In Russell Peters’ latest project, a Canadian-produced TV series titled Indian Detective, the Indian-Canadian comic plays a grandiose, ne’er-do-well, and utterly hilarious Indian-Canadian constable named Doug D’Mello. After Doug takes a sabbatical following a flawed drug bust, flying to India to meet with his father, he finds himself plunged into an adventure at once foreign, familiar, and funny.
In my mind, the most noteworthy part of Indian Detective wasn’t the story. Instead, it was the presence of many of South Africa’s best Asian actors–to the point where the series itself was a showcase for faces both familiar and new. Durban-raised model and actress Mishqah Parthiephal plays the role of Priya, the bright-eyed, socially-minded love interest; Meren Reddy plays Inspector Devo, a gruff, impatient, but honest constable; and veteran actresses Jailoshini Naidoo and Maeshni Naicker appear in supporting roles, as Priya’s mother and a burned-out desk sergeant, respectively.
In other words, it’s quite literally a who’s-who of Indian South African actors. But it also speaks to the strength of the diaspora’s growing strength in film. But this shouldn’t be surprising: last year’s Keeping up with the Kandasamys, the story of two best-friends-turned-arch enemies (portrayed by Naidoo and Naicker) who conspire to keep their star-crossed children (one of whom is played by Parthiephal) apart. Keeping up with the Kandasamys debuted to strong reviews, with critics hailing the film for its vibrant, captivating portrait of the diaspora community in Durban and impeccable comedic timing.
But more than just a great story with a fantastic cast, Keeping up with the Kandasamys also has some wider implications for South African society as a whole. First, the movie earned an impressive 16 million rand in 12 weeks–not a bad haul for a locally-produced, indie film that was shot primarily in Durban’s Chatsworth neighborhood, a predominantly South Asian district southwest the city center. Though Chatsworth owes its existence to racist restrictions passed by the colonial and apartheid regimes, which forced African and Indian migrants and their descendants into slums in the area, today the neighborhood is a bustling, diverse area full of centrally-planned houses and residences. It’s also home to the Bangladesh Market, established in the 1980s and reminiscent of the famous open-air Indian markets that once dotted the nation, hawking fresh produce, fish, meat, spices, kitchenware, and clothing.
As the success of Keeping Up with the Kandasamys demonstrates, South African film is moving past the black-and-white paradigm that has characterized it for so long. Recent additions demonstrate this exciting trend: Free State, a love story between a white Afrikaans girl (played by Nicole Breytenbach) and an Indian man (Andrew Govender), debuted in 2016 to critical acclaim, asking difficult, uncomfortable questions about the effect of apartheid on lives and relationships. Be warned: this isn’t a feel-good story, but rather a tragic, if necessary, one.
Yet the movie that perhaps started it all (at least for modern audiences) was 2010’s White Gold, an expansive, sweeping meditation on the arrival of Indians in South Africa–migrants who were promised the world, only to be reduced, upon their arrival, to near-slavery. White Gold, shot almost entirely on location in KwaZulu-Natal, swept the awards, even winning the best feature film shot in KZN five years after its debut. Though White Gold was entirely self-financed by Durban-based producer Dinesh Naidoo, the movie broke ground for other films about the Indian diaspora to come.