Cultural appropriation is a minefield of a topic with people on both sides of the debate crying themselves hoarse. It reminds me of the times our younger son Tapas would want to watch a television show or play on his PlayStation or whatever it was that kids played with then.
If I was on the phone and not available for a quick response, he would draw three boxes on a sheet of paper. Yes with a tick, No with an X and Maybe with a question mark. I was supposed to point to the option I was okay with.
So, back to the debate.
Is an actor of one ethnicity playing a character of another ethnicity altogether cultural appropriation? Possibly.
But then isn’t that what acting is all about, portraying someone that one is not?
Not if there are actors of the required ethnicity ready and willing to step into the role, say those crying foul. Let’s leave this in the Maybe box for now.
A non-desi wearing a sari or a bindi? No. For then where do we draw the line? Do we accuse all those practising yoga? How about the non-desis who promoted and popularised yoga? Did they do yoga a good turn or was that cultural appropriation?
And my favourite, suggested by a friend: How about the non-desis digging into an Indian meal, with their hands, no less? Is that cultural appropriation, too?
I would like to present one case of cultural appropriation that falls outside of the definition but which is no less galling. Anne With an E, the cbc-Netflix series was billed as a “reimagining of a classic”. And therein lies the rub. A classic does not need to be reimagined. Some might argue that a classic can be refreshed and I might have gone along if the creators had not seen fit to take a quintessential, innocent Canadian tale – one that I fell in love with back in a school in Bangalore – and turn it into something dark. Although for me, the cast of the original (1985) version will forever be Anne, Marilla and Matthew, the new ones weren’t bad at all. They were nominated for several awards and rightly so, and the use of Gord Downie’s Ahead by a Century as the theme song was a master stroke. And yet, I can’t overlook the fact that they took something that wasn’t theirs, something that has resonated with generations around the globe and changed it. Now those who have never seen the original will think this is Anne.
In my book, this is far worse than having Julia Roberts play Scarlett O’Hara or Aziz Ansari play Dr Zhivago. This was cultural appropriation at its worst and belongs firmly in the Yes box.
Season 2 premieres this month on cbc and Netflix. Oh, I will watch it. But then I will comfort myself by watching the original again.