A hand and a half: representation of South Asian actors and actresses in the Academy Awards

Top (left to right): Ben Kingsley, Haing Ngor Bottom (left to right): Merle Oberon, Hailee Steinfeld

Top (left to right): Ben Kingsley, Haing Ngor
Bottom (left to right): Merle Oberon, Hailee Steinfeld

Another year, another Academy Awards.  It would be dishonest of me to say that I find award season to be fantastical in nature. Besides the Tony’s (and let’s be frank, who doesn’t love the Tony’s?!), I really could not care less about award shows.

But this year is special, this year I could feel a change in the winds.  Actresses calling out reporters for their sexist and misogynistic questions, critical analyses of films based on how they affected marginalized populations start springing up everywhere, and the highest numbers of (and most ethnically diverse) people of color are nominated for awards in multiple categories.

While I do not want to make light of the wins of Alfonso Cuaron (first Mexican and Hispanic person to win Best Director) or Lupita Nyong’o (first Mexican and African to win for Best Supporting Actress), the big win for me is Bobby Lopez, a fellow Filipino.

Bobby Lopez, as many of us already know, is the youngest EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner, the only winner to complete the feat in under a decade, and the first Asian to win all four awards. Trust me when I say, there is a lot of Pinoy pride in this writer!

Yet, as I look at these milestones that come out of this award season, I cannot help but look for the nominations and wins of Academy Awards by fellow South Asians. Maybe we have had representation in the actor/actress categories for years; maybe I am just watching the wrong movies. Perhaps I am overlooking major wins for Southeast Asians; maybe my joy could be multiplied by just looking into past Academy Awards.

Alas, this is not the case.

The first Academy Award ceremony happens in 1929.  Flash forward 86 years. There are all of 7 nominations of South Asians in the four categories of Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.  Out of those nominees, only two nominees win for their roles.

Who are these fabulous South Asians?  In the category of Best Lead Actor, Ben Kingsley is the only representation of South Asian heritage (Indian) in his nominations for his roles as Gandhi (1982), and Massoud Behrani in the House of Sand and Fog (2003).  He is one of the two winners of an Academy Award, awarded to him for his performance as Gandhi.

In the category of Best Lead Actress, Merle Oberon (Indian) holds steady to being the first and only Asian nominated for this award. Here is the kicker: her nomination is for her performance in the 1935 film, The Dark Angel. In nearly 80 years, she remains the single Asian actress to be nominated for Best Lead Actress.

Our good friend Kingsley makes repeat appearances in the category of Best Supporting Actor. Nominated for his roles as Meyer Lansky in Bugsy (1991) and Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2001), Kingsley does not pick up another Academy Award. However, Haing Ngor, a Cambodian actor, grabs the second win for a South Asian. In his debut performance, Ngor portrays Dith Pran in The Killing Fields (1984).  He is also the first non-Indian nomination.

Now, as a proud Filipina, I am proud to say that the lone nomination for Best Supporting Actress goes to a Filipina, Hailee Steinfeld, for her role as Mattie Ross in True Grit.  She is also the youngest actress of Asian descent to be nominated in this category.

I am proud to see South Asian representation in these four categories; however, there are certain issues that need to be discussed. While I love Kingsley to death, he represents 50% of the wins, and 57% of the overall nominations.  Both Steinfeld and Oberon purposely try to be white-passing, nearly eliminating any representation. Out of these nominations, 43% of these roles cannot be played by anyone who is not of South Asian heritage. I say this knowing that a non-South Asian could play these roles a la the use of Yellow Face, such as Mickey Rooney portraying the character Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); in roles such as the one’s demanding South Asian actors and actresses in these nominations, the dramatic and theatrical credibility of the film would be ruined without real South Asians performers.

In 86 years, South Asians continue to fight for roles, period. In the glorious future, I will hope that the trend continues of having South Asians have more than half of their roles not be determined by their race. Until then, I will just wait for the day that it takes more than just my fingers to count out the number of South Asian actors and actresses nominated for an Academy Award.

Samantha Estoesta

Samantha is a 23 year old in Waterloo, ON, Canada. A graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Waterloo, and currently the Executive Director of a Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), she is going to start her Masters in Intercultural Communications in the fall. She is 50% Filipina, and 50% Azorean Portuguese.

1 Comment

  • Reply November 2, 2016


    These g00ks don’t even like to associate with Asians in the Britain.

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