Western animation doesn’t seem to like us.
That sounds harsh, but the last time South Asians were depicted in an American animated film, it was The Jungle Book (1967). Yeah, of all the rich Indian stories to be told, Disney chose to make a film based on a collection of short stories written by Indian-born, but British author Rudyard Kipling, who also wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Plus, most of the characters’ names weren’t even pronounced correctly in the film.
It’s interesting that, growing up as an Indian American in the 1990s, I’d been called both Pocahontas and Jasmine. While those Disney princesses are awesome despite the films’ flaws in depicting people of color, I’m neither Native American nor Middle Eastern. (Disney’s Aladdin takes place in Agrabah, which is actually completely fictionalized and thus was an attempt to erase any responsibility in actually making a film based on an Arab folktale.)
There were rumors of a Disney Ramayana film, but that either was just rumors or the project got shelved and isn’t looking to come out soon. Since The Princess and the Frog released in 2009, Walt Disney Animated Studios put out three more White Princess movies: Brave, Tangled, and Frozen. The company’s upcoming projects include movies about planes (spin-off to the Cars franchise), dinosaurs, and fish (Finding Dory). I’ll give kudos to for Big Hero 6, which will feature a Japanese protagonist based on the Marvel Comics superhero team. But I’m still talking about princesses!
Now, since Disney doesn’t really go beyond European folktales for their princess films, I think it’d be cool to see a South Asian princess in a reinterpretation of a popular fairy tale of that nature. It’s a good compromise, and Disney won’t inevitably screw up by entirely disrespecting Indian mythology in the process.
Already, reinterpretations of popular Western fairytales have made their rounds in being racebent for South Asian protagonists through independent artists. And the reimaginings actually work!
Forget the loose blond mane. Trade it in for dark hair braided into a mile long plait.
In many parts of India, it’s still popular to maintain long hair for women. So, not only would an Rapunzel-inspired Indian princess be aesthetically pleasing, it’d also be culturally accurate.
“Rapunzel” by the Brothers’ Grimm shares similar characteristics to the 10th century Persian tale of Rudaba, who let down her long hair as a rope to meet with her lover Zal.
Trading the poisoned apple for a poisoned pomegranate, a Snow White fairytale set during the Mughal Empire (pre-British colonialism) would be breathtaking. Not only could the film explore the issues of skin tone and color that still deeply affects South Asians today, but it could also address standard of beauty mess women struggle with their whole lives in a way the 1937 film never could.
First of all, how incredibly cute would this be?! This tale might be more influenced by Hindu mythology, since the lotus flower (India’s national flower) is such a darling idea!
Struggling with her self-identity (being a small human amongst other animals), Thumbelina explores the rich forests and villages of India in her misadventures. As the story progresses, she gains confidence, grace, and her inner beauty shines through.
Set in the Middles Ages, or not, the Giambattista Basile version tale of Sleeping Beauty is insane. However, its involvement of prophesies and astrology make it a better candidate for an Indian setting than Charles Perrault’s retelling. If the film chooses Hindu protagonists, other elements such as divine intervention (the fairies as Hindu gods and goddess instead) and mythology could make cameos.
See? It can be done! So, whichever fairy tale Disney chooses to reimagine next, there really is no excuse for choosing to depict another white protagonist. America is changing its racial and ethnic landscape more than ever now, and Disney reaches a global audience bursting to be represented. Of course cultural consultants should be employed in the making of any film depicting people of color. But just imagine how much creativity and empowerment would be achieved if Disney actually tried.