VIEW: How to change cultural representation in film

Diversity in the film industry has been lacking, with the so-called ‘Golden Age’ to blame for some of the worst statistics in terms of female representation of actors, screenwriters, directors and producers, according to analysis of 26,000 movies produced between 1910 and 2010. The trend of male producers hiring male directors and male writers has had a domino effect on how women are represented on screen, and their roles in the overall industry.

But times are changing, and the impact of each change is significant. Recent studies show that increased efforts to increase diverse faces, stories and perspectives on screen are having a tangible impact on young people. Many have experienced a boost to their self-acceptance and self-esteem, by being able to better relate to what they’re seeing on screen, including in new Netflix shows like Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever.

Rupanty Akid is an actress performing on screen in both Australia and Bangladesh, and has experienced first-hand how the industry prioritises people of certain ‘looks’. In this interview, she shares how those experiences have shaped her perspective and approach to working in the industry, as well as how she’s seen the power of audience demand in being able to spark change on issues like representation and diversity.

  • When was the first time you realised your complexion or skin colour impacted what roles you did and didn’t get? How did you feel at the time?

The first time I realised this was when I first started out as a freelancer in Sydney, and was seeking jobs online. The majority of acting and modelling jobs listed would say ‘appearance must be Caucasian, hair must be blonde’ and similar specifications. At the time as a child, this was just something I accepted as normal, which is an isolating feeling. I assumed that people just don’t want to see anything ‘different’.

Racial discrimination is a social concept we learn as we grow – no children are born knowing racism. I slowly grew up to realise I’m not different; that Australia is so multicultural, and I’m a normal part of this beautiful country, but it’s the Australian media that won’t represent it that way. 

  • How have your experiences with racial discrimination or preference evolved since you joined the film industry? 

Over the last 10 years that I’ve worked in the industry, and especially since signing with an agent, I have noticed a huge shift in attitude towards diversity. The more the general audience demands to see a broader representation, the more they will be heard. There is so much power in people which they don’t realise. The film industry is headed in the right direction, but it’s just not there yet.

  • What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between working in Australia in comparison to the film industry in Bangladesh? 

Bangladesh is an entirely different planet from Australia. I love working in Bangladesh though, as it’s my way of staying connected to the culture and learning their language. But, there are some obvious differences like pay; what I earn per hour in Australia as a blurry background extra is more than what I earn as a lead role in an entire movie in Bangladesh. There, you do not get paid per hour, and so working hours on set are inhumanely long. Then there are some subtle behavioral differences. 

For example, the way I am treated in Bangladesh is like royalty, just because I work in front of the camera. This makes me feel very uncomfortable. Crew members freak out when I try to hang out with them and make a friendly conversation, because they’re not used to it, and can get in trouble for ‘disturbing the actress’. Even on social media, when I reply to my follower’s comments, they are so shocked I would respond to them, like they are beneath me for some reason.

There’s a very clear hierarchy, and you get treated differently based on that, I don’t completely understand it yet. There you have maids, drivers, personal ‘spot boys’. I guess, people just grow up with the mentality that some are ‘lower class’ and others like those in the media, are idolised, as though we are any different from anyone else. 

And of course, the obsession with ‘fair skin’ in their media is so huge. I can’t think of one big actress in Bangladesh who is proudly dark-skinned and successful without ‘white’ makeup or edits, because the audience would not allow it nor accept it. There are plenty of famous dark-skinned male actors though. The audience also shuns any female actors who get married, and they stop getting work. Whereas married male actors remain popular, but that’s a whole other discussion for another time. 

When I’m working on set in Australia, we are treated equally with respect. We all learn each other’s names and have a great time together, regardless of whether we are a background extra, lighting assistant, or a featured actor. On set, there is no outright discrimination based on gender or ‘status’ or any other factor. I love that it’s all about if you are nice to people, they will be nice to you. I’ve experienced how the golden rule of ‘treat people how you want to be treated’ does not apply in the Bengali film industry. But I still love it, as there are many positive things about Bangladesh, outside the media world.

  • Whose responsibility is it to address the issue of diversity and racial representation in the film industry? Why? 

It is up to each and everyone. I know I am privileged because I get preference, just because I am ‘fair for a Bengali’ and have that ‘foreigner’ look. But it’s my responsibility that I never accept compliments about my skin colour. I always educate them that there is no connection between beauty and fair skin. This is such an issue in South Asian cultures. But different skin colours are just a consequence of how our ancestors reacted to sun exposure, depending on their location. That’s literally all it is, yet people make it an issue. 

As an audience, if we see an ad that we love, everyone should commend the brand for their efforts. This encourages them, and other brands will follow suit. If you see advertising, movies, or shows with a lack of diversity, call them out on it, and generally just voice your thoughts everywhere needed. With incorrect portrayal in the media, they are erasing stories of the majority of the world.

As creators, as casting directors, as brands, as people in actual positions of power behind the scenes – they need to listen to the demand for more representation. Not just for diverse backgrounds, but to cast people with disabilities, or who are LGBTIQ+. At the moment, ‘mixed races’ are preferred so they can still play that ‘token’ diverse role without actually being from that ethnicity. People are quick to blame actors for this, but there are a lot of people involved in making decisions before filming starts. 

I have already seen so much improvement with casting in the media, and I know we will only move forward. Representation of diversity can still be so much better, and it will with everyone taking responsibility and doing their part. 


About the expert

Rupanty is an actress, model and influencer based in Sydney. Although born and residing in Australia, she travels to Bangladesh for work in the media, out of love for her heritage and culture.