The Colored Actors Hiding in the Favourite-

I went to watch “The Favourite” last night, which is getting rave reviews for Olivia Colman’s performance as Queen Anne. Considering that Olivia Colman will soon be playing HM the Queen in the upcoming series of the Crown it seems Ms. Colman is another Helen Mirren in the making.

I’m reading the auto-biography of one of my actors, Sir Nigel Hawthorne CBE. He played King George in the “Madness of King George” and of course Sir Humphrey Appleby in “Yes Minister.” When I read his experiences about being in perpetual penury and having to navigate landlords, it just reinforced how difficult it is to make it in the world of Acting even if you are a privilege white male.

Some of the excerpts on race in the biography are hilarious even though Sir Hawthorne’s views are exceptionally progressive for the time (and this was only written 20years) the milestones are moving so quickly in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation that most language gets dated.

My short thoughts are that even a movie as innocuous as the Favorite, which is ultimately a period piece on Royalty, gives such flavours on the immense upward struggle suffered by BAME (Black-Asian-Minority-Ethnic) actors.

While Emma Stone, as a White American, could plausibly play the lead Abigail Masham and half Jewish Rachel Weisz play Sarah Churchill (ancestress of course to Winston) the best Yorgos Lanthimos could do is “shadow” in 3 coloured actors. There was one Chinese girl in the violin who was in the screen for perhaps 2 seconds, an Indian boy as the help in the Bird Shoot and the final was a Black Server. All of these characters were on screen momentarily as though hinted at but never really featured.

Of course the question about whether colored actors have a place in Period Pieces is a particularly contentious one. However considering that the characters were wearing denim, which certainly wasn’t around in the early 18th century, it seems that either one go for complete authenticity or accept that Creative Licensing encompasses colour and race.

This topic won’t be solved now or in the future however I also wanted to add how Colonialism just makes this a vicious cycle. At the end of the day the only countries with viable and continuous Monarchies happen to in Northern Europe. The Gulf Kingdoms are merely Tribal leaders elevated to Monarchical dignity but nothing really more than that.

Without strength or coherence of a continuous Monarchy most third world countries simply do not have the heritage (or resources) to make compelling Period Pieces that spark the global imagination. The English Monarchy (even the French) resonates in the minds and most people can name at least a handful of monarchs.

In the case of “Independent” nations such as Siam, Afghanistan or Ethiopia; these were glorified buffer states that survived by juggling various European powers. Turkey is probably one of the few countries that somehow managed (through Ataturk) to survive as an independent power (and arguable it’s more European than Asian).

It is not inconceivable that if India had not been subject to foreign influence some sort of Composite Monarchy would have had to emerge (either Mughal or Maratha). The Hindu-Muslim labels certainly existed pre-colonisation and was significant at an elite level but in the early 1700’s (incidentally the time of Queen Anne) it would have been a much more syncretic and fused identity at the common level. It may have been that a Muslim-flavour Hinduism (Muslim Sufis internalised into the pantheon) would have been another sect like the Shaivites and Vaishnaivites.

Of course counter-factuals are always difficult since history is so unpredictable. But it would have been nice to have imagined that maybe in another reality the Favourite would have been about court intrigue in Aurangzeb’s court between his sisters Jahanara and Roshanara.

Some of our Indian friends will of course be outraged that I would use the example of someone so controversial as Aurangzeb. However it is not implausible to also imagine that in a continuous period of Indian Monarchy (whether Mughal or Maratha); Aurangzeb’s perfidy towards Hinduism would not have been the last word but simply treated as a sort of Bloody Mary figure.

At best the Mughals would have been seen as the Plantagenets of India. Instead of coloured actors darting sheepishly in the background in Period Pieces, they would have taken a centre stages since their stories and intrigues would have riveted the world.

If people think I’m being a melancholic Persian then let me ask this:

How many non-Desis cared about Padmavat?

26 Replies to “The Colored Actors Hiding in the Favourite-”

  1. I think this counter-factual had very little chance of working. And Aurangzeb’s example is not even about religion actually.

    Consider the counterfactual that Akbar sanskritized his ruling Gurkani/Moghal house to gurukAnIya/maukala dynasty while remaining firmly Muslim. In essence replacing Perso-Arabic with Sanskrito-Arabic civilization. And imagine his great-grandson – AsanAbhUSaNa vishvagRha (exact translation of Aurangzeb Alamgir) – a fanatical bhakta of ilaheshvara having all those court intrigues…

    Then Indians would accept that hybrid Sanskrito-Muslim culture much more readily. But the imposition of Islam *and* a foreign Persiante culture meant that the Sanskrit cosmopolis had to eventually ossify into a state as the cultural immune response.

  2. but simply treated as a sort of Bloody Mary figure.

    At best the Mughals would have been seen as the Plantagenets of India.

    I don’t think these analogies are useful or valid. A country like England was small enough for centralization to succeed, even after a lot of fighting. Once that happened (during the Tudor reign), there was no way to go but out (to seek resources, to trade, etc.), and people were itching to do so. It was just more profitable and efficient for people to swear allegiance to their monarch, use that monarch’s name and military resources, and go predate on other countries.

    This could never have happened in India. There was more than enough, and the land was too large and dispersed, for people to fight each other perpetually for Indian resources. The Mughals had long lost their empire before the British acquired an inch of territory outside their trading posts. I find it very hard to imagine either them or the Marathas having the vision to build a nation encompassing all of India. That likely required an entity with a single-minded purpose (like a global trading company.)

    If others disagree, I’d like to hear arguments.

    1. The Marathas did have a pretty clear vision of Hindavi Swarajya [indigenous self-rule] under their leadership which would encompass all of Hindustan, especially the “holy places arc” [Kashi-Prayag etc] and the “Saptasindhu” [seven rivers] being prominent keywords occurring in their communications.
      Quite surprisingly, one finds this vision/ambition right from Shivaji’s time when their territory was confined to West and Central Maharashtra – the idea was always to push for the maximum goals, come into national prominence and not merely create a regional state. This explains the raid on Surat, for instance – Shivaji had no reason to openly spite and challenge Aurangzeb and come into national prominence – he could have easily kept his head down if his ambitions were regional, or even accepted mansabdari etc from the Mughals. His son Sambhaji also displayed the same kind of audacity and desire to out-reach the specific territory by giving asylum and support to Aurangzeb’s dissident son – actions which for a up-and-coming regional kingdom would seem foolhardy and irrational.

      Another evidence in favour of this is the way the Marathas celebrated their goals/achievements. While the typical line quoted these days is “Attock to Cuttack” [and those were indeed the maximum gains], one of the prominent terms celebrated in the “Attock” campaign by Marathas was the Raghunath Rao [general who led the campaign] had liberated and reclaimed the Sindhu [Indus] from outsiders, rather than the specific capture of Lahore or some important city.

      Communication talking about how Kandahar has been a part of India from Akbar’s time and why should “we” now let the Iranians take it: https://twitter.com/mulamutha/status/994150288184434688?lang=en

      Maratha communications just before Bajirao’s death in 1739 clearly indicate pre-preparation for a campaign against Nadir Shah after his excursion into NW India . Unfortunately, Bajirao died in his 40s , in 1740 before this could happen . Again this indicates a desire for a role at the national level and not merely as a state confined to Maharashtra, Malwa, Gujarat etc [which could have held its head down]

      The Marathas indeed did have their own, decentralized model of governance with small sub-kingdoms run by chiefs, even within their core territories [hence there were Indore [Holkar dynasty], Gwalior [Scindia dynasty] etc and a long list of such sub-kingdoms], which they would have scaled to entire India if they hadn’t been set back immensely by the Third Battle of Panipat [1761].

      1. I do think 1761 did push Marathas back but i dont think they would have necessarily taken over India. The 1761 war just pushed the decentralized model early into the game, as 1761 war itself shows that the marathas chieftains were already breaking apart. Also its wrong to view them totally as a confederacy considering in many subsequent wars multiple chieftains were either aiding the enemy /or sitting outside. On the taking over of India , there were many ethnicity (not just rulers) who were opposed to marathas and were happy to side with foreigners, case in point Bengalis. But there were other ethnicity who saw them as liberators (Malwa,Orissa,parts of UP). Its only in the late 1800s that Marathas were acceptable as some sort of a proto nationalistic force to much of India (even though it is debated even today).

        1. “Marathas seen as liberators”

          To the modern Hindu Nationalist mind perhaps, but they were regarded as barbarous raiders by most of their contemporaries in India. Literally the only people who had consistently good things to say about them were themselves.

          1. INDTHINGS has a partial point. The Marathas lost legitimacy by allying with Takfiri Islamists against Ahmed Khan Abdali Durrani Baba in 1761. Because of this many Shia, Sufis, Hindus, Sikhs flipped to backing Ahmed Abdali Durrani Baba.

            The Afghan Islam was a much more syncretic Sufi tilted plural Islam that sought to maintain nonmuslim diversity. Too bad that so many muslims around the world (especially Sayyid Khamenei and in the Sunni Arab world and Pakistan) now reject this vision of Islam.

            INDTHINGS, can you share your perspectives on the Chisties, Qadiriyya, Jahanara, Dara Shikoh, Irfan Sufi twelvers, Kabir, Nanaka? [Obviously I am a fan.]

          2. Well you perhaps have not visited places where they are seen as liberators (i have), so they weren’t’ as good as they claimed themselves to be, neither were they as “barbarous” as their opponents (historical as well as present day) make them out to be.

    2. @Numinous

      Yes, I disagree.

      // having the vision to build a nation encompassing all of India. //

      The British EIC did not have the vision to build a nation, but a support network to extract resources for the new age industrial economy. It was deeply anti-competitive and anti-free-market crony-capitalist enterprise, ultimately taken over by the state as such enterprises usually are.

      The credit of making a nation goes squarely to the Indian elite, who recognized and worked across regional and linguistic differences. What the British provided, in effect, was a template of dialogue and political engagement among the elites of the Sanskrit cosmopolis. The elites did the rest.

      1. My earlier comment was inartfully phrased. The EIC wasn’t trying to build a nation, but it WAS trying to centralize administration. Once that happened, Indian elites, as you say, could come together to embark on a nation-building process.

        To me, the arrow of causality points in one direction. First centralized administration, or a rudimentary “state”. Then nation.

        Which is why I don’t see the Indian nation we know (and which many of us love) coming up purely at the hands of indigenous forces, free of European interference. (Maybe multiple nations.)

        PS: Needless to say, I completely agree with you about the EIC. I’m sure I’ve expressed similar sentiments in the past on this forum.

        1. Someone needed to administratively unify SAARC after the Mughal empire disintegrated. Turned out to be the English. Had Nadir Shah lived longer, perhaps he would have undertaken the project to unify SAARC, Turan, Iran, Iraq together. Would this have been preferable to the English?

      2. India’s Sanskrit cosmopolis gives it’s strength and weaknesses. Sanskrit Cosmo was neutral to Umma/ Sharia cosmopolis, OTOH the latter booked no coexistence with the former

  3. Quick Addendum:

    I used Aurangzeb and Mughals as a shorthand however that wasn’t the point of my post. Instead I’m taking about a Continuous Imperial Tradition that lingers on from the Medieval Age to the Modern Age and how that strengthens National Psyche. Arguable the island nations of Britain and Japan have that (however Japan has had severe discontinuity with WW2) and their cultures have a particularly weigh on the world (Japan is especially influential in East Asia from what I understand)..

    My point being is that if there had been no Colonisation it would have been very likely that the Islamic period of India would have been internalised in the same manner as say the Indo-Greek/Indo-Scythian period.

    It also isn’t about the Indo-Islamic period per se but that the “continuity” of India was disrupted by colonisation in a way it hadn’t before.

    Of course the British Riposte is that they *created* India in the modern political form.

    This isn’t to debate India or Islam.

    It may have conceivably been that without the British we may have had these states instead:

    A Sikh Punjab straddling modern day AfPak maybe skirting Delhi
    A shrunken Vatican-type Delhi with a few Muslim principalities
    The Maratha-rajput
    A Tamil kingdom
    Hyderabad etc etc

    My point being is that the exact configuration would not have matter but these States having not been emasculated by colonisation but being exposed to Modernisation (Meijisation) would have had a continuity of political traditions.

    I’m simply cherry-picking the Mughals but even if say Hindu-Sikhs had conquered South Asia come 1750AD and repulsed colonisation; the Islamic period would have been contoured into an entirely nativist framework.

    The problem with India is that it went from one set of Foreign Rule to another set of Foreign Rule.

    The concept of the Qing dynasty would be an interesting analogy; how do the Chinese perceive the Manchus?
    It’s interesting that the Ming – Yuan – Qing. So China had at least one Native Dynasty interspersed in the mix..

  4. “At the end of the day the only countries with viable and continuous Monarchies happen to in Northern Europe.”

    What about Japan, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, Brunei and Malaysia (which has nine royal families)?

    Zach, you vision almost transpired. Dara Shikoh and Jahanara almost won. Both of them were authentic spiritually evolved people in their own right. Dara Shikoh translated 50 Upanishads into Farsi. And wrote Majma-ul-Bahrain.

    No one can write a book like Majma-ul-Bahrain without substantial genuine mystical Samadhi experience. I have heard that the book is spectacular but alas I don’t know Farsi. 🙁

    There is a Hindi (or Hindustani or Urdu) translation called Samudra Sangam Grantha.

    Has anyone at BP read it?

    Had Dara and Jahanara prevailed, they would have been closely allied with the Sufis, twelvers, Sikhs, Marathas, traditional Hindu religious leaders (including Buddhists and Jains). The entire world would have been transformed. The course of the great global Islamic civil war would have been altered. A collateral effect would have been that SAARC would have been a global leader of civilization, culture, technology, GDP in the 1700s and 1800s.

  5. “Without strength or coherence of a continuous Monarchy most third world countries simply do not have the heritage (or resources) to make compelling Period Pieces that spark the global imagination.”

    You dont need a continuous monarchic tradition to make interesting movies about royalty. Movies about Alexander, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and the Japanese shogunates make that clear. You just need good stories and a bit of marketing.

  6. // The problem with India is that it went from one set of Foreign Rule to another set of Foreign Rule //

    Leaving aside the Islamic/Hindu/whatever nature of the Indian polity in the counter-factual – why do you think India went from foreign rule of the British to “foreign rule” now? What is foreign/colonial about India’s government these days?

    I am happy to consider ways in which India’s present system could be considered as truly foreign (not necessarily a bad thing BTW). But I don’t get the charge of it still being some crypto-colonial state?

    Are you referring to, say, India’s dalits, tribals or other oppressed classes? Or is this an entirely separate argument?

    1. Moghal-e Azam is an everlasting masterpiece. The music alone gives me goosebumps.

      I love the colour version. Can see how red Prithviraj Kapoor’s face goes (with anger) at the end of this sequence – what a thespian!

      https://youtu.be/6Au_J6jHKE0

      1. The music is amazing. “Mohe pangat pay”, Pyar kiya to darna kya” and the qawaali “Tere mehfil mein”.

        1. Also the only two songs Bade-Ghulam-Ali-Khan ever sang in a B’wood movie [Shubh Din Aayo and Prem Jogan Bana Ke].

          Also loved the “Hamara Hindustan Koi Tumhara Dil Nahi… ” [the throne of India is not your heart that any courtesan you take heart to can be its queen] scene between Durga Khote [Jodha] and Dilip Kumar [Jahangir] [In favour of Jodha’s POV of course]

    2. What do you make of lack of mughal films in Pakistan movie industry considering mughals are rated so highly there? I mean notwithstanding even the current climate in India, Karan Johar is making his next on mughals.

      I think the only historical sort of movie of Pakistan, i remember is Mahe-e-Mir.

      1. I dread to think of what KJo will do to the Mughals; make them Camp as hell (they probably were).

        KJo is like SRK, they both had their heyday in the 90’s and naughties and just don’t know when to quit.

        I’ll probably skip a post for today but my next post may explore the “insularity” of Indian cinema to the Desisphere (or Sanskrit Cosmopolis to paraphrase SS).

  7. “Without strength or coherence of a continuous Monarchy most third world countries simply do not have the heritage (or resources) to make compelling Period Pieces that spark the global imagination.”
    Cmon man, really?

  8. zak: Of course the question about whether colored actors have a place in Period Pieces is a particularly contentious one. However considering that the characters were wearing denim, which certainly wasn’t around in the early 18th century, it seems that either one go for complete authenticity or accept that Creative Licensing encompasses colour and race.

    Depends on what kind of piece one is trying to do.

    If you go Shakespeare, and use the barest facts of the premise to support what is fundamentally about pan-human emotions and deep realities of the human condition, and everyone is aware that you’re experiencing a stylized recreation of the past, then include BAME actors freely (David Oyelowo may make a fine Hamlet, or whatever).

    If you’re doing something which is ostensibly a recreation of the past and is understood in realist, historical terms, then only people who are ethnically appropriate should be included. In this scenario, Tom Cruise does not play Qin Shi Huang Di, and no more does Idris Elba actually play Richard the First, etc.

    Without strength or coherence of a continuous Monarchy most third world countries simply do not have the heritage (or resources) to make compelling Period Pieces that spark the global imagination.

    This I absolutely do not accept (as Arjun’s comment above). The NE Asian countries show that it’s easy to make compelling, successful period pieces well outside of the aegis of Western monarchy or a “continuous” monarchy. Even in Europe, it’s implausible that Italy or France or Germany would ever be harmed in period pieces by the lack of a continuous monarchy (and in its place a piecemeal of regional traditions). If anything helps the UK above them, it’s, well, so many across the world bloody well speaking English.

    Ultimately, some countries are good at the craft involved in a film industry (intelligent writing, acting, effects, cinematography and the rest), and many are not, and that’s the only considerable factor. It’s special pleading to argue that people from country X, must be cast in films from country Y, without regard to history, because colonialism and sad history has cursed country X’s films about its past to be uninteresting, regardless of quality of execution and ability of the cast and crew. (Another iteration the species of confused answers to “We know we’re great, so why aren’t we successful within our own countries?” favored by the second generation).

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