Piloting through an industry full of racial stereotypes
Breaking into the Western industry of showbiz can be tough. For a BIPOC actor, the lack of diversity on TV can be grueling.
Most importantly, how do we induce change within the film and television industry so that it produces honest BIPOC representation, diversity on TV, and inclusion?
Exploring Praneet Akilla’s journey, Cold Tea Collective’s own Natasha Jung had the pleasure to interview the actor. They discuss his passion for authentic storytelling, how not to give into stereotypes in storytelling, and and on/off screen BIPOC representation in his upcoming show, Skymed.
Towards better TV and screen diversity
Headstrong, conscientious, and candid, Akilla’s ambitions go beyond storytelling.
As an Indian Canadian actor navigating the film and TV industry, Akilla recognizes the importance of shifting narratives in mainstream BIPOC stories. Often the practice of reusing basic stereotypes in the name of diversity tends to perpetuate microaggressions ever present in society.
Born in Mumbai, Akilla was molded by a life of moving around the world; from growing up in Kuwait and the Middle East, spending summers in Indonesia or Germany, to his formative years in Alberta, Canada.
Spending his childhood in various locales gave him an international lens for storytelling as he consumed a wide range of literature and films.
Today, Akilla can be seen in shows, October Faction or Nancy Drew. Recently he has been cast to play a lead pilot for an upcoming CBC program, Skymed. It is scheduled to release in Summer 2022.
Skymed: diversity on TV done right
An action-packed, Grey’s Anatomy meets Top Gun show, Skymed tells of the trials and tribulations among a group of young emergency nurses, parademics, and pilots.
Together, they try to find themselves in the world all while working in violent high-stake rescue missions taking place within northern Canada.
Other than the compelling plot, we can look forward to Skymed’s incredibly diverse cast and crew. Many Asian, South Asian, Indigenous, and Black individuals who have worked in front and behind the camera.
Akilla is particularly proud of the show telling culturally specific storylines. Even from early stages of filming, he has already met so much Indigenous talent.
“I’m proud that our show is making strides in that area,” says Akilla, who states that Indigenous talent has been “so underutilized” in general.
Introducing BIPOC characters with authentic storytelling
On that note, Akilla stresses the importance that BIPOC characters’ storylines are not entirely about their BIPOC-ness.
Within mainstream contemporary Western film and television, we oftentimes find stories that commodify racial traumas, specifically stories about Black suffering.
In Asian storylines, these often fall along recurring themes such as tiger parents, societal pressures to get married, fears of failure, or disappointing our immigrant parents.
While it is crucial to tell such stories rooted in the heart of BIPOC traumas and raise awareness of such issues, Akilla underscores Skymed’s conscious effort to move away from all-consuming stereotypes.
For Akilla, it is important to “go another direction for now,” to tell BIPOC stories that also depict them as “normal.”
There’s a healthy balance in Skymed – where it depicts common cultural struggles, but this does not one-dimensionally define their characters.
“[The characters] have the same sort of ups and downs as white characters,” said Akilla, “We’re just as human, we’re just as flawed. Not every single storyline has to do with our skin colour.”
An unconventional career path for diversity on tv
Despite a degree in chemical engineering at McGill University, the arts have always had a place in Akilla’s heart.
During internships at various companies, Akilla would sneak out of work to practice monologues and prepare for auditions in office building stairwells.
In 2019, he made the decision to fully commit and moved to Vancouver for more opportunities. Not long after, he broke into the scene with his first big break in October Faction.
Looking back, Akilla feels grateful for the Asian Film community in Vancouver, who took him under their wing and made him feel part of a city that can be “very isolating.”
“I don’t think any of my projects or success would be there,” said Akilla, “Because once you feel comfortable in your own skin, and you feel like you have a community, you can do amazing things.”
He also acknowledged the Cold Tea Collective as one of the first websites he read when first moving to Vancouver, discovering the Facebook page and our story on Lee Shorten.
“I get kind of emotional because it all came full circle, it’s kind of strange.”
Even with change, there is work to be done
In the American-Canadian film and TV industry, Akilla wants to move towards diversity and end the societal impulse to categorize BIPOC actors into stereotypical roles, where one often sees him as “the brown guy that must be Bollywood.”
For example, over Instagram, Akilla criticized a clip from the recent movie, Eternals, in which Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani performs a musical bollywood number.
“It’s taking the most basic denominator of Indian culture and presenting it, again, to a North American audience who knows Indian culture through butter chicken, Bollywood, Slumdog Millionaire,” expressed Akilla, “…I get told ‘Hey, have you seen Slumdog Millionaire?’ all the time!”
He points to Nanjiani’s Indian character in Eternals and the Bollywood number. While his casting is “a big leap in progress,” perpetuating such stereotypes manifests prejudices among casting directors, in which “they can’t see you as anything else.”
Taking control of his own narrative
Akilla finds himself extraordinarily lucky in his profession with a management team that believes in his potential for lead roles. They largely help him stay away from taking these stereotypical roles, such as playing terrorists or characters with an Indian accent.
Yet, lead roles are often still reserved for white actors while BIPOC actors are positioned as side characters. Akilla speaks to how this norm in the industry has affected his journey as an actor, even with the support he has had.
When walking around onset, other crew members would question Akilla, believing he was a background actor.
He explained “there’s still a slight unwillingness in Hollywood to cast an Indian actor” as many casting directors and producers still lack the imagination to envision superhero roles as having non-white ethnicities.
For example, he spoke about how white actors can get superhero roles, then work out to get into shape. A white actor can “get the role, then train.”
But, Akilla believes that for Indian actors like himself, they would have to already be in shape “to even be able to read for a Marvel role”. These are prerequisites in order to attract many casting directors. To Akilla, the casting process is different between white and BIPOC actors.
“It’s the same thing with a lot of Asian actors, where they feel like they have to be experts in martial arts to be considered for any action movie,” said Akilla, “They can’t just get hired and then train.”
Speaking on how we could start to see change, Akilla advises other BIPOC actors to start saying “no” to stereotypical roles.
Early on in their careers, actors may need to take certain jobs just to pay the bills and build a resume.
But after having “some good stuff on your resume,” he stresses the importance of standing your ground no matter how difficult it may be.
“You have to have the courage to say ‘No’” said Akilla. “Because once they know that you won’t take sh*t from them, that’s when they will also start thinking of you as something different.”
Not just talking the talk
An advocate for BIPOC diversity on TV and empowering creatives, Akilla notes how money does indeed play a key role in the industry.
For the premier of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Akilla bought out two theaters. He then invited the general public over social media for a screening – one sold out and the other was nearly full.
He was determined to help showcase the film’s box office potential and to make the point that “all users want to see this type of content.”
“If I talk the talk, I should also walk the walk,” affirmed Akilla. “Unfortunately, at a certain level, money does talk.”
Akilla not only views acting as something that is personally fulfilling, but as an important medium that allows him to blaze a trail for others to follow.
In his opinion, in order for Hollywood films to move towards more open minded castings, directors and producers of color must enter leadership positions.
Henceforth, in addition to acting, one of Akilla’s ultimate goals is to obtain one of these positions of power in the industry. For him, “it’s not enough to be an actor for hire” to implement honest change. As he focuses on other projects, Akilla is working to get to that stage.
Read more: Hustle and heart: The Simu Liu story
More than just on-screen talent
Also a writer and producer, Akilla’s most recent project premiered earlier this month at the Whistler International Film Festival. He helped produce Mom Vs. Machine – a 15 minute short film about an Indian mother who has to battle an Indian food-making robot for her son’s affection.
A semi-true story, Mom Vs. Machine is inspired by Akilla’s mother, who expresses her love for the family through putting together an abundance of food. Upon giving her an automatic roti-making machine for Christmas, Akilla’s mother feared the contraption as something that would keep her from doing what she loves: cooking.
He has also had another short, Kamadhenu, premiered earlier this year at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival’s Mighty Asian Moviemaking Marathon.
As Akilla stresses the importance of “walking the walk,” he not only critically reflects on the issues present in his industry, but also acts on them.
Akilla is not your usual up-and-coming young actor, but a committed individual working to uplift his community. With unannounced projects on the way, there’s more to come for this top-notch pilot.
Photos provided by Praneet Akilla
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