South Asian Canadian creators making mark off-screen — as crucial as being in front of the camera

South Asian Canadians are having a pop culture moment as their stories make a mark in film and television here and abroad. But those works are incomplete without proper behind-the-scenes representation, say creators and critics. But with a new-found focus on Canada's largest visible minority community, representation is about more than just the faces we see on the screen.

Representation is about more than just the faces we see on TV and at the movies

South Asian Canadian creators Uzma Jalaluddin, left, and Bilal Baig. Jalaluddin's novel is being adapted into a film by Mindy Kaling and Amazon Studios, while Baig is the co-creator of a CBC/HBO comedy that's making its premiere this fall. (Andrea Stenson/HarperCollins, Sienna Films)

While growing up in a Toronto suburb, author Uzma Jalaluddin was excited to see any person of colour on her television screen, regardless of whether they shared her background.

"If they happened to be Indian and they happened to speak without an accent, I was really confused because I was like, 'That never happens,'" she said.

A Toronto Star columnist, high school teacher and public speaker, Jalaluddin hit the literary jackpot this year: Her bestselling novel Hana Khan Carries On will be adapted into a film by Mindy Kaling and Amazon Studios.

The romantic comedy, a twist on Nora Ephron's beloved film You've Got Mail, follows aspiring radio broadcaster Hana as her family's East Toronto halal restaurant comes up against by a newer, fancier halal joint, owned by a dashing young man.

Jalaluddin's main role as the author of the story is pretty much done, she says. But when the film goes into production, she'll be a creative consultant.

"If they have any questions about the location, the characters, the themes, or even the Muslim representation, the South Asian representation, they can come and ask me."

It's one of several exciting stories by a South Asian Canadian creator emerging into pop culture canon. But with a new-found focus on Canada's largest visible minority community, representation is about more than just the faces we see on the screen.

An explosion of exciting stories

Baig is the co-creator and star of the upcoming comedy series Sort Of, about a gender-fluid, 20-something Pakistani-Canadian who takes a job as a nanny. (Sienna Films)

Another Toronto-set story by a South Asian creator is making its premiere this fall: Sort Of, a CBC/HBO Max series about Sabi Mehboob, a gender-fluid, 20-something Pakistani-Canadian. Forgoing a dream move overseas in spite of themself, Sabi takes a nanny job for a family reeling from a tragic accident.

Created by Fab Filippo and Bilal Baig, with Baig also acting in the lead role, the coming-of-age series was a chance to dig into the theme of "transition": how people remain in constant evolution and discover their true identity during that process.

Like Jalaluddin, Baig, who uses they/them pronouns, can't recall a time when South Asian people were getting the kind of thoughtful characterization that they are in this moment.

"I'm seeing some things that I would have never seen when I was, you know, even five years ago or especially when I was younger," Baig said. "I feel like that has to do with our voices being brought in more fulsome ways and then the space being made to actually hear us out."

WATCH | South Asian creators, critics weigh in on importance of thoughtful representation:

South Asian creators, critics weigh in on the importance of thoughtful representation

1 year ago
Duration 3:03
Bilal Baig, Uzma Jalaluddin and Amil Niazi spoke with CBC News about increased media visibility for South Asian Canadians and why off-screen representation is crucial in film and television.

South Asian Canadian creators are at the forefront of pop culture. Tamil actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, born in Mississauga, Ont., stars in Kaling's Netflix hit Never Have I Ever, which was recently renewed for a third season. On Drag Race Canada, reigning champion Priyanka from Whitby, Ont., is of Indo-Guyanese descent. And in 2019, Lilly Singh, from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, Ont., became the first person of Indian ethnicity to host a U.S. late-night talk show.

That's just in Canada. Everything from Aziz Ansari's critical darling Master of None to Marvel's upcoming film The Eternals, which features Kumail Nanjiani as superhero Kingo Sunen, is an exciting piece of this puzzle.

For culture critic and Pop Chat showrunner/panellist Amil Niazi, Canadian stories should reflect the varied nature of the country's communities.

"The only thing that I think is important to capture when we're telling Canadian stories is the richness of our communities and how many different types of people congregate and come together and commune and have conflict," Niazi said.

"To me, that's the core of Canadian storytelling: just capturing the richness of who we are in our cities and our towns."

Representation and diversity not the same: culture critic

While watching an episode of Never Have I Ever with her husband, Jalaluddin recalled watching him delight in the show's nuanced portrayal of South Indian culture — right down to the characters' clothing, cuisine and language.

"My husband was like, 'Oh my God, they're there. This is South Indian food, [this is] South Indian clothing.' And when they were speaking a couple of words in Tamil, he understood."

Tamil actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, born in Mississauga, Ont., stars in Kaling's Netflix hit Never Have I Ever, a teen comedy series on Netflix that was recently renewed for a third season. ( Lara Solanki/Netflix)

South Asia is a large region comprising eight countries: India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

That's why for Jalaluddin, it was an excellent example of what thoughtful media representation can achieve. "They're picking out details that you only get when you have an insider who shares the culture of the characters that are being represented on screen."

But there's an important distinction to be made between diversity and representation, Niazi said.

Toronto writer Uzma Jalaluddin is back with her second novel, Hana Khan Carries On. It's a romantic comedy about rival Halal restaurants that's drawing comparisons to the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan movie, You've Got Mail. Jalaluddin’s book is already on the Globe and Mail's bestseller list. She joined Tom Power to talk about the novel and how she puts a different spin on the rom-com format.

"There is a big difference between diversity — meaning that ... you tick a bunch of boxes — and representation, which is that there are people behind the scenes, in the writer's room, directing or whatever, that actually can bring those stories and the richness of our experiences to life."

On-screen representation of visible-minority characters is important, but it's just as crucial for those characters to be written, directed and stylized with sensitivity so that they aren't one-note caricatures.

"Any time that you can ensure that there are caretakers on set that can watch out for things, know how to light people, know how to do makeup on us, people know how to do our hair, know how to ensure that that there are no red flags," Niazi said, "I think [that] will go a long way in ensuring that the stories that are told are rich and representative and honest."

WATCH | Diverse reboots can't replace BIPOC-created content, experts say: 

Diverse reboots can’t replace BIPOC-created content, experts say

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Duration 1:28
Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Rick Ellis and Jhanik Bullard weigh in on the onslaught of television reboots, new efforts towards diversified casting and what they mean for BIPOC creators.

For Baig, playing a behind-the-scenes role in Sort Of was central to the show's genesis. As a co-executive producer, co-showrunner and co-creator, "the lens, the point of view that I have, the way I'm seeing the world, what I want to see more of, what I kind of want to see less of, you know, will then be filtered into every kind of decision we make," Baig explained.

That individuality makes Sort Of a wonderful show about the experience of a single person, Niazi said, without compromising on the universal resonance of its themes.

"One thing that happens a lot to racialized creators is that there's an expectation that they're going to tell the story of the whole community, that somehow all South Asian people are going to be represented in this one little TV show," she said. "And what [Sort Of] does so well is capture what it is to be Pakistani."

Opportunities are abundant

Although the television and film industries have been historically dominated by white writers and directors, Jalaluddin said that there's enough room for creators of colour to make their mark as well.

"Especially with the voracious content required by streamers, there's enough space for lots of storytellers to join," she said. "And I hope that people from diverse backgrounds will maybe look into ... the creative arts as a possible career."

Hana Khan Carries On is a novel by Uzma Jalaluddin.
Jalaluddin wrote the novel Hana Khan Carries On. Although the television and film industries have been historically dominated by white writers and directors, she says that there's enough room for creators of colour to make their mark as well. (Andrea Stenson, HarperAvenue)

While filming Sort Of, Baig and co-creator Filippo surrounded themselves with LGBTQ talent, as well as Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) talent — both in front of and behind the camera.

"We worked with consultants who were trans and BIPOC, as well as had writers in the room with lived experience of queerness and brownness," Baig said.

The team really tried to "hear each other out when we were making decisions around casting or crew or locations," they said.

South Asian creators, like other people of colour in the film and television industries, need to have the same opportunities to succeed and fail that are afforded to white people, Niazi said.

She pointed to the "glass cliff" theory, which states that during a high-stakes crisis, people of colour and women are favoured for promotions, setting them up for failure from the beginning.

"From the perspective of a person of colour, I don't expect Mindy Kaling to uphold me at every turn," Niazi said.

"I just want to laugh, and I just want her to be able to have the opportunity to do well — but also to do poorly and recover from it so that I can have an example of what success actually looks like for women who look like me."


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