campaign together to highlight how ridiculous this charge of racism is. And show the outrage of the desi community of such a charge.

    I tell you one thing, that is what every other race would do. Why is it that desis do not stick up for each other?

    And, while they are at it, everyone should go on imdb.com and rottentomatoes.com and give the film an outstanding rating.

    1. Thanks for reading, Tread. Maybe I misunderstood. Are you saying that I should stand up for Shayamalan because he is a desi like I am? And I should give his film an outstanding rating for the same reason?

      I enjoyed his earlier films, but didn’t enjoy the more recent ones at all. This has nothing to do with him being desi. As far as the racism charge, I have no evidence either ways. I hope he isn’t racist, but I have no personal knowledge of him, how casting in Hollywood works, or his track record. If desis knew for sure he was the victim here, I’m sure a lot of us would stand up for him.

      1. So you actually believe that the charge of racism levelled against him is real? Are you serious?

        Even if it was real, why are these clowns picking on the one successful asian director in hollywood to highlight this “new” astounding fact? Stereotyping/ miscasting/ racism in hollywood has been happening for decades. Now suddenly the world decides to realize it is happening and then pick on an asian director for it. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

        Also, the movie is ethnically diverse and asians (indians) actually have some good meaty roles in the film. The cartoon on which it is based (which was created by caucasian guys, by the way) never explicitly states races or religions of any of the characters.

        So, tell me how you can level a charge of racism against the guy? I think it is highly unfair actually. I am surprised all desis don’t feel the same way.

      2. I understand your strong emotions. Calling someone a racist is not a minor allegation. For the record, I think he probably isn’t racist (as I mentioned before). I hope he isn’t, because he could be such a good role-model for many other desis. However, as you know, there are desis who are racist, just as there are those who aren’t. I am unwilling to go out on a limb either way based on my limited knowledge of the facts. That is all.

        In fact, an extension of the central point behind my post in nicely put in your comment:

        “Stereotyping/ miscasting/ racism in hollywood has been happening for decades.”

        Yes, absolutely! Not only Hollywood, but Bollywood which I am more familiar with too.

        Thanks again and I hope I’ve made my own personal stance a bit clearer.

      3. Part of the problem here is that you guys are based in India. If you were in the US in a 90% white dominated environment, you might see the issue as being a bit more important. You have to understand that for ABCDs and BBCDs, it is nice to see Asians in positions of power and doing well as it gives you a bit of a boost. In India, you are the majority so you don’t have the same feeling.

        Also, given the racism towards desis, both overt and institutionalized that goes on on a regular basis in these countries, it is offensive and ridiculous to accuse a desi himself of being racist. Do you see how that might cause offence to ABCDs and BBCDs who have had to endure racism their whole lives? Especially, since hollywood is and has been notoriously racist/ stereotyping since it began – to pick up on a desi for it is just stupid or it is racist.

        So you have to try and understand the psyche of people in the US or the UK when these types of things happen.

        Regardless of all that, desis should be supporting their own in other countries as it improves our reputation on the world stage, thus providing opportunities for us, and it makes life better for us and our kids in the future.

        Surely, you guys can see some logic in that? I am actually surprised that I have to explain it to my own people. I guarantee you that if a Jew or a Black guy was put in a similar spot there would be uproar. Why do desis not stick up for their own when it is so important to do so?

      4. Rinku, I am in the US and have been for the better part of my life.

        Your first point is that because there is overt and institutionalized racism in the US, we should be happy when one of our own makes it. That is a moot point and not a subject for debate. I haven’t seen a single desi here disagree with this point. We all take it as a point of pride when a desi succeeds.

        The debate is with the extent of sticking up for “one’s own.” I will gladly stick up for any person (of any race) if I feel that he or she has been unjustly maligned. I will definitely feel the pain more if the person is a desi. But I will NOT defend someone if I do not know what role he or she played in a bad decision (perhaps not racist, but questionable nonetheless).

        Shayamalan does not represent desis and defending him doesn’t do anything for “our reputation.” Ask yourself this question: If tomorrow Bobby Jindal is accused of wrongdoing, do you expect someone who does not share any of his ideals to stick up for him because of a common skin color?

      5. Ok, just explain this to me and tell me why it makes sense.

        Let’s just assume that Shyamalan has made a racist decision in his casting. I totally disagree with this, but let’s just assume that it is true. Now, can you explain to me why all the critics/ journalists etc who have called him out on it with such indignation have not spoken out about racism/ stereotyping/ miscasting that has been happening in Hollywood for decades? Where have they been? Why do they pick on a successful asian director to talk about racism – the insinuation of it is actually offensive, in my opinion.

        What will also be interesting to see, is if these detractors continue to decry the lack of equality in Hollywood going forward. Because if they don’t then we will know that it has all just been a smear campaign against Shyamalan. Then we have to ask ourselves why that would be the case?

        But, please, anyone who can, answer my question above?

      6. Thanks again for commenting. It is really hard to objectify how much someone is being picked on, so I’d rather not go there.

        Curiously, many of the most vocal critics of Shayamalan’s involvement in the casting are other Asians – mainly of East Asian ethnicity (including the author of the blog I quoted in the post). Other Asian Americans may indeed be picking on an Indian American, but is a little hard for me to call all of their grievance unjust. A sticky situation indeed!

    2. Ok, let’s just say we put the Asian detractors aside as they may have a point. What about all the white critics and journalists out there who have made a big deal about the casting and have never bothered before? Let’s think about them.

      Take Ebert as one example – he never said a word about Robert Downey Jr being “blackfaced” in Tropic Thunder? He never mentioned anything about Mowgli in The Jungle Book being played by Jason Scott Lee?

      And there is a now a new film out called Essential killing, which stars Vincent Gallo as an Afghan, which he is clearly not. Can someone explain why there is no furore over that?

      All I’m asking is that you think about what I am saying and see if it makes sense to you.

      1. And I just saw “The lovely bones” on DVD and the character of Ray Singh (who is unambiguously Indian) was played by a half South African half English guy. Why not an Indian? And why was there no big fuss about it at the time?

        Look, I don’t really care who they cast in these movies. Of course, by rights, I would prefer that they cast the correct nationality for the correct role and stop stereotyping. But I realize we are in the west and in Hollywood in a country which is 80% white so the odds are somewhat against us.

        However, my real beef, I guess, is the way that Shyamalan in particular is being hit on. It just doesn’t make sense given that this stuff goes on all the time and nobody says a word. That is what annoys me the most.

        These critics and journalists, many of whom are caucasian, should be consistent in their condemnation of racist miscasting and stereotyping. Why pick on this guy? It just doesn’t add up to me.

        By the way, I do appreciate the irony in your post and do think it is funny. My concern is not an attack on you, it is an attack on what I feel is the almost racist persecution of Shyamalan in this instance. That is what bugs me the most. Especially since he probably had to endure quite alot of racism in his time in Hollywodd and probably still does.

      2. Rinku, it makes perfect sense to me and you’re preaching to the choir. There absolutely is typecasting and misrepresentation in Hollywood. Thanks for taking the time to articulate these points here. These are things that need to be said.

  3. Nicely done 🙂 I haven’t seen From Chandni Chowk To China but from what I’ve read about it, it’s yet another shining example of multiculturalism, Bollywood ishtyle.

    1. Thanks for bringing up From Chandni Chowk to China. I have seen that one and it perpetuates all the stereotypes including a very blatant case of yellowface by our very own Ranbir Shourey.

      Perhaps, the most shocking instance of parochialism I’ve seen in a modern Hindi movie was in the 1998 David Dhawan flick, Gharwali Baharwali. Anil Kapoor has a son from his second wife, who is a Nepali. As the son grows up in the household he displays a tendency to behave like a “watchman” even though he has grown up in India. And even after films like that one and Love in Nepal, we wonder why Nepalis hate us!

  4. This posts proves my long standing suspicion of Shyamalan being a white-skin worshiper and a racist against his own kind.

    He should spend more time learning from the racially tolerant bollywood. Movies like Don Muthuswami show us exactly that.

    If there was tongue in cheek in this post, I certainly missed it, but I hail the conviction of the writer.


    1. Thanks, AntarYaami.

      If someone were to read the post without looking at the photos he or she might come to a very different conclusion from the one that I intended (which is the one you picked up on).


  5. Really Anirban, you should use the new symbol for sarcasm that some company has come up with. Initially I thought it was a useless endeavor but now, there appears to be a huge market for it.

    Nice post. Exactly the kind of parallels that deserve to be drawn.

    On Shyamalan – Who knows if he made those casting decisions or the studio overrode him. All that I know is that he’s been churning out middling fare for years.

    1. You’ve summarized in three short paragraphs my view on this issue and I find myself agreeing with you (as usual).

      Thanks for reading.

  6. Enjoyed the post! Thankfully, I haven’t seen any of Night’s movies after Signs.

    The comments were funny too! Especially the one which called for all desi brothers & sisters to unite together and fight the evil white man!

    Whitey be treading on us, yo!

    1. I’ve seen every movie he’s made. I was so impressed with his first two movies, that I’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt.

      I thought he hit a new low-point with Lady in the Water, but I still went to see The Last Airbender.


  7. And that is why Asian countries get colonized. We can’t stick together when the time comes for it. You guys can laugh all you want, but deep down you know I’m right. Shyamalan is not just an asian director. By having him up there, he provides a role model for people to say that they can do it too. He shows that a normal kid born in India can go to Hollywood and get Bruce Willis to star in his movies. That is a powerful idea for young people especially and can give them confidence and hope. He also shows the west that desis can do these jobs just as well as anyone else – which opens up opportunities for all of us.

    It’s unfortunate that most desis can’t or won’t see that.

    Good luck to you all, whatever you say, you are still my brothers and sisters and I wish you all the best.

    Peace out

    1. Shyamalan is a desi. I rooted for him at the Oscars in 1999. He didn’t win. I was sad. I got over it. He made more movies. Did I say anything negative here about Signs or Unbreakable? I thought they were awesome movies, but I had a really hard time sitting through his recent ones.

      Can we not get into the same-community argument when discussing the intrinsic merit of a work of art? As an analogy, just because I enjoyed Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, does it mean that I have to stick up for him for making Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag?

      1. Well, it looks to me that it is not the fact that people are dismissing the art work that is objectionable. Although, critis and the media do love to bash Shyamalan (could it possibly be because he is a famous, successful asian director?).

        What is objectionable is that they pick on him suddenly, with such venom, to protest alleged racist casting when it has been going on for decades without such a violent reaction.

        That is what I get from it, and I think desis would do well to think about that.

      2. Rajdeep, I understand your concerns, but as I mentioned in my reply to Rinku, the fact of the matter is many Asian Americans are the ones with what you are calling “venom”.

        In my opinion, that in itself is what makes it exceedingly difficult to frame an appropriate response (if indeeed the charge of racism is frivolous).

  8. Shyamalan may or may not be a racist personally but his casting white actors for Asian roles is certainly questionable. Institutional racism is nothing new for Hollywood and this is just another example.

    As for bollywood, aren’t they still stuck in “fair and lovely” era. ha.

    Nice post btw. Keep them coming! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments. On a related note, does anyone know how much Shayamalan actually had to do with the casting? I think this point is important. Did he capitulate not thinking it would be a big deal or was he involved in makes the changes?

      1. To quote something…

        “Noah Ringer walked in the door — and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid,” the director said. “To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him.”

        With three of the tribes played by non-Caucasian actors, Shyamalan said he felt the fourth group, Katara and Sokka’s Water tribe, could be played by white actors. “If you don’t have an edict of “don’t put white people in the movie” then the Water tribe can be European/Caucasian,” he said.

  9. I actually loved The Sixth Sense, and ever since, I’ve looked forward to Shyamalan’s movies (though I’ve seen nothing apart from Signs, which again I thought was not bad). In fact, to some extent, I also liked The Village. I reserve judgement on the others because I’ve not seen them.

    I hope his next offering is better. As for The Last Airbender, I’d rather reserve judgement until I watch it. It has become a trend, I suppose, to bash Shyamalan’s movies, just like it is a trend now to bash Ram Gopal Verma’s movies. The media (and to some extent, critics) get back at people they don’t like this way.

    If you’ve seen it, what is your opinion of the movie?

    1. I’ve seen every one of Shayamalan’s movies because he has made classics like The Sixth Sense. When you have high expectations of a director who used to be the highest-paid in Hollywood, you are understandably disappointed when you think he has failed to deliver. Shayamalan’s early movies are among the best I’ve ever seen. I’d encourage you to see Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender to form your own opinion on whether he’s lived up to that early promise.

  10. I think you should have a post that just says “Desi Raci(st)” and let the comments flow. They make for much exciting read

  11. Nothing to do with the topic or anything, but once in at an art exhibition in Philadelphia, an elderly white lady came up behind me and said “Night daaaarling…It has been soo long !”

    Then I turned around and she went “Oh.. I thought you were Night Shyamalan. Sorry!”

    Maybe she was guilty of racial bias and thought all brown people look alike.

    the point is, this is a pointless comment.

    great post as usual, Anirban! Not everyone gets your brand of sarcasm.

    1. We’ve had the facial-hair-on-a-desi-dude-makes-him-look-radicalized conversation on Twitter before, so I know what you’re talking about.

      Thanks for sharing the anecdote.


  12. Lol @ “Shame on you, Mr Shayamalan for putting us through The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening” … !! As for whether MNS indulges in racial profiling – I am going to keep my comments to myself. Because this is another topic and reality that I am dealing with on a day to day basis. Not in the sense that I am working with Shyamalan on his next assignment. But working on a project with 45 Indians and two non Indians. Will do a post on this some time. Well done Ani.

  13. Have no desire to see this movie but because i read ur post will see it to know what u mean and maybe later comment on that.
    But have to say one thing though that i find my own kind i mean the Indians themselves being racists to the core.Look into the INDIAN matrimonial ads where apart from other things each asks for a fair bride or groom.
    In the villages too where emphasis should be on the uncorrupted values, a girl gets rejected the moment it is discovered that she is dark.
    Last time when i was at Delhi and this reporter said,”i am invisible to the people of Delhi” implying that she was from south India and had a dark skin i felt very sad.
    So i feel this thing about being racist is in all of us and maybe ur mileage may differ but look at the cosmetic companies and all the skin creme ads which only talks of the colour white/fair…and now there are specialised ones for FAIR AND HANDSOME MEN.
    Whatever happened to the TDH concept?And if the man himself is gora how will he tell his beloved,”hai tum kitni gori ho.” or maybe it is all passe and men don’t see these anymore…perhaps they now look at other things other than just the colour or the vital statistics.
    U tell me.What is it now that u look for in a girl/women or what attracts u the most in the first instance.
    oh Gawd! am i waylaying u from ur post?

    1. Thanks for your comment. It is hard for many people to digest but it is true… our caste-system is a form of prejudice, regardless of what the concept was originally based on.

      The fairness cream concept is a good one that you’ve brought up. If only we could apply some more fairness to our characters.

      Best wishes, as always and thanks again for your well thought out comments.

  14. I’m an Indian who hasn’t watched a “Bollywood” film in last two years. The last I saw in a theatre was Chak De India which was actually quite good seeing that it told the believable story of a bunch of hockey players than the mindless naach-gaana routine commonly seen in “Bollywood film” – an assault to your senses. The name “Bollywood” itself is a bastardization of Hollywood and most movies are rip-offs of English, American, even Japanese and Korean cinema (for the latter two, I will denounce this copycat called Mahesh Bhatt). Even legendary “Bollywood” films like Sholay, Jo Jeeta Wohin Sikandar etc. are rip-offs of Hollywood films. The biggest Bollywood blockbuster 3 idiots was so painfully cliched that you would take aspirin tablets along with you.

    I hope more and more educated Indians start boycotting this overhyped institution called “Bollywood”. Please acquire some good taste and watch international cinema or support home-grown talent making small-budget nice movies. Don’t waste your time and money on mental torture media like Ra.one. “Bollywood” is a sham industry where they use underworld money (the same money used to conduct terror attacks on Indian soil) and plagiarize content from creative writers and musicians. The high-earning actors and directors (except for a notable few) are arrogant assholes who think their shit doesn’t stink. Whatever you do, don’t put your hard-earned money in their hands in the name of entertainment.

  15. Look no offense, but I sincerely feel that Hindi film industry also express racism at some point. I mean look at some actors like Katrina kaif, jacqueline fernandez they are not Indians by nature. And Hindi film industry never opens doors for young aspiring actor from India, but they will give a chance to NRI girls. Do you think this is fair?

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