Production on Disney’s new live-action Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, was expected to begin this month, but the studio reportedly struggled to find actors for its lead roles. “Finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult,” the Hollywood Reporter claimed. “Especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent.”
The author described efforts to scout actors in the UK, India, Egypt and Abu Dhabi, which suggested a concerted effort on Disney’s part to cast non-white stars. However, many critics interpreted the rumoured casting difficulties as a sign that Ritchie might ultimately cast white actors in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. “It can’t be easy to cast a Middle Eastern actor as a terrorist but difficult to cast the same people in a leading role,” argued Rawan Eewshah in Allure, “or is this all a ploy to whitewash the characters?”
The hunt for Aladdin and Jasmine has become a global conversation on social media. In India, it has prompted collective eye-rolls considering the wealth of Bollywood actors trained in both acting and singing. Disney fans from across Europe, America, India and the Middle East have compiled long lists of suggestions drawn from Bollywood and Middle Eastern pop culture icons. Then there’s the subset of criticism questioning the fact that Ritchie and the studio were casting Indian actors at all, given that the characters appear to be Arab.
In the event, most seemed happy with the announcement of Will Smith as the Genie, and the eventual decision to cast the Canadian-Egyptian Mena Massoud as Prince Ali. However, the decision to cast Naomi Scott, who is half Indian and half white, as Princess Jasmine, has caused further controversy, with many critics claiming that Disney should have cast an Arab actress.
This is not the first Aladdingate. Even in 1993, audiences were unhappy with the cartoon Aladdin’s portrayal of Arab culture. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert noted with frustration that most “of the Arab characters [had] exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.”
In response to protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Walt Disney Studios agreed to change the offensive lyrics to the opening song “Arabian Nights” for the film’s 1993 home video release. The lyrics had referred to the story’s Middle Eastern setting as a “barbaric” land where “they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Former Disney executive Dick Cook defended the song, claiming that: “The irony in all of this is that this is the first movie in years where both the hero and heroine are Arabic, and both are obviously terrific role models, not just for Arabs but for everybody.”
As a kid in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. I spent much of my childhood dressing up as Princess Jasmine, convinced that my own Indian culture was reflected in the film’s imagery and cultural symbolism. It is only in more recent years that I have come to terms with the fact that the extent of the depiction of Indian “culture” in the film is Jasmine’s pet tiger, Rajah.
In actuality, the 1992 animated film is a white dream about the Middle East, lazily conflated with India (the Sultan’s palace is based on the Taj Mahal). It may have its origins in an ancient Syrian folk tale, but it is now painfully clear to me that the film is essentially an original work by a group of white men with a distorted and disturbingly orientalist view of the monolithic “East”.
Despite their story being set in the fictional Middle Eastern region of Agrabah, and despite the film’s (human) characters all having Arab names, the voice cast of Disney’s original Aladdin movie is entirely white. No actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the making of the film.
Hollywood’s diversity problem is so dire that grown men and women across three continents are arguing about the ethnic integrity of the cast of Aladdin, a children’s cartoon that a group of white people made about a Middle Eastern kingdom that doesn’t exist. Our one hotly contested property in Western pop culture is a children’s musical cartoon starring Robin Williams. Aladdin was, and still is, important to me and my Arab, South Asian and Muslim friends, however problematic the depiction. Jasmine was brown, just like we were (and are) – and sadly, that was enough.
No one* is daft enough to believe that Aladdin is any kind of credible mythology. But in terms of positive on-screen depictions of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage and complexions, Aladdin is still as good as it gets. We are given so little time on-screen (and most of that time is taken up by portrayals of us as terrorists) that we are willing to settle for lazy cultural stereotypes and caricatures that erase our differences.
Of course, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures and people are not interchangeable. No one should treat them as such, from Disney to those making casting suggestions. As for me, I don’t believe that accurately casting Arab actors in the leading roles of the live-action remake is enough to correct the original Aladdin’s racist presentation of the Arab world as a “barbaric” region where “they will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Still, it would have been a start.
*Except perhaps for the 41 per cent of Donald Trump supporters who said they were in favour of bombing Agrabah, the (fictional) homeland of Aladdin, in December 2015.