Hollywood

The Shukla Test

by Nikesh Shukla

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.

White Chicks - 2004

White Chicks – 2004

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.

Apu

Apu

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

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13 replies »

  1. It may be worth checking out New Zealand films like Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider, White Lies/Tuakiri Huna. I’m pretty certain they all pass the Shukla Test and maybe the Shukla-Bechdel as well! And two very recent features: The Dead Lands and Dark Horse.

  2. I don’t think Bend It Like Beckham passes the test. I think however that It’s a Wonderful Afterlife might. Are we counting allusions to non-white culture as discussions about race – arranged marriage, samosas etc? In that case, BILB might squeak through. Most of the stories I’m working deal with race quite centrally. Probably symptomatic of my own anger/disaffection/internalized oppression.

  3. I’ve started writing a short story and it revolves entirely around race as it has a female muslim protagonist. I don’t want to be writing a load of cliched old cobblers but it appears I’ve dived straight into cliche. Press delete and start again?

    • OK so first thing is, never delete. Archive it and start with a blank page. Have a think – what is the story I’m trying to tell here. Who are the main characters? What do they feel? What is their ‘want’? The main driver for characters is their ‘want’. Not yours as the writer. Once you know what your character wants, start writing. Don’t project your opinions or issues on to your character (unless it’s about you!) – not if that isn’t to do with your character’s ‘want’.

      The best advice I was ever given was by my editor. He said: ‘what is the story you’re trying to tell?’ Simple. Effective. It meant I deleted a massive chunk of subplot from my first novel that was just for the comedy. It got used elsewhere. And the book became tighter as a result.

      Good luck! And tweet me the link when it’s done.

  4. Great blogpost! I imagine there are more TV shows like The Wire that feature African American characters talking to each other without mentioning race, because they can spend more time developing rounded characters.
    As for asian characters, you’d be hard pressed to find more than 2 on the same TV show or movie at the same time, nevermind having a conversation together!

  5. Hey all, just a point of clarification about Django Unchained: I wrote this not long after seeing that, and being a comedy writer, I took a little bit of pleasure in choosing such a problematic film for my silly little test. But the test is just to open up dialogue. Start a discussion. It’s not prescriptive. It’s open to adapting, expanding, fine-lining, renaming (heck, call it the Minstrel Test – I just always wanted something named after me, like a bench or a prize or something)… Also, with Django… the interesting thing is, I know race is an integral part of the narrative… I guess, the important thing is… that’s not the only narrative we have. We have many narratives. Let’s see those on screen.

    And if you ever see me in a cafe, buy me an Americano with warm skinny milk and I’ll tell you the story of my script, Foreign Beggars. It’ll make you laugh and depressed all at once.

  6. Great article – and definitely something I want to focus more on in the future. I think the test has been made up already (maybe even from dykes to look out for again??) but I can’t remember the name of it. I do know a film I love dearly that passes the bechdel and shukla test: sister act 2! I don’t think they mention race much at all although there’s lots of connotations if you look at the situations of the characters. They talk about finding your vocation in singing, school stuff etc
    What’s my prize? :p
    On top of this, I’d love to see something that involves qtpoc w names talking to each other – about anything!

  7. Attack The Block is the only movie that springs to mind for me (in answer to your last question) Retweeting to infinity btw, excellent post.

    • Attack the Block wasone that sprang immediately to my mind too. Though i still found it problematic in a lot of ways. Despite being a film that seemed to set out to centre Black characters, the white characters still seemed to get much more development as individual characters, while I felt the Black characters were less individuated and treated more as Moses and his gang + the girls. White characters also had a much higher survival rate than Black characters.

      Another film that springs to mind is Slum Dog Millionaire – but i’m sure plenty of people have written more eloquently than i could about the problems in that film!

      • Should say nevertheless i think the Shukla test (which my autocorrect wants to rename the Sheila test – seems depressingly apt.), and the hybrid Shukla-Bechdel test suggested below are fab ideas.

  8. Reblogged this on Shell Pebble and commented:
    Arse-kickingly awesome article. The outrageous racism of film and TV MUST change; life mirrors art in the end.

    I move for the Shukla-Bechdel test, which requires that two women of colour talk to each other about something other than race OR men. Prize for anyone who can name one that passes!

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