British actor Kal Mansoor has always thought a lot about the film industry’s interpretation of history throughout his career. But it was Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama “Dunkirk” that served as a turning point in how he viewed both whitewashing and British history.
“That movie was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Mansoor, who was born in England and is now based in New York, said.
Shortly after “Dunkirk” was released in 2017, Mansoor began writing a stand-up routine that eventually became his one-man show “A Brief History of Colonization,” which made its world premiere in January in New York City and most recently played at The New York International Fringe Festival in October.
I think that South Asians in the U.K. in particular are creating their own stories and creating their own paths. Unfortunately, England is not really ready to have that conversation about its past. So I don't think people are like, "We need to write these people in." I think South Asians are taking the reins.
“Dunkirk,” which detailed the events of May 1940 when thousands of Allied soldiers were penned into the French city of Dunkirk by German forces, was widely criticized for erasing the presence of soldiers from throughout the colonies from the British army. While tens of thousands of soldiers from India, Africa, and the Caribbean served in both World Wars as part of the British Army, their sacrifices and contributions to the war effort have been overlooked by filmmakers and many historians until recently.
“Going to school in England, you aren’t taught anything about what the British Empire did so I didn’t learn any of that until I was an adult — most of it when I started digging for this show,” Mansoor said. “We knew that India was a colony but that was pretty much it. There was no mention of any murder or any slavery or theft. It’s portrayed — in the little that it is portrayed — as more of a partnership.”
Mansoor now believes his lack of connection to his identity and the lack of visible South Asian faces in pop culture in the 1980s and 1990s were a reason he wanted to be “anything but an Indian Muslim kid” growing up.
“A Brief History of Colonization” centers on Mansoor running through India’s history while also imagining what it would be like to create a feature film dramatizing the whole thing. The show details the creation of an increasingly nonsensical film in which, due to the whims of Hollywood, white actors such as Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck are cast as major figures in Indian and colonial history. Interspersed throughout are stories about Mansoor’s own family’s history and his personal experiences as an actor over the last 15 years.
Because he had only met his paternal grandparents a handful of times (and had only visited India once as a 7-year-old in 1990) he interviewed his parents and relied heavily on their memories while writing the scenes about his family’s history in the show.
The family stories Mansoor shares in his show also provide a sharp contrast to the Muslim and South Asian roles he describes “trying out” over the years. But though the largely white creators that make mainstream projects still have a reputation for writing roles that are either whitewashed or stereotypical roles, a new generation of creatives and activists are working to ensure that South Asians are getting their historical due.
While “Downton Abbey” never did cast its long promised Indian character, British actor Dev Patel has been cast as the lead role of an upcoming adaptation of David Copperfield and an upcoming episode of “Dr. Who” will feature a storyline centered on the Partition of India. Additionally, in honor of the centennial of the end of World War I, several South Asian groups throughout the U.K. have been working to create memorials to the Indian soldiers that served during the conflict.
To Mansoor, the fact that the creative landscape is changing due to South Asian activism. “I think that South Asians in the U.K. in particular are creating their own stories and creating their own paths. Unfortunately, England is not really ready to have that conversation about its past,’” he said. “So I don't think people are like, ‘We need to write these people in.’ I think South Asians are taking the reins.”
Perhaps that is why the most moving bits of Mansoor’s show often occur during the small tea breaks Mansoor’s character takes throughout the show when the absurdity of telling the story of colonialism becomes too much. While the breaks were originally meant to help him transition between characters and comedic scenes, they eventually came to mean something beyond that. That isn’t surprising even the role of tea in the centuries old common history between India and the United Kingdom.
“Gradually the tea became more and more part of it and more symbolic because it is such a huge part of British and Asian culture,” Mansoor explained. “So the tea represents so much more than a pause.”