Khaaaaan!


I got to watch the new Star Trek movie in a rather “romantic” date with Tiga and something caught my eye. I was not aware that Bernard Cumberbatch was set to play Khan Noonien Singh. I didn’t really notice this till my brother wondered why the “White Guy Was Called Khan”.

So I explained to him that in the original Khan was the most infamous villains and widely considered the “best” of them. While he won’t be watching the Wrath of Khan anytime soon, he still brought up something rather disturbing to me.

Am I the only one who remembers that Khan Noonien Singh is for want of a better word… Indian? And that Ricardo Montalban was picked for the role because he was vaguely swarthy and was passable as a North Indian during a period with few Indian actors, but surely with our modern hiring practices we could “get” someone who was Indian and could act.

So… why on earth have they cast a white dude as Khan… I mean… Anton Chekov and Hikari Sulu clearly are a russian and a east asian (His ethnicity in the original is never mentioned). Scotty is scottish. So why can’t Khan be “Indian”.

Come on Hollywood… There are Indian actors. Hire them… If we can be your young men on boats and your slumdogs, then why can’t we be hired to play roles that involve our ethnicity.

Khan Noonien Singh was the first Indian Character I saw on western TV that was not a fucking stereotype. He was smart, strong, powerful. He wasn’t a grovelling shopkeeper. He was exciting… And most importantly… HE WAS NOT A STEREOTYPE! He didn’t own a cornershop or a taxi. He didn’t speak like a “Goodness Gracious Me” character. He was epic…

Consider how remarkably progressive Star Trek was and then consider that we live in a more enlightened age, don’t we owe it to ourselves to step back from the notion that we can’t hire an Indian to play an Indian role?

Because it looks like “The  Ideal Indian Superman Is a White Man” (Which has major cultural issues since that is “technically” true. Indians fetishise white people like white people fetishise east asians).

I am not sure if I should feel troubled or not.

Comments

  1. smhll says

    Someone involved in the original Star Trek series seemed to grasp the idea that in the future, not everyone on television or in an interplanatary space corps will be white. We haven’t moved as far towards that future and away from a narrow-minded past as I would like.

  2. says

    This is one of the biggest reasons why I didn’t like the new movie. Cumberbatch is a good actor, but he should not have been cast for that part. There are several Indian actors who could have played Khan very well, and if they were set on Cumberbatch they should have made it a different character.

  3. says

    I wonder if it was partly used as a distracting tactic, everyone thought the plot was about Khan… Then the trailer comes out with a very white Cumberpatch who is not called Khan. So we all think its not a Khan reboot. But it is.

    Pretty sure whitening an Indian character to just throw off some spoilers makes it even worse. Star Trek Into Whiteness … Already set up the sequel as well as he ain’t dead!

    What did you think of the film? I wasn’t that impressed with the plot holes and Kirk as a cocky sex obsessed pre-captain worked, especially as he got rebuffed more often than not. Now as captain it was just sort of skeezy for him to be leering at his employees! Original Kirk was a step above frat-boy reboot Kirk in that regard.

  4. says

    “Am I the only one who remembers that Khan Noonien Singh is for want of a better word… Indian?” No, you are not!

    But for the record, it was Pavel Chekov. (Who the heck is Anton?)

  5. nualle says

    spoilers below:

    I blame Abrams. The movie was fine as a summer blockbuster but it was a piss poor disappointment as Trek.

    Cumberbatch as Khan? Srsly? I like him, too… but as Khan? I read somewhere that Benicio del Toro refused the role. That would have made the parallel casting choice as they did in 1966. I speaks ill of the intervening (nearly) half century. Or more to the point, it means Abrams in 2013 doesn’t get what Roddenberry in 1966 was aiming at.

    I would love to have seen Naveen Andrews in this role. From his work in Lost, I think he could well have handled it. And it could have been breakout for him, silver screen supervillainy.

    Not only does Abrams not get Trek, he doesn’t get characters. I get why he reversed the roles in the death in radiation containment scene. But Spock should have growled Khan’s name sotto voce. To scream it as Kirk did is foreign to how Spock does rage. That they’re buddies does not make them the same. It would still have been identifiable as a film homage.

    All I can say is, I’m glad he’s jumped ship to Star Wars, a better venue for his style and ethic. This Trek felt like an audition tape for that, anyway.

  6. nualle says

    Anton Chekhov = a spoonerism: Chekhov, played by Anton Yelchin. We all know the character’s first name is Pavel but I don’t think it was mentioned onscreen in this flick.

  7. otranreg says

    Cumberbatch as Khan? What?

    (After checking a few screenshots) Not gonna watch this crap.

  8. otranreg says

    Also, I wonder how white people fetishise East Asians? What does it even mean?

  9. says

    Yeah, it is seriously problematic even before watching the movie. The whole thing is extremely “whitened” enough already, just based on the casting of the first movie. Even the non-white, non-American characters are all sort of super-Americanized well-known actors with white-people cred. Yes, John Cho is Korean, but he is also Harold from those stoner movies, he doesn’t ever feel like anything other than a white guy. The same goes for Zoe Saldana, and to a lesser extent Simon Pegg. The fact that they are mostly known quantities erases a lot of their ethnicity, the way that Michael Jordan and Denzel Washington aren’t “really black” to most Americans. (I actually don’t have issue with Anton Yelchin, he’s really working harder to channel Walter Koenig than anyone else in the first movie is working at anything at all, especially Abrams.)

    And yeah, I know Montalban isn’t Indian, and I’m neither Indian nor Mexican. But I’m old enough and non-white enough to feel the difference between seeing yet another white guy on screen, and seeing someone who is MORE LIKE ME matching wits with and challenging the authority of the stereotypical white action hero. By the time I saw “Wrath of Khan” I had seen repeats of “Space Seed” and I understood the basic story, and I was horrified at the big reveal about what planet they were all on. Because of that reveal (I still remember the planetary system!) I bought the whole rest of the movie and had sympathy for Khan for the rest of the film. That’s what made it a great film: they created a real tragedy, with compelling characters who all had legitimate motivations.

  10. postman says

    No, you are not alone. Jason also wrote about that. I won’t be watching it, not for this reason alone, but it certainly was the last straw.

  11. timberwoof says

    I saw “Into Darkness” today (company outing; not my dime). I wanted to really hate it, but ended up liking it a little better than that recent Aliens movie… the Ridley “There’s Shit in the Air” Scott one.

    I giggled when the opening scene was on Planet Niribu (or was it Nibiru?), the same name as was given by whackaloons to Planet X that was supposed to whack us last year. I said, “No!” when they revealed that the Enterprise had been parked under water.

    I’d like to know what the taxpayers are going to say about having paid for that dreadnought … not to mention the wanton destruction of a national park.

    And no, the rehash of old Star Trek story lines, even with unbearably ironic role reversals, doesn’t fly with me. (At least the air gap was too big for the “Never Forget” trick to work. Or something.)

    This one, along with Star Trek ’09 and that Ridley Scott movie, will not find their ways into my library.

  12. J says

    Bennicio del Toro had the part until he had a scheduling conflict shortly before shooting. Cumberbach was a last minute addition, getting the role two weeks before filming started. It had less to do with racism and more to do with “getting the best actor for the money in the time available.”

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  13. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Yeah, as if I needed another reason not to watch this… thing. The last movie dispensed with everything that made Star Trek good in the first place while keeping the absurd miniskirts and tacking on a nosensical Spock/Uhura romance. I was at first hopeful when I saw Cumberbatch in the trailers (how good was ST:TMP after all?) but now I’m pretty sure I won’t be spending even the gift card that’s been sitting in my pocket since christmas on this.

  14. No One says

    Abrahms… admitted he didn’t get ST as a kid. Should never been given the keys to car.

  15. No One says

    “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”

  16. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    sorry for double posting, a few more thoughts:

    1) All my fellow trekkies should be listening to The Mission Log Podcast which is dissecting the entire franchise one episode at a time.

    2) As others have mentioned casting pretty much anyone but a white man would have been an imrovement. Naveen Andrews was mentioned over at Jason’s, and damn would I love to see him sink his teeth into a villain like Khan.

    3) After Lucas’ last three abortions I can’t think of anyone more… deserving of the SW rights than JJ. Now where did I put that fiddle…

  17. Ysanne says

    Saw it yesterday, and agree… entertaining visuals, and that’s kind of it.
    Khan as a white guy with somewhat anime-bad-guy-like narrow eyes and a weird haircut was off. And while the role-reversal and reboot started as a nice idea, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge factor of it had a subtlety of being beaten over the head with a baseball bat. And let’s not start on the dialogue, which apart from a few highlights, was teetering between ridiculous and soap opera. Also, what’s this new take on women in starfleet — females wearing either knee-long pencil skirts, or miniskirts, and the command meeting is a total sausage-fest?
    What really bugs me about this movie, though, that it’s a simple action-with-spaceships flick with a very simple good-evil dividing line, completely missing the Start Trek strength of giving villains a motivation that one could sympathise with, and generally including a component of “figuring out some ethical dilemma that has been amplified into a pressing practical problem by setting it in the future and on a spaceship”.

  18. CaitieCat says

    So…it sounds like it’s basically Not-Trek, with added whiteness, which, let’s be clear, it didn’t need.

    I reckon I’ll pass. I’ve got some lovely remastered Old Trek I can watch any time I like; I don’t need to see the Michael Bay version (and frankly, I don’t think Bay and Abrams’ versions would be much different, and if there’s a more damning way to say Abrams sucks, I don’t know it).

    What a waste. I’m so, so, SO fucking sick of Hollywood deciding for me that I don’t want to see PoC on the screen. It’s almost to the point where I’m boycotting new media that isn’t majority-PoC, just to try and balance out my life’s viewing more.

  19. resident_alien says

    One of my fellow Trekkies,who is also a huuuge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch,said of this movie:” I’m out of my depths with this one! It was,in the weirdest way,awesome and awful at the same time!”
    He nearly fell out of his seat at the cimema when Cumberbatch’s character announced himself to be Khan.
    Cumberbatch is a fantastic StarTrek villian (I mean,just look.at.those.cheekbones! Oh,and he can act,too!),but we both cannot tolerate him as Khan.No chance,no way,no,thanks!
    A whitebread as Khan was bad enough,but a British whitebread in the role of an Indian (or,in British terminology,an Asian)? Holy post-colonialist clusterfuck,Batman!
    J.J. Abrams, ‘dafuq?!? I mean,it’s not like there aren’t any excellent Indian/Asian actors out there.For instance,
    Kunal Nayyar (him out of “The Big Bang Theory”) is classically trained,the guy has done Shakespeare and all that jazz,he’s clearly capeable of more than “funny foreign guy”.
    Dev Patel,of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame (and “The last Airbender”-another case of whitewhashing),is a great actor,too,even if he’s a bit young for Khan. But there are many more out there,and I,for one,resent their confinement to bit-parts and funny-foreign-guy roles.

  20. resident_alien says

    *waves hello at CaitieCat* Shakerz represent! I think I will follow your example and slash my consumption of
    white-people-flicks….

  21. CaitieCat says

    You know who would have been awesome, and I’m totally not saying this because I have a serious crush on him, Sendhil Ramamurthy, if you must have a Westerner. Wonderful actor, sexy as HELL, well-grounded in American culture but clearly able and willing to identify with his Indian ethnicity. Would have been awesome for this.

    And I love Cumberbatch, I really do. But he’s a white man. Give him white man roles. It’s not like those are so rare that he ain’t gonna find work.

    *terrorist fist-bump for resident alien* All In. :D

  22. Reginald Selkirk says

    What did you think of the film? I wasn’t that impressed with the plot holes and Kirk as a cocky sex obsessed pre-captain worked, especially as he got rebuffed more often than not…

    Saw it yesterday. What a mess.
    Kirk is being played as such an impetuous horndog that he shouldn’t be trusted with a rusty bicycle, let alone a starship.
    A starship gets blown apart by 72 direct torpedo hits, then a few minutes later is intact enough to warp?
    Etc. etc. etc.

  23. keshmeshi says

    A few weeks ago, I went out looking for a definitive answer as to which character Cumberbatch was playing*, so I just said to myself fuck it and read the damn plot synopsis. It was at that point I decided I’m not going to see a new Trek movie until Abrams and Lindelof are no longer involved in any way. I made so many excuses for the first movie: Women and children on a pre-TNG Starfleet vessel? That incredibly stupid birth scene? A cadet being promoted to captain within a day and then keeping that field commission once the crisis is over? A smarmy Spock? (At least that can be explained by Zachary Quinto’s poor acting skills.) Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru cheat being way over the top? I made excuses for all of this.

    But then I read the plot synopsis of STID, and I realized that it’s never going to get better until Paramount can find someone who’s willing to reboot the franchise without taking an enormous dump on it.

    *Abrams’ blatant lies on this matter didn’t help either.

  24. says

    Why didn’t they use Sendhil Ramamurthy? He could easily have the look of a young Montalban, and he’s a good actor, and he’s gorgeous. Cumberbatch is good but, seriously, that was a hell of a dumb move to put a milk-white guy in the role of a Sikh. (And don’t get me started about stupid Hollywood – like having Joel Grey play an ancient Korean in “Remo Wiliams” etc)

  25. Pen says

    I missed that, not being familiar with the character. What I noticed was how everybody in the movie somehow mysteriously wrapped themselves around the ego of the incredibly immature, obnoxious and not particularly competent young white American dude with no apparent redeeming features.

  26. Pen says

    Sorry, I should have specified I was talking about part 1. We were watching it with a view to going and seeing the latest installment but it completely put me off.

  27. oursally says

    Maybe it’s not as thoughtless as you think.

    I had the impression in the film industry non-white persons are not allowed to be bad. The villain has to be a male white European, check any Bond film. Judges have to be brown women, police chiefs have to be brown, spaceship captains have to be women, computer experts have to be – well, anything but white male.

    Though I do agree that although Cumberbatch would make an excellent baddie, he just isn’t Khan. I haven’t seen the film, did he stay his usual ghostly white colour, or did they do a Gielgud-playing-Othello on him?

  28. says

    Hated? No one hates white people. I just think that a character’s ethnicity is an important part of who the actor chosen to play them is. If Uhura was portrayed as white, then people would be angry. The ethnicities of the original cast were important to the story in that humanity transcended violence and hate.

    The first interracial kiss. A Russian working with Americans. People from around the world. And Khan was portrayed by a Mexican because there were no Indian actors about at the time. But he was always meant to be Indian.

    We don’t have that problem now. It is not a hatred of white people but a question as to why they got the whitest person they could find to portray a man from an ethnicity that is so poorly and rarely portrayed on TV as “main characters” in an industry where Indian actors still anglicise their names to get jobs.

    This is pretty much the joke in Tropic Thunder with Robert Downey Jr.

  29. Rob Grigjanis says

    How could someone with surname Anwar play Margaret Tudor? How could Denis Anthony La Fontaine have been Indian Air Chief Marshall? It’s almost as though names needn’t correspond to one’s image of how someone with that name should look.

  30. says

    Because Anwar looks incredibly white and India has Christians who have Christian names.

    Anwar was picked because she looked white enough. La Fontaine is an Air Chief Marshall and his ethnicity is not of importance. In fact he is probably like me… A Tamil. Some of us are very fair (Tamils normally have darker skin. Some of us are “black” some of us are “brown” and some of us are “white”. If i stay out of the sun for enough time I can be confused with italian or greek. My mother looks white)

    However. You must remember that Indian actors in western cinema are only making it big recently.

    Khan was one of the first Indian characters on TV or Cinema where he wasn’t a gigantic stereotype. They had to get a mexican to play him because there were no Indian actors at the time. Now we don’t have that excuse.

    If you made Uhura white or Chekov not Russian or Sulu white or had Scotty speaking with a Czech accent, people would have been pissed off.

    Part of Khan was that he bucked the trend of Indians being poor, snivelling shop keepers or taxi drivers or terrorist no 3.

    I bet you wouldn’t be so happy to support a white Uhura or a Welsh Scotty.

  31. CaitieCat says

    WELSHYYYYYY!!!

    Otherwise, totally agree, Avi. A white Uhura or Sulu would be a fucking travesty, and the fanboys would have gone apeshit. But whitewash the only cool villain of colour on Old Trek, and it’s *shrug* “but look at all the cool lens flares! and miniskirts! and gratuitous (female-only please) nudity!”

  32. Rob Grigjanis says

    I bet you wouldn’t be so happy to support a white Uhura or a Welsh Scotty.

    You’d lose that bet, not least because I’m not a Star Trek fan, but even if I were, I certainly wouldn’t object to those scenarios, or to Kirk being played by a non-white person of any gender.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>