Gopal does live here
|Praba Ganesan is Parti Keadilan Rakyat's Social Media Strategist. He wants to engage with you, and learn from your viewpoints. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @prabaganesan|
JUNE 7 — “I am a police officer.”
Rod Steiger’s facial expression when Sidney Poitier tells him that his character Virgil Gibbs is a Philadelphia detective passing through Steiger’s quaint, left-behind town in the old South in the days of the civil rights movement is priceless. Gibbs went from being a suspected thieving murderer to a fellow lawman from the more assimilated and progressive North within a sentence.
In that “In the heat of the night” 1967 movie scene more than just a man’s innocence was determined, the idea of assuming a man’s worth by his look was being challenged within popular US culture.
Less than 30 years after Hattie McDaniel won a supporting actor Oscar playing a black nanny in “Gone with the wind.”
The march to diversity has been a long and hard one in the US.
By initially enlisting blacks on films even if as extras, became the building block to them appearing as regular cast members. Being black was incidental, but it attacked the abnormal reality where there were that many blacks on the streets but not in the films. The whole process contributed in desensitising the awkwardness of non-Caucasian characters, resulting in present leading black actors like Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington.
Art brought the issue of the day to its most naked. Art has always been an important tool in dissecting a society and at the same time championing diversity.
Malaysia despite being a multicultural country is hardly diverse in its world of arts. Its stories and retelling, whether on the movie screen, or on air, on stage and any performance space has lacked colour, the full fabric of Malaysian life.
Since our art does not show our diversity. It’s time to act.
A diversity arts fund should be set up — with RM20 million annually to be decided by a council of artists to be granted to artistic endeavours. The council cannot pay for more than 30 per cent of the project’s cost, may it be a movie or a TV drama.
The grant should be an additional incentive to encourage ongoing and future arts projects, so they consider diversity.
The late Yasmin Ahmad said once that her movies cost the price of her car. In such a depressed arts field in terms of funding, the grant will draw many applicants. Every thousand ringgit matters.
But again, the fund will not be a backdoor for self-aggrandising art. The movie must be attractive for the grant will provide comfort but not on its own render the project profitable.
The amount will encourage more diversity not replace the entertainment value.
This is not about demographic maths, this is about giving a natural visibility for all Malaysians.
Parallel to the above initiative, the state information authorities running RTM (Radio TV Malaysia) and other agencies should order for diversity as a matter of course. They pay for the dramas using public funds, they should then ensure there is diversity.
Claire Huxtable anyone?
Diversity is not about race alone, but the large race focus in Malaysia will probably lead more discourse on race than anything else.
The obvious grating reality here in Malaysia is that though the last 40 years all of us have been asked to use Bahasa Malaysia as our language of education, yet there is very little diversity in the Malay-language productions.
It has become race-programming rather than language-programming. The producers gear all Malay-language programmes for Malays, which is wrong. It is wrong financially when it involves taxpayer money, it is morally wrong when so many have been trained to use Bahasa as their language and then not find people like themselves in the Malay-language programmes.
This applies for Mandarin-language programmes too. There is a significant number of non-Chinese-speaking Mandarin with so many having attended Chinese -language schools. Therefore there should be some reflection of that demographic, and the diversity fund can assist.
Diversity is not about ratios, calculating the number of minutes in a film and then the number of Indians in Malaysia and then allocating the number of minutes in the film.
That a random Gopal appears in x-number of films, dramas and stage plays without a rhyme or reason, just to prove there is diversity in Malaysia.
Diversity is about quality, about providing an infrequently presented dimension about Malaysian lives and people, provoking a discussion about the dimensions and fairly saying that there are these things. That through these art products you see them, not to glorify them but to humanise them.
The harsh truth here in Malaysia is that so many speak of their fellow Malaysians in cold terms; they are not opposed to the others.
Will showing people make a difference?
Bill Cosby has always been putting out black families and community on the telly. His “Fat Albert and the gang” and “Cosby Show” were about young people and then a family. It was not about championing blacks, it was about telling white America there were black families, not just blacks around them.
The Huxtables from the “Cosby Show” were the quintessential American family for most of the 1980s.
Robert Rodrigues started with a US$10,000 (RM31,000) film. Though the El Mariachi was about bizarre random shootings on the US-Mexican border, it was cast with Latinos. And his movies, whether about vampires, zombies or children super-spies have showcased Latinos.
The shows above, though inundated with ethnic minorities, are primarily about entertainment. They entertain anyone, and they were made to do so. There is no moralising or placing their ethnic groups as superior.
Blacks and Latinos were English speakers in America, and they wanted their art products to make them visible, to normalise their presence.
It is not just Benetton
The lack of imagination in discussions here is that popular culture does not give us discussion themes.
As much as one can breakdown the failure of Jessica Sanchez winning American Idol over Philip Philips, it is a discussion about Americans.
The absence of diversity in our popular culture disables us from having that conversation. It is not about right or wrong. It is about people of that culture having a say about its diversity through the interplay of art.
And diversity is about veering away from right or wrong, but focusing on the merits of the idea, the art product. Which is why politicians have to be kept away from the diversity fund decision-making process.
Diversity linked to gender, sexuality, religion and others can be considered for funding.
The International Islamic University has been up and about for 30 years. There have been various Muslims from all across the world residing in Malaysia with local wives or husbands. The dynamics of their lives whether in drama, music or even a chat programme on radio will enrich all our lives.
There is religion, and then there are those in those religions. Their lives are not about their religion, though their religion does manifest in their human issues daily.
Same goes for those living in strictly nuclear homes and edging to cultural oblivion as they are just people slotted in three-room units in identical blocks blurring the landscape.
There are too many Malaysian stories not being told, most of it linked to diversity. The fund will raise questions and then answer some. But art is not about answering questions, it is about to burn the questions in the core of our hearts, to scream to our conscience what we cannot tell and to make us smile when it seems impossible.
Art is impossible, but diversity is very possible.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.