A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding made me seriously reconsider my love affair with holiday movies.
Often lumped in with rom-coms, these movies are a genre unto themselves. For a few months out of the year, we don’t demand complicated storylines, twists or turns. We relish clichés instead of rolling our eyes at them, and find comfort in predictable, repetitive narratives that have become a holiday tradition in themselves. That said, some aspects of these traditions could really stand to get a 2018 upgrade. Yup, I’m talking about the blatant lack of diversity—while some holiday films feature the occasional Black actor, it’s mostly a very white Christmas.
So when I saw that A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding included a South Asian actor I was here for it. We’re finally seeing a massive push for representation in TV and films, so much so that the list of nominees for the 2019 Oscars may be the most inclusive in the award show’s 91-year history. Perhaps, I thought, A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding would finally bring some much-needed colour to the genre. Maybe there would finally be a movie that portrays how Christmas is celebrated by all types of people, in all different ways.
But, NOPE. In a genre that is clearly stuck in the past, this movie’s representation of a gay Indian man is equally retro—and I do not mean that in a good way. Sahil (Raj Bajaj) is a wedding planner who, as he points out early in the film, prefers to be called a “wedding designer.” He wears colourful, metallic sherwanis and speaks in a thick, cartoonish accent. When he bows to the queen, he pitches his middle finger to his thumb as if he’s meditating. (Seriously.) Later, when he reveals his concept for Amber’s wedding dress, he presses his hands together into a prayer position, wobbles his head and says, “You are welcome.”
These mannerisms are subtle compared to the blatant racism seen in past portrayals of South Asians in film and TV. As I watched I even wondered, Am I being too sensitive about this? But that’s exactly what makes Sahil so problematic; because his characterization isn’t as over the top, it’s easier for audiences to dismiss the stereotypes—but they’re definitely there.
He may not be a Love Guru-level caricature, but Sahil—which he ironically pronounces the anglicized way—Sah-heel instead of Sah-hill—is not much better. His accent is so over-the-top that it sounds like he is imitating The Simpons’ Apu, who by the way was voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria) imitating what he thought Indians sounded like. Obviously, many South Asians (my family members included) have some form of accent, and that’s fair game for on-screen representation. But this feels about as far from an authentic Indian accent as the fictional Aldovia is from the real world. Bajaj, who was born in Bristol, England and has acted in numerous U.K. theatre productions, does have an accent in real life. A British accent. So giving him this exaggerated Indian accent was a choice—one that far too many South Asian actors have dealt with in Hollywood.
Jeez I remember this one! They were awful. "Can you make his accent a little more AUTHENTIC?" That usually meant they wanted Apu pic.twitter.com/3F5XRORO3n
— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) March 14, 2017
As Kal Penn points out, this is how Indian characters are often written and I can see how playing Sahil (i.e. a fairly large role in a highly anticipated Netflix movie) would be a big opportunity for a South Asian actor. I don’t judge Bajaj for taking the role, but I do question who was in the writing room when this character was created, and how they envisioned this role playing out. This character could have been just as funny, said all the same lines with all the same exaggerated gestures, without an accent. Instead, it seemed like his way of speaking was used to emphasize that he is a foreigner, visiting Aldovia where everyone speaks with a British-sounding accent.
And listen, I know holiday movies aren’t meant to be taken seriously, but we still need to think carefully about what we’re willing to write off as “just for fun.” Sahil is clearly meant to be the comedic relief—a court jester of sorts for this royal wedding—and his accent and mannerisms are part of that. By characterizing him, as Vox put it, a “borderline racist/homophobic caricature of a gay Indian wedding planner,” A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding is framing both Indians and gay men as sources of humour, the same way that we were expected to laugh at Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong. The way Sahil is written, I was ready and waiting for him to say something like,”I have brought you the most delicate fabrics from my exotic and mysterious homeland to bless this auspicious occasion with the power of the gods, and just a hint of spice.”
The simplification of Sahil’s character down to a heavily accented buffoon was even more frustrating because the main theme of A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding is the idea that Amber is pushing against long-standing traditions in defence of sharing the truth. She’s positioned as an intrepid reporter who wants to maintain her authentic identity, rather than align her image with what convention dictates.
“I’m afraid Miss Moore does not understand her role within the royal family,” says the palace’s head of press and protocol, Mrs. Averill (Sarah Douglas).
“No, I get it. I’m supposed to smile, and nod and do as I’m told,” says Amber. “I just, I don’t agree.”
Amber’s struggle is all-too similar to my annoyance with the overwhelming whiteness of holiday movies, their lack of South Asian representation and now this cartoonish portrayal of Sahil.
Sahil is a reminder that, in holiday movies, South Asians (and other minority groups) are still relegated to stereotypical bit parts and side roles. I get it. I smile and nod and enjoy the classics each year, pushing my criticisms down because these films are meant to be bad. But I just, I don’t agree with this.
I Was Stoked About the Christmas Prince Sequel, But Then I Watched It…
I Feel Bad’s Sarayu Blue: “This role wasn’t originally written Indian”
Everything We Know About the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before Sequel