Asian characters stereotyped in UK soaps, actor claims

Coco-Jacinta Cherian, who plays Rani Kapoor, with Menik Gooneratne and Sachin Joab, who play her parents, Priya and Ajay Kapoor. The Kapoors are 'Aussie' like any other Australian family, says Joab

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Australia is more forward-thinking than the UK when it comes to portraying ethnic minorities in soaps, an Asian-Australian actor has claimed.

Sachin Joab plays Ajay Kapoor, a member of the first ever South Asian family to move into Neighbours' Ramsay Street.

He says the family were written without resorting to "cheesy stereotypes".

"There are no Indian accents, no references to Hinduism or Islam, or Bollywood music," he said. But UK soap producers have defended their shows.

ITV says the characters on Coronation Street are not defined by their ethnicity, adding that the show is "very much character-led and not issue-led".

Diverse mix

Three years ago, Sir Trevor Philips, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), headed a report into cultural stereotypes on TV.

Nina Wadia who plays Zainab Masood, and Nitin Ganatra, who plays Masood Ahmed in Eastenders The Masood family run the Argee Bhajee restaurant in EastEnders

The report concluded that shows like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing represented the UK's diverse ethnic mix more than British soaps.

Among the UK's leading soaps, EastEnders has featured Asian characters since 1985 and Coronation Street got its first permanent Asian family in 1998.

ITV says its Asian characters do not play up to cultural stereotypes.

In a statement, it said: "Dev and Sunita do run a corner shop, but that is incidental to their love lives, relationships and dramas that they find themselves at the centre of."

Shobna Gulati plays the role of Sunita in Coronation Street and says her character's experiences - from life threatening disease and long love affairs to one night stands, marriage and divorce - transcend stereotypes.

Start Quote

They just said 'You're Aussie and you are going to play an Aussie'”

End Quote Sachin Joab Ajay Kapoor in Neighbours

"Her cultural references stem from her family, friends and environment," she told the BBC. "She is not defined by these. These references do not form her behaviour and they are not her story.

"I cannot deny my own diverse origins, heritage or cultural reference, why should I? After all, I am an actor and I will bring that to the table to inform my work, but not to define it.

"I play Sunita. I play a person, a human being. She is a barmaid and she does not pull a racially stereotyped pint," she says.

'Watering down'

Joab says that Neighbours should be commended for its representation of Asian people.

"They could have easily said, 'OK, your character is Ajay Kapoor and we need you to speak with an Indian accent'. But they didn't even ask. They just said 'You're Aussie and you are going to play an Aussie.'"

However, not everyone agrees that cultural traits should be discarded.

Hajaz Akram, principal of the Academy of Asian and Ethnic Dramatic Arts (AAEDA) in London, is concerned that Neighbours is watering down what it means to be Asian.

Actors Menik Gooneratne and Sachin Joab, who play the Priya and Ajay Kapoor in Neighbours The Kapoors are the first South Asian residents on Ramsay Street

"Asian families do come from ethnic and religious backgrounds, and we need to explore and celebrate that. I think that's important for us to explore as Asian people, but also to let communities be educated themselves."

When Neighbours first announced the arrival of the Kapoor family, some people posted racist comments on the show's website.

A minority of Neighbours fans claimed it was "un-Australian" to cast the new family. The comments were quickly removed, and Neighbours executive producer, Susan Bowers explained that the show wanted to represent a "more modern society".

But Akram says that, in doing so, the show is failing to represent the distinctiveness of ethnic minorities.

"If you've got a family that is just like everybody else, and who they are and what they stand for doesn't matter, then where is the issue?

"I think there is a massive missed opportunity."

The BBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 283.


    If you believe the soaps marital infidelity is almost universal; no wedding ever goes according to plan and always has a major crisis; few pregnancies ever goes normally; the incidence of murder, domestic violence and major accidents are far higher than the population at large. They're always shouting at one another. If they were about real people they would be rather boring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    My wife, an Eastenders viewer, says that the Masood family are quite true to life. As a 2nd generation from Pakistan, I guess she would know.
    I personally dislike soaps, too depressing, I'm sure that soaps are to make viewers think that their live isn't so bad after all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    Since 1985 Eastenders has featured Asian characters. 2012 Australian soap Neighbours has its first Asian family. I think this clearly shows which nation has the most problem with race. I defy anyone to spend time in both countries and then say that Britain has more issues with race than Australia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    If the soaps are to reflect reality, there would need to be a lot more racism depicted. Most seem to depict society as some kind of multi-cultural Nirvana where everyone is tolerant, understanding and respectful of the traditions of others. Why not show things as they really are with some characters being casually racist, or making racist statements behind closed doors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    It's a no win situation for TV writers. If they have a character from Pakistan and make him a muslim family man then there are complaints about stereotyping. If they make him an atheist philanderer there would be just as many complaints about watering down his cultural identity. Give an Asian actor an interesting role as a psychopath and there would be hell to pay.


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