The first part of this column was published in The Michigan Daily on March 13
Anwar Kharral leers out a bedroom window. Right hand hovering over his crotch, a dusting of peach fuzz beading sweat across his upper lip, Anwar pauses before posing a question of seemingly profound importance. “Wank? Or tell group? … Wank? Or tell group?” Masturbate at the sight of the woman chopping wood outside — a woman no one else believes even exists — or point, shout, show the world she’s not just a hormone-addled figment of his imagination? As George Berkeley once wondered, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, should Anwar rub one out?
This is the kind of question, just stupid enough to stick without risk of self-parody, that is asked a lot in “Skins,” the BBC TV series that secured Dev Patel, Jack O’Donnell and many other yuppie British actors their spot in Hollywood casting lineups. Patel, who portrayed Anwar for the show’s first two highly watchable if not groundbreaking seasons, approaches those questions with an eye on the open, often cringeworthy treatment of sexuality they imply, a certain candidness or, more accurately, bluntness that lays the foundation for characters in soon to come American counterparts like “Girls” and “Shameless.”
Like the rest of the cast, Patel is swinging for the fences in every frame, but only because the premise demands that kind of self-aware outrage at the faintest pin drop of a plot point. It’s the Hollywood version of “they broke up???” — a set of character traits as enclosed, petty and exaggerated as anyone who ever went to high school remembers them being. Audiences shovel through the empty calories, writers wheel through the smarmy sound bites, and in this sense, the window dressing serves its purpose. Soap operas have been perfecting (peddling) the formula for half a century, and make no mistake: along their deepest sinews, that’s exactly what these shows are. Punched up melodrama for millennials. There’s no need for Patel or any of the other actors to flex subtlety, so why bother?
“Skins” only ever manages to break the barrier and get under skins when it’s dealing with race, doing so in a way that’s both glancing yet poignant. It offers answers, sort of. In a scene where Patel tries to stammer through the reasons behind Anwar’s homophobia, the dialogue settles the argument with a four-word explanation. “I’m just a Muslim.” The instinctive response is “there’s more.” Much more, but the show’s effectiveness in discussing these issues stems from a willingness to nick the jugular, then leave whoever’s in front of the camera to stanch the blood with their hands.
The writing never changes after that crucial scene, but Patel’s performance takes a shot of liquefied cocaine to the face. In an introductory screenwriting class, it could be compared to finding oneself lost at sea in a gale of subtext, only an actor keeping the dialogue from its insistence on dog-paddling away from a shitstorm. So even though Anwar never even deigns to look over his shoulder while hiding behind those feeble four words, Patel is hand-delivered a role dripping with moldable tension. And the result is more human, real, uncontrived than anything he’s done since.
Watching “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is like being stabbed in the part of the brain that parcels out feelings of national pride to the rest of the body. There’s no pain — it just coughs a little before keeling over somewhere in the broken pauses between Dev Patel’s (playing Sonny Kapoor) put-on Indian accent. Of course, let’s not forget the fact that, like his character, the geriatric Brits Patel is supposed to be palavering in his quest for exoticity also share the emotional density of a hologram. Still, the indignant asshole in me wavered. If I had to be completely honest, I’d be forced to admit there were stretches in both installments where I couldn’t help but crack at least a few smiles — the films are like two large spoonfuls of concentrated sugar, saccharine enough to make you beam in discomfort, water running down your face, whenever Dame Judi Dench exchanges flirty glances with the locals.
“Marigold” ’s problems share roots with “Skins” ’s strengths. In both cases, Patel starts encased inside scripts overladen with inflated dialogue but lacking any weighty plot turns. In “Skins,” he breaks out by gradually, wordlessly poking holes in his character’s homophobia while the audience heaps sympathy in his direction precisely because Anwar is struggling with real moral dilemmas on screen, and he’s so obviously doing it without any help from the script. It’s a home run that floats on Patel’s acting chops, yet still manages to arc alongside the cheap melodramatic tics of its source material.
“Marigold” never gets past the window dressing.
The most disheartening aspect of watching it swallow up Patel and spit him out as a tokenized caricature is realizing how little anyone cares, how often it’s heralded as an insightful portrait of aging — nothing more, nothing less. Most Indians I know watch the film because it’s a chance to see versions of themselves in the limelight, then laugh it off for its hazy, unrealistic portrayal of India. As long as old people are buying matinee tickets and Rotten Tomatoes labels it endearing, why not kowtow to stereotypes?
When the credits rolled, I wanted to continue seething in that pit of outrage. I wanted to keep my finger pointed squarely at Hollywood. But the fact of the matter is Patel is content to pick a role that sees its entire moral arc hinge around his character’s preparation for a wedding reception, the wedding reception during which he will dance to the Bollywood-themed song that will in turn become the climactic musical centerpiece for the film.
It’s work. And in a perfect world, there would be no inaccuracy in simply labeling this as one of those “for the money” jobs actors take to pay off the mortgage on a fifth house. Yet, in an industry with little to no set roles for people with brown skin — on either side of the camera — it makes sense why Patel would have extra incentive to spend screen time solidifying his image as the face that most often comes to mind when Americans think “Indian.” This is the tradeoff films like “Marigold” demand.
It’s fucking terrifying in that “I feel bad for this filthy rich celebrity” kind of way, true, though more so when one considers the bottleneck glaring down any person of color looking for an in, no matter how small.
So when Aziz Ansari says his last three roles were Randy, Chet and Tom — not Kumar, Vishnu and Sandeep — should it be a point of pride, the ideal end-goal? No. Because saying so implies there is no space for Indian-American stories to fit through the bottleneck. Because Aziz has never worked with an Indian-American writer or director in his entire film career. Because the only Indian-American writer-director Dev Patel has ever worked with is M. Night Shyamalan. And because, in that case, the character he played was a Chinese teenager named Zuko.