Saturday, October 15, 2011

"The Slap" and race-bending

The television adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ multi-awardwinning novel The Slap has been one of the most anticipated events on Australian TV this year. Set in Melbourne’s suburbs, it explores the fallout amongst a group of friends and family after a man slaps a misbehaving child (who is not his own) at a barbecue. Tsiolkas focuses particularly on the diverse tapestry of modern suburban Australia, and how ethnicity, gender and age influence the characters’ actions and reactions to the incident.

I should state firstly that I haven’t read the novel, and so don’t have any positive or negative preconceived notions about how it should be translated to film. But it’s interesting to note that one of the notable changes in the production process has been to the ethnicity of one of the characters - Aisha, wife of Greek-Australian Hector and the organiser of the barbecue at which the titular slap takes place. In the novel, Aisha is described as Anglo-Indian, but the Aisha of the TV version is played by British actress Sophie Okonedo, who is Nigerian/Jewish by ethnicity.

According to this article:

As much as possible, the filmmakers looked to actors who matched the characters' ethnicity.
In the case of Aisha, this led to a drawn-out process after Connolly travelled to London to audition British-Indian actresses.
After meeting the ''staggeringly great actress'' Okonedo, a decision was made to change Aisha's cultural background to Mauritian. According to Connolly, Tsiolkas was very open to the changes, even writing a detailed backstory for the ethnically transformed Aisha.
While Tsiolkas's book is specifically about the experiences of Greek-Australian migrants, Aisha's Indian ancestry is explored in less detail. What mattered to Tsiolkas, Connolly says, is that Aisha regards herself as an outsider to mainstream Australia, a common bond that links her to Hector and his close-knit Greek family.
Not having read the book, I can’t yet comment on how integral Aisha’s Indian-ness is to the story, and whether her character would be essentially compromised by being Mauritian instead. Blogger Byron Wong tells me that the Indian element is important and the alteration is extremely disappointing. Tsiolkas obviously didn’t think it was a huge deal.

Now I like Sophie Okonedo, and it’s hard to dispute her ability as an actress, having been previously been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Hotel Rwanda. But it’s still a shame. Over half a million Australians have South Asian ancestry, and it’s one of the fastest growing segments of our population. South Asian Australians have a very prominent presence in fields like medicine and information technology (as well as some of the stereotypical ones like driving taxis and working at 7-11s). Yet as far as Australian TV drama goes, they may as well not exist.

Notably, this is one of the first times that a major role in a major Australian TV series was of a specifically South Asian character, yet whoever was involved in casting The Slap could seemingly not find an Australian actress of South Asian background anywhere. Now admittedly, I can’t think of any off the top of my head, as there are none with a significant profile. Yet that also says a lot about the industry’s reluctance to give such people the chance.

Even if they had gone with a British-Asian actress instead, that would still have been a positive thing to at least see a desi playing a desi in a sizable role on Australian TV. Alternatively, if someone of Indian descent was required, I hear there’s a country called India which is apparently full of them, and presumably some of them can act too.

At least I’m glad that while Aisha got “race-bended”, she didn’t get white-washed as frequently happens to non-white characters in film and television (see the Billy Sing story as an example). Melbourne has a sizeable Mauritian community and I’m happy to see them get some love, even if Okonedo is obviously not Mauritian herself. It’s good to see an “African” character on Australian TV, and it’s good to see an actress the calibre of Sophie Okonedo on Australian TV. But surely it’s not an impossible task to have a specifically South Asian character played by a South Asian actress.

UPDATE: It turns out that Aisha is not the only Asian character in The Slap who has been de-Asianized. Check it here.

See also:

The lack of Asians on Australian TV, and why it matters

Yellowface is still alive


  1. It's funny because in this debate, everyone is right.

    Tsiolkas is right because doesn't spend that much time on Aisha's ethnicity, but those of us who were looking forward to seeing the Indian character are also right. Although Tsiolkas doesn't go too much into her ethnicity, it's clear that she's supposed to be Indian, and from the perspective of the reader, it's very significant. Greg Hassall pretty much expressed the same feeling that I had around 1:20 in the video on the Sydney Morning Herald article that you linked: "It felt to me that an Anglo Indian person is kinda important..."

    If I remember correctly, Aisha's "chapter" is #5 or #6, so I'll say more after that. Actually, I'll be interested in your commentary when you see what happens (assuming they don't change it that may have to read the book!)

  2. Have you ever been to Mauritius?

    Umm...hate to tell you this but MAURITIUS is counted as a continental AFRICAN country (despite it's location in the Indian ocean and huge SE Asian migration), not all the inhabitants are of only of South East Asian descent,there is a sizable 'Black' African and mixed population.Sophie Okenedo could easily be from Mauritius looks wise.So to state that she is clearly not Mauritian is ludicrous,as she is of mixed African descent.

    On another note..Australian TV is completely white washed,There was an article a while ago in which a respected teacher at NIDA stated that there is an unspoken all white policy for most parts in Oz,so actors of colour should move to the US.So finding an Aussie actress of colour was probably really hard.To be honest,any brown face on Australian TV makes me happy,Indian or not...but then again,I haven't read the book.


    Liza Benthi -- Black (African)/mixed Mauritian Australian.

  3. @ Anon/Liz Benthi:

    I don't think you read the article properly. I agree with everything you've said, and you are arguing about something I didn't say.

  4. Agreed that the casting was appalling, but not about "white-washing". If anything the reverse is true, especially on the ABC.

  5. I've just seen episode 1 of The Slap. I read the book years ago and recalled Aisha as being Indian or possibly Anglo-Indian so I was really surprised to see Sophie Okonedo in the role. I googled to see what had changed during the scriptwriting process and your excellent blog post came up. Thanks for shedding some light on this. She's a great actress but really, if the ABC could go all the way to London to cast someone, surely they could have gone to India as well. There's this film industry there called Bollywood, I hear they have LOADS of Indian actresses...

  6. Hey Eurasian,

    It's coming to the States, racebending included.

    I just up-posted on my own blog.