Someone wrote of one of my short stories that it was ‘an amorphous mess of Indian names’. The implication was that, had I gone with more traditional names like Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul, he would have liked the short story more. Having said that, he did end the review by saying that despite the fact that the characters were Indian, there was a universal experience to be had. Again, the implication being that, Indians don’t have universal experiences, they have Indian ones.
A thing I say a lot is, ‘everyone in books, films or television is white unless they have to do something brown.’ It’s not often Ranjit is at the pub having a universal experience with Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul. While Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul have their universal experience, Ranjit is off somewhere worrying about being brown. Probably because of his job or his parents.
But ‘I don’t want to be tokenistic’, people say. ‘I don’t want to put a brown character in just for the sake of it. That’s tokenism.’ The sad thing about that type of tokenism is that it presupposes that everyone is white, so to have anyone ethnic would be off-piste. It’s not tokenistic for me to go out with Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul and for them to ask me about my day, my wife, my opinion on the new Solange Knowles EP. They rarely ask me what it’s like to be brown and the fact that I am, well, it just hardly ever comes up. But if a character like me was inserted into a film, that would be tokenistic. Probably because everyone presupposes everyone in television, books or film is white unless they have to do something brown. I’ve had projects featuring brown people doing mundane things like fighting, fucking, loving, losing etc turned down because ‘the characters aren’t relatable’ or ‘they don’t feel authentically Asian’, while at the same time seeing the same things being made featuring Caucasians. If that’s the case, then screw it, I’m all for tokenism.
I’ve been thinking about the Bechdel test for films where a film must have a) two or more main female characters who b) talk to each other about c) something other than men. It’s amazing to see that not many films pass this test. So, I’m initiating this now (unless it’s already been done…): The Shukla Test, for books, films and television where a) two main characters who are people who of colour b) talk to each other without c) mentioning their race.
I can’t think of a single film where this has happened. Except in Bollywood.
Let’s just look at the last couple of things I’ve seen. I’m rating this on the Apu scale where 0 Apu’s means it passes The Shukla Test and 10 Apu’s means… wow, this is racist.
Django Unchained: this one’s difficult given its subject matter but if we’re clinically applying the test… it does have two people of colour (Jamie Foxx, Samuel L Jackson – tick) talk for five minutes (one of the final showdowns) about… oh dear, they mention race a few times. I give Django Unchained 7 Apu’s.
Safety Not Guaranteed: there’s one Indian character (oh-oh), so he gets to talk to no other people of colour for five minutes, but they only mention he’s Indian once, and a manchild nerd the rest of the time, so I guess that’s progress. This gets 5 Apu’s.
So, there we have it… The Shukla Test. Until Ranjit can sit next to Steve, Joe, Andy, Paul and Bob (who is a Punjabi named Bobby) and have a film conversation about exposition and not about race, we’ll be stuck in a world that insists on colour casting, that won’t allow for black Spider-men or for characters from The Hunger Games to be played by a diverse set of actors or for sitcoms like Outsourced that perpetuated so many stereotypes it was actually more racist and offensive than Mind Your Language. And for me, with my race chip on my shoulder and my blathering on about the same issues again and again, I’ll be quietly applying The Shukla Test to everything I watch or read from now on. I hope you do too. Can anyone name some films that pass The Shukla Test?
Nikesh Shukla is a writer of fiction and television. His debut novel, Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2011. Metro described it as ‘…a riot of cringeworthy moments made real by Shukla’s beautifully observed characters and talent for teen banter.’ In 2011, Nikesh co-wrote a non-fiction essay about the riots with Kieran Yates called Generation Vexed: What the Riots Don’t Tell Us About Our Nation’s Youth. His Channel 4 Comedy Lab Kabadasses aired on E4 and Channel 4 in 2011 and starred Shazad Latif, Jack Doolan and Josie Long.He likes Spider-man comics. A lot. Tweet him about that @nikeshshukla
- Nikesh Shukla’s top 10 Anglo-Asian books (3quarksdaily.com)