Theatre: Racially Motivated

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Indy Lifestyle Online
He is young, gifted and the star of a critically-acclaimed British movie. But the last place you will find Akbar Kurtha's face is staring out from the newsstands.

Kurtha, a 26-year-old veteran of both screen and stage, plays one of the protagonists in Hanif Kureishi's latest outing, My Son the Fanatic. As Farid, the son in the title, Kurtha's character rejects liberal, decadent New Britain for Islamic fundamentalism.

Despite the high-profile film, the beam of the media spotlight has curiously not brushed Kurtha. There have been no teen covers, no slots on daytime television, no gracing the pages of the glossy men's magazines. The biggest piece on the young British Asian appeared in the Southampton Echo.

This must be odd for a man who had girls clamouring for his number when he trod the boards at Stratford's Theatre Royal.

Perhaps one of the film's sub-plots - fundamentalism -is too explosive for many whites. Stellan Skaarsgard, who plays a nasty, German industrialist in the movie, managed to get into the national press on the back of the film.

For Kurtha, it was an uncomfortable experience. "It surprised me. Especially when there are so many white British actors and actresses who are making it in the film industry and into the papers. I can't help but feel it's to do with racism."

There should be little problem marketing Kurtha. The tale of a working- class, "sarf-London" lad who has made it to the West End and on to the big screen, Kurtha's is a story waiting to be told.

But Feature Film Company, the firm that handled My Son the Fanatic, was surprised by the lack of media interest. The problem, they say, was not the product but the packaging.

"We were naive in that we underestimated the difficulty of presenting an Asian actor of Akbar's obvious ability to the mainstream media. We encountered difficulties we did not encounter with young white actors and actresses," said Lawrence Gornall, Feature Film's head of marketing.

One of the "difficulties" appeared to be the set ideas about what black and Asian people do and do not do. "I was recently asked by one director to put on an Indian accent, just because he said the man in a local shop had one," says Kurtha. "I said I did not mind, but the character was a 22-year-old guy who was born and bought up in Britain. He was not going to have an accent."

This stereotyping is often compounded by the racist notion that a non- white British face has limited appeal. This could partly explain why Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the first black Briton to be nominated for an Oscar - for her character in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies - was not invited to a parade of the country's 20 brightest young talents in Cannes last year.

"I do not want to get embittered about it. But you look at the way that Kate Winslet was treated when she got nominated ... It feels like no matter what you do they're never proud of you," Jean-Baptiste told reporters.

Prejudice not only sets limits on how white people define the black experience; it also restricts who is going to be interested in them. When Julianna Margulies, the 28-year-old mixed-race actress who stars in ER, first started out, she struggled to get roles. "People would say they did not know if I was black, white, Italian or Puerto Rican," Margulies told the News of the World recently.

The implication - unintended or not - is that there are some roles that only certain races can play. But entertainment is a form of escapism. There are no limits to the imagination.

After all, there are few people who think that a black person could become President of the United States - but that has not stopped Morgan Freeman playing the part in the forthcoming blockbuster Deep Impact.

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