Over the fence: What do our Neighbours look like in 2017?

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Indian families have been a part of Australian society for many decades but it is only now we’re beginning to see a reflection of this on screen as an Indian family joins Ramsay Street 

 If you’ve noticed something a little different on your screens lately don’t adjust your sets. What you’re seeing is the expansion of diversity in Australian media. Flick over to the iconic series Neighbours and you’ll be greeted with the welcome addition of Sharon Johal, who has recently joined the cast as Dipi Rebecchi, the wife of Shane Rebecchi.

Neighbours.Indian Link

Shane: “She caused a bit of a ruckus with some fireworks back home”
Yashvi: “It wasn’t a big deal”
Dipi: “Excuse me, blowing up the Big Emu was most definitely a big deal!”

“We are just another family who have moved to Erinsborough,” Sharon tells Indian Link

Alongside Sharon Johal, Olivia Junkeer, Vani Dhir and Scarlett Vas make up the mixed-race Rebecchi family.

“I am extremely proud to be a part of such an iconic and progressive show,” Sharon says. “In my view, it reflects the Australian community more accurately than any other Australian television show I am aware of.” 

Pursuing a career in acting has not been without its hurdles for Sharon though, as she was not only required to battle against the overwhelmingly Anglo-centric television climate, but also the limitations placed upon her by her own family and their cultural values. Looking back, she says, They were concerned that I would have limited opportunities for success in the profession in Australia given the lack of diversity on screen at the time, as well as the sheer difficulty of attaining success as an actor generally – their perceived impossibility of being that “one in a million” that actually got one of the rare jobs available.” 

With the lack of diversity in Australian media and advertising being notorious, the initial concerns of Sharon’s parents are not hard to understand. 

Neighbours.Indian Link
Sharon Johal

Indian Australian actress Georgina Naidu played legal eagle Helena Chatterjee in ABC’s Newton’s Law earlier this year and she faced similar difficulties starting out.

“I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was three. When I got into the industry I was naïve and optimistic, not expecting any obstacles. I did youth theatre with St. Martins,” she says. “When I got into the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) I did see a lack of diversity, but I thought it was due to a lack of actors available. I got a shock when I graduated. The casting people saw me in a particular way, and I found myself becoming pigeonholed. I couldn’t go to just any role. After that first year I became proactive about trying to change.”

A staple of Australian television, long-running shows such as Home and Away and Neighbours have been the pinnacle of reflecting Aussie life back to Australians, and have also become the vehicle by which Australian communities are depicted to those overseas. However, each has come under scrutiny for their limited representation of what Australia “looks” like, with the overwhelming majority of families depicted being of Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon background. At a time when 47 per cent of Australians were themselves born outside Australia or have one parent who was, and with over 260 known languages spoken across Australia, a simple glance at the suburban landscape on television does not reflect reality.

Neighbours.Indian Link

It was Shakespeare’s Hamlet who resolutely announced that the purpose of drama is “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”.

Indeed, throughout history, drama and storytelling have been an imperative tool in documenting and communicating the social, historical and cultural contexts of the time.  

Visual media, specifically television, is one of the ways in which our world is reflected back to us. Behind a steady stream of current affairs and news media, television operates in overt ways, such as via reality or news shows, or in subtle ways, through the construction of narratives within scripted comedy and drama series. Television enables us to view the world through the eyes of characters specifically designed to invite audiences to either relate or object to a series of moral and practical dilemmas. This aids in creating our own sense of self, and in no situation is it more crucial to have a representation of ourselves than when presented with the day-to-day trials and tribulations of the community around us, particularly our own neighbours. 

Knowing this reality and having grown up without seeing people like herself represented on television, Sharon always wanted to be an actor. Taking her parents advice on board, she decided to pursue a ‘sensible’ career whilst not giving up on her dreams.

“I graduated in Law and Commerce and worked as a litigation lawyer whilst still auditioning for acting jobs,” she explains. “It was definitely easier for me to achieve success as a lawyer. Of course, there are hurdles in equal pay as a woman and promotions, however, generally, if you work hard, you get the results. I truly don’t believe race was a hindrance in working in the legal field. Acting is not like that. No matter how hard you work, it doesn’t equal success, and you can only be successful if not only everything goes right for you in the audition room, but the opportunities have to be there in the first place. The roles that were available to audition for over the years for television and film were few and far between.”

Neighbours.Indian Link

But is the cultural landscape of Australian television finally changing?

Johal’s character and that of her family are not the first family of Indian background to have moved to Erinsborough. Back in 2011, the Kapoor family moved to Ramsay Street and were written out in 2013. Why has it taken another four years for a family of Indian background to find a home in suburban Melbourne? Are the roles for actors becoming more or less available as time goes on? 

“In terms of diversity on screen and my personal experience with auditions for that work, I believe things have changed positively in the last few years,” Sharon reflects. “The reality is that Indian families have been a part of Australian society for many, many decades so I cannot comprehend any resistance to a reflection of this on screen, and it would be disappointing if there still was.” 

In addition to speaking with Sharon Johal, who is currently having a blast on the showwe spoke with Neighbours alumnus Menik Gooneratne, who played the role of Priya Kapoor on the show from 2011 to 2013. During this run, the cast and crew received some negative backlash from small segments of the broader community regarding the casting of an ethnic Indian family. In speaking with Menik, she explains that she’d been actively in the entertainment industry in Australia for ten years before receiving her ‘big break’ on Neighbours. 

Neighbours.Indian Link
Menik Gooneratne

Despite the controversies at the time, Menik looks back on her time on the series fondly. “As a personal experience, it was absolutely amazing. Everyone is like a great big family.” Of course, the unexpected criticism of a family from an ethnically Indian background was “a bit confronting”, but ultimately it was contained to a “small, but vocal, segment” of the viewership.

What ethnicity were the Kapoor family on Neighbours? Indian? Sri Lankan? When asked about the specific heritage of her character Priya, and whether she was “just generically brown”, Menik laughs and admits that no specific ethnicity had been plotted out for her character and those in her family, however, the writers “wrote the characters to evolve to suit the actors”.

As her own heritage is a mixture of British and Sri Lankan, Menik approached the character of Priya as being from a similar background. Menik has since relocated to LA where her career has skyrocketed and she is “living the dream.” She is currently on location in New Zealand shooting a science-fiction feature film Mortal Engines based on the highly successful novel by Philip Reeve. On speaking about the future of diverse roles in a rapidly-evolving world, Menik says, “I certainly think the arts are the rebellion, but also from a business perspective, it is good business sense to include diversity in your show.”

Neighbours.Indian Link

One of the most notable shifts from the original Kapoor family to the new Rebecchi family is the shift from a fully Indian(ish) family to a mixed-race one, with Dipi’s husband, Shane, being Caucasian as opposed to the character of Ajay Kapoor, Priya’s husband, played by Sachin Joab, being of Indian descent. The world has changed considerably since 2013, with the rise of right wing populism, and the re-emergence of white supremacist ideologies. It is therefore interesting that Neighbours has removed one of the most politically contentious images from its screens: the brown male body. 

The sub-continental female body has traditionally been associated with a non-threatening, exotic beauty.

The brown male, on the other hand, is often associated with less favourable connotations, such as the immigrant job stealer, the unattractive nerd and, at its most nefarious, the terrorist. Overseas, roles for men of subcontinental men have expanded much more broadly, with the success of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, and BBC’s Class – a spinoff of the iconic Doctor Who series – featuring Ram Singh, the ‘hot jock athlete’ character in a lead role. His character is of visibly Sikh origin, grapples with a disability and is portrayed by actor Fady Elsayed, who is outspoken in calling out Islamophobia. In the US, Rahul Kohli plays the role of Ravi Chakrabarti on the cult series iZombie – a character who appeared at first to be in-line with the stereotypical Indian doctor, but has since evolved as a core ally and a serious love interest to other major characters (as opposed to Kunal Nayyar’s cringe-worthy hopeless-at-love-for-laughs Raj in The Big Bang Theory). 

“I think in the writing room the white male is the loudest voice,” says Georgina Naidu. “It is perhaps easier for white males to see a white man with an Indian girl, rather than the other way round.”

Neighbours.Indian Link

Lena Nahlous, Executive Director of Diversity Arts Australia – whose  emphasis is on changing the arts landscape to one that is reflective of the social and cultural diversity – tells Indian Link, “At this critical time in Australia’s screen industry, a truly diverse spectrum of content and audiences will be what strengthens, builds and sustains it into the future.”

She goes on to specify, “This goes beyond casting diverse actors or hiring diverse crews, although this is very important. It is about telling real Australian stories that will enrich our culture and attract audiences from the 31 per cent of us born overseas. The content created through these initiatives also could have a higher propensity to sell overseas, as other diasporic communities connect with these stories.”

As vital as it is to see a wide array of faces on screen, we must also see diverse stories as a result (as opposed to characters who are simply generically ethnic). “Storytelling is important in breaking down barriers, making connections and creating understanding but storytelling alone is not enough. Who is going to tell these stories? And who is going to make the decisions about which stories are “worthy” of being told?” Nahlous asks. “We need to create opportunities and platforms that enable people from non-white backgrounds to have agency in the screen sector, to create artistic and screen work, to be makers, actors and decision-makers.”

Georgina Naidu felt empowered working on Newton’s Law and having a say in the development of her character. “Having a law degree as well, I’ve been involved in the show since the very inception, doing legal research. Later, as an actor, I began to have input to the Indian elements. Whenever something is culturally inappropriate or clichéd, I’ve addressed it early on. I’ve been against elements that are new age or hippie or stereotypical, and I’ve added a nuance of what I feel is real. (My outlook is) people of colour should get the joke.”

Neighbours.Indian Link
Georgina Naidu. Credit: Lachlan Woods

As diversity on-screen expands, we must also be aware of what is happening behind the scenes.

“We have never before lived in a time with such high levels of human migration and global interconnection via technology,” Lena Nahlous says. “Our stories are intersecting in ways that never have before and we need the arts to help us make sense of this.”

Brown faces are also beginning to make an appearance in our advertisements, Myer’s Mother’s Day campaign, Queensland Tourism and McDonald’s among them. Advertisers are beginning to see the need to reach out to a broader cross section of their target markets.

Whilst it is undeniable that racially blended families are quite common in Australian circles, it’s worth noting that in terms of overall statistics, they are still a minority when compared to the sub-continental population overall. Given the sparse representation of ethnicity on Australian television, the erasure of a fully ethnic family in favour of a ‘safer’, mixed-race one can be interpreted as problematic – particularly if viewed through the ‘white saviour’ lens, which is a common trope in outdated Orientalist narratives in which Caucasian men meet ethnic women and liberate them from their oppressive communities and away from barbaric men, Nahlous says.

Once again, counter-acting these representations overseas are characters such as Priyanka Chopra’s Alex Parrish in Quantico, whose role as a CIA trainee coming from a CIA training background is as far removed from the stereotype of the submissive sub-continental Indian woman as it gets.

Neighbours.Indian Link

Sharon Johal wholeheartedly agrees about the diversification of roles for women of colour. When asked about her dream role, she confesses, “I would absolutely love to play a lead action hero. A Marvel Comics character would be the absolute dream. She would be strong, smart, independent and complex in her vulnerabilities. She would be a warrior and a lioness, who saves the world.” Now that is something we can get behind.

As is the case with Neighbours, all representation is undeniably good, and Sharon tells us, “I personally have received immense support and encouragement from the general community. I am aware that a few negative comments have been made online as to race, however, I hope that is a minority speaking, and it doesn’t reflect the general population that is the Australia I know and love.” 

When it comes to analysing the television and media landscape, it is also important to consider not just what is being included, but also what is being deliberately left out. Like Sharon and Menik, Lena Nahlous is optimistic about the future of diversity on Australian screens. “If any sector can make change happen the arts sector is one that can – it has the flexibility and creativity to generate interesting conversations and engagement, challenge perceptions and misperceptions in an engaging, emotive, and funny way, but also in a way that leaves audiences challenged.”

It is only when we can look to our screens and see all our neighbours, that we can be proud of genuine progress. 

With Rajni Anand Luthra