The British entertainment industry is not hailed as the epitome of diversity and it has not made claims to be, either. The under-representation of Black and Ethnic minorities in the British entertainment industry is a long-standing contention, including the fact that it enables disconcerting typecasting; which has admittedly evolved from the bygone era of Goodness Gracious Me, a TV series in which South Asians are depicted as parodies of white stereotypes – extremely frugal, desperate to interrogate, restaurant workers who binge eat on chilies. Perhaps transgressed to present day portrayals of hijab wearing, oppressed by cultural restrictions victims, taxi drivers and notwithstanding the newsworthy favorite – “Muslim terrorist”. Therefore, it’s not only the lack of diversity in the media but often the failure to accurately depict diversity that is increasingly causing concern. So, what or who is at fault here?
Is it the distribution of opportunity that is to blame?
The lack of nurturing talent or perhaps simply the ignorance of the white middle class men at the top of the hierarchy commissioning work?
Potentially, it’s a conglomeration of all the aforementioned. The fact is the lack of representation or “seeing oneself” reflected in societies most fundamental elements, the media, can easily lead to disillusion and detachment from that society. Which may mislead, alienate, and ultimately misguide the most vulnerable in our societies. If they are not British, then who are they?
The Culture Secretary of the United Kingdom, Matt Hancock, has voiced the need “to nurture and foster the next generation of talent” and “making sure that the films in the UK are truly representative of the UK’s diverse society.” I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments but what has been done to “foster” this talent? What is it really like for a “representative” British Muslim to try and breakthrough into the entertainment industry? I spoke with Muj Shah, a talented up and coming actor about his experiences and found his responses revealing of current circumstances yet hopeful about the future.
MM: Tell our readers a little about yourself, in particular how you started your career in acting?
MJ: I’m a British Muslim Actor who was Born in Bradford and grew up in Derby. I’ve appeared in a few BBC Shows including Casualty and most recently I played Bilal in a BBC Comedy Series called, Coconut. I started acting whilst at school, but professionally I’ve been doing it for almost six years. I t was a gradual pro
gression for me, after my drama teacher suggested it was something I could do and I wasn’t very good academically and I enjoyed it so I thought I’d give it a shot. I then went on to do Drama at University whilst I attended the National Youth Theatre. It was a case of figuring it out for myself as I didn’t have anyone to turn to for guidance or possess the resources that are available to young people today. More recently however I’ve begun to identify more with being an Author.
Who would you say were your inspirations in the TV/Movies/Media growing up? /and now?
MJ: Growing up there weren’t many brown faces to identify with in the media, Goodness Gracious Me was the only show you saw where there were South Asians present in not so stereotypical fashion. It was ground breaking and progressive but I didn’t seek out South Asians to identify with. All I saw was myself as a young actor who wanted to cut his teeth in the industry. So I turned to other young Actor’s careers for guidance. At the time Orlando Bloom was huge because of Lord of The Rings, he was young, he was British and he was making strides in the industry. He had attended the National Youth Theatre so I read up about him and what he did next. I saw that he had attended the British American Drama Academy, so I decided that was what I was going to do next. I auditioned and got a partial scholarship after a failed first attempt at getting in. It wasn’t easy by any means after that. It involves a lot of trial and error and persevering. At the moment it’s great to see South Asian actors progressing and breaking down barriers, but it’s still the character actors I aspire to be like such as Michael Shannon. That’s somebody who inspires me.
Did you have family or community objections or negative conjecture about your career choice?
MJ: My family was always supportive. I believe my Dad always wanted to dabble in theater in Pakistan but his dad had prevented him from doing so. So he said he’d never stop me. My mom was a little skeptical to begin with as you didn’t see Asian actors on TV, they just weren’t there. She’s more supportive now as I’ve shown that it can be done, at least when the work is there.
In your opinion, do British Muslims have a place in the British film/TV/Entertainment industry?
MJ: I think we deserve a place in the industry but whether there’s a place that’s an accurate and fair representation that isn’t sensationalised in some manner remains to be seen. I’ve not seen it in a lot of characters I’ve auditioned for.
Do you feel typecast as a British Asian Muslim man, and have you experienced racial stereotyping when auditioning?
MJ: I’ve certainly been typecast in the past. Where you find yourself doing a vaguely sounding generic Middle Eastern accent auditioning for the part that is a terrorist or the part where you’re mistakenly a suspected a terrorist. Which is now strangely progressive. It’s as if after years of saying, “all Middle Eastern/South Asian characters are radical terrorists” in every form of media. The counter narrative has become surprise plot twist of, “you suspected them as a terrorist but no, they’re actually just an innocent Muslim family trying to survive in a world of hate.” It’s almost a form of apology for years of conditioning audiences into stereotyping communities. However it all still revolves around that terrorist plot point.
…The lack of representation or “seeing oneself” reflected in societies most fundamental elements, the media, can easily lead to disillusion and detachment from that society.
Do you feel there is a lack of roles/parts for British Asian Muslims in the British entertainment industry? Is it true actors have to migrate to American to get their breakthroughs?
MJ: David Oyelowo said that as a BAME actor you have to work twice as hard to get half as far, which is entirely true. He came up the same route where his peers have sky rocketed into the mainstream and become part of that upper class white male image the British Industry do so like to export. It’s something Riz Ahmed said in his House of Commons address, where Downton Abbey is the image we project to the rest of the world and what it means to be British. There isn’t any room for diversity in that. That’s why a lot of British ethnic minorities do go to the States for better parts. For me it started with Idris Elba in The Wire and it seems to still be the trend now. In my own personal experience, I moved to Toronto for similar opportunities, I found myself auditioning in my own British accent for the first time; for some big film and TV Shows. There I was seen to be British before I was seen as being brown. Something I’d never felt here.
Do you feel the recent huge success of British and American South Asians, Riz Ahmed and Aziz Ansari will pave the way for more people from their backgrounds?
MJ: I hope so but both of those actors had other strings to their bows artistically. Riz Ahmed has his music which is what got him cast in Four Lions and Aziz Ansari has his stand up comedy. I think it’s extremely important to be multifaceted for artistic expression and in getting you voice heard. It boils down to working twice as hard to get half as far, it will only make your voice louder. Also, it’s a better to have a creative outlet where you get to control your own depiction instead of serving somebody else’s idea of what their interpretation of your religion or culture is, because more often than not that depiction was created by a white male who could not be further from the truth.
Are Muslims accurately portrayed in the entertainment industry? Or do news feeds leaks into the depiction of Muslim on screen?
MJ: I think there’s a problem with the way Muslims are portrayed in the media. It’s something I think about a lot, as a firm believer in labeling theory, I do wonder what it means when we only associate terms such as “terror” or “terrorist” with those people of a certain faith. What does it mean if the only brown faces you see are in the news and there’s no other positive imagery to counter that? I think it’s extremely dangerous, if you say it to someone long enough you’ll eventually lead them to believe it.
If you have youngsters in vulnerable situations, where growing up is hard to begin with and on top of that they feel like they don’t belong, they’re going to be prone to outside influences which would only perpetuate the problem. If they become radicalised and seek that belonging in the wrong places and in turn commit an act of violence. It would only lead the media to say “See, all Muslims are the same.”
What does it mean when the President of the United States openly shows his disdain for your religion, which for many is their entire way of living?
I think being a British Muslim or even an American Muslim are still relatively new concepts. My parents weren’t born here and a lot of my friend’s parents weren’t born here. So you’re growing up with eastern values and morals in at times a conflicting western world. So figuring out your identity is super important, we’re basically the first of our kind and we’re making the first real impression for future generations. That’s a huge responsibility. That’s why I feel like we all need to try a little harder, in the media and us as people. I believe it’s so important to have a counter narrative. We need those positive characters and role models in the media. I personally would like children to be able to identify with the hero. It’s why I created a Muslim Superhero called ‘Maghrib’, where I wrote an illustrated a graphic novel and I continue to work on it. I was highly commended for my writing on it by Faber and Faber in their Fab Prize 2017 and had work from it recently Exhibited in the Peace Museum here. I find that work far more rewarding than my Acting at the minute.
Do you feel a South Asian Muslim man could ever depict James Bond (the ultimate British role) in our lifetimes?
MJ: Nope, never going to happen. Do you remember when Daniel Craig was cast and there was an uproar about him being blonde? That was a change in his hair colour, imagine an entire change in melanin. It would never happen, let alone letting a muslim actor play him. I think we often believe we’ve come a long way since the 1960’s because of the advances in technology but socially and culturally we still have a hell of a long way to go.
Do you have any advice for Muslims, Ethnic minority aspiring to be actors or create creative careers for themselves?
MJ: Create your own work, start writing the characters you want to play as eventually you’ll grow tired of the rejection and the few stereotypical roles that are available. It’s important to get yourself heard and seen. I often say to people that, you could be the greatest footballer in the world but if nobody sees you play football how are they going to know it? And to run with that idea, if nobody lets you play, start your own games. You need to create, also don’t be afraid to express yourselves creatively in other manners. I find my work as an author brings attention to my acting and vice versa, they should complement each other.
MJ: I think it’s important to persevere and even if you feel like you’re not progressing, you need to know that you’re still making progress for future generations every time you get seen or if somebody listens to what you have to say. You’re making it easier for the next person to be heard and hopefully they won’t have to fight as hard and that could be because of what you did and maybe one day we won’t have to fight at all.