Wednesday, September 5, 2012

You need to be A LITTLE white to be beautiful in Malaysia

Sometimes I wonder if I’m beautiful, or if my Malay and Chinese friends are beautiful. This especially bothered me a great deal back during my school days when my friends and I used to read these trashy gossip magazines about celebrities. What struck me was that the local entertainment scene seemed to have more ‘white-washed’ celebs than its Hollywood counterpart. I mean, since when did Malaysia become a Caucasian country? One can easily forgive foreigners for assuming Malaysians are tall and white-skinned after watching our local TV. 

I mean no disrespect to these folks with Pan-Asian looks. I think people of mixed parentage are beautiful. But aren’t our fellow countrymen of the three major races equally as beautiful as well? Aren’t they as talented as these Pan-Asians to act, sing and host? Pan-Asians make up a small percentage of our country’s people. Yet, when you switch on your TV, or open a shopping catalogue, you’ll never fail to witness how our local modelling agencies continue to glorify Westernised appearances. 

Perhaps I'm blind to this. But Asian genes are more dominant, and this is why these Pan-Asians always look more Asian than Caucasian. Just look at the Pan-Asians in our media. Apart from an exceptional few, you can hardly tell they are part white.

In April of 1989, then Information Minister said models with Pan-Asian and Caucasian looks can continue to appear in ads on both electronic and print media only if they are featured alongside those of other races. It is sad that for folks who look so Western and modern, they fail to think and act as such by misinterpreting the minister’s move. Some of them claimed this was racist, while the minister was merely doing this because, quote, “ all Caucasian or Pan-Asian cast is not reflective of the majority of the Malaysian population.” There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that.

It would have been good for the government to simply stop there. Sadly, they crossed the limit 18 years later by implementing policies that seem borderline xenophobic. The Information Minister of 2007 demanded that the number of Pan-Asians on local television be reduced. Prior to that, two government-owned TV stations were forbidden from using anything but Malay models in their ads. Even Chinese and Indian models were banned during that period. The ban on the Chinese and Indian models has supposedly lifted since we can now see them on those stations’ ads. While in America, ad agencies and movie production houses work minority actors and models into their products for the sake of political correctness, it is the other way round here in Malaysia.

So why are Pan-Asian models and entertainers on such high demand? Is it just because they fit the cultural norm of how the West portrays what is beautiful? Or are there other reasons? Ad agencies claim that Pan-Asians blur racial boundaries. What we can gather from this is that these agencies are trying to attract local audiences by featuring a neutral representation of Malaysians. As a result, Pan-Asians have become overrepresented.

Recently, we’ve witnessed the re-emergence of Pan-Asian models hosting on TV, most of them catering for the middle to upper class, urban, English-speaking Malaysians. This is most noticeable in private TV networks. However, nobody seems to have a problem with this. Perhaps controversy only erupts when it is the Malay media which is in question.

But that does not mean Pan-Asians are completely free of controversy these days. Recently, an article in an international online news website reported that Malaysia’s representative to the Miss Universe 2012 pageant is ‘too white’. This is an issue of national pride as this latest Miss Malaysia is supposed to represent Malaysian women as a whole. What’s scary is this is not the first time this has happened. As of lately, Malaysia’s Miss Universe pageant has been showing an alarming tendency in selecting Pan-Asian winners ever since it came under new management. The new national director of the pageant since 2010 is herself a winner from 2004 and possesses Pan-Asian looks. Since then, the winners have always been of mixed Caucasian parentage. However, our latest Miss Malaysia has the strongest Caucasian heritage than any of the girls who had represented our country before.

Ultimately, both the people and the policy makers must remember that Pan-Asians are Malaysians too. But they are not the only ethnic group in Malaysian. Some of my favourite local artistes are in fact part Caucasian and they are among the greatest talents this country has produced. People like Sarimah Ibrahim, Vince Chong, Ning Baizura, Hans Isaac and many more are the prime examples. But then, there are the rare cases of opportunists who have been seemingly unsuccessful in whichever country their parents had migrated to and so have returned to Malaysia to exploit their Pan-Asian looks by indulging Malaysians' obsession with Western standards of beauty. At times, these folks cannot even speak the national language or understand our Malaysian culture. But their Pan-Asian looks make up for all of that. 

So how do we avoid ourselves from being subject to the media's manipulation? Firstly, we need to recognize that we are all beautiful, no matter what the colour of our skin, eyes and hair might be. From then on, the media will be compelled to portray all ethnic groups as beautiful. Only then can there be opportunity for a change in our mindset.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Who dare say Aishwarya Rai can't act?!

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is often considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, which makes her an easy target to hate. As a big fan of hers since Jeans (1998), I can never understand the claims of some of her haters who accuse her of coasting along on her beauty alone and not being able to really act. I am always baffled each time I read this over and over again. I do agree that Indian award juries always choose winners based on box office collections and are not as integrative as their Hollywood counterparts. But nevertheless, I don't think Aishwarya would have won all those awards if she was completely untalented.

To prove that Aishwarya deserves some recognition as an actress and not just a beauty queen, here is a list of her top five best performances in movies to date.

5) Provoked
Story has it that producers had difficulty finding funds for the film while critically acclaimed method actresses like Tabu and Shabana Azmi were being considered for the title role. But once Aishwarya Rai was confirmed to play the role of the abused NRI wife, money came flooding in. Though the film largely received mixed responses from both critics and audiences alike, a majority of people would agree that despite the bungling direction, it is Rai’s heart touching performance that saves the film. The real-life Ahluwalia who Rai played on-screen, sat next to Rai during the screening, reportedly holding her hand and sobbing during the most violent scenes.

4) Chokher Bali
Another offbeat independent film by this mainstream Bollywood queen that won her rave reviews. Her slightly restrained performance is apt for the role. Once again, her doe-eyed charm, emotes a silent rage which the character demands.

3) Guzarish
The film performed averagely in the box office, but that is understandable since a story about a paralysed person can be too depressing for your typical Indian moviegoer.Nevertheless, it is largely a film to educate, not to entertain, though it does have fun moments like when Aishwarya’s character breaks into dance during the Udi Udi scene. One critic who was very negative towards the film noted that the only thing worth seeing here is Aishwarya. 

2) Raincoat
Critics agreed that for someone who is often considered the most beautiful woman in the world, Aishwarya looks depressing in the film. That's a compliment by the way. Her mannerism is a mixture of a submissive Indian housewife and a borderline neurotic lover. Without all her glamour and elegance, she is more than convincing as a broken woman. It can easily be considered one Aishwarya Rai's best performance to date. Thanks to those large, beautiful eyes, she can easily emote all kinds of emotions with her facial expressions rather than her body gestures. This film was clear proof that Rai is indeed an actress capable of doing films other than her typical Bollywood romantic dancing-around-trees role.

1) Kandukondain Kandukondain  
This modern day Indian adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility sees Aishwarya in her best performance to date. Despite being swarmed with Hindi film offers, Rai claimed that she accepted the role of Meenakshi because could strongly identify with her character which is based on the character of Marianne Dashwood. Back when strong independent women were often depicted as vamps like in Padayappa, Aishwarya brings justice to her role by portraying Meenu as a fiercely powerful yet romantic young woman.