Kal Mansoor: Media Representation and India's Colonial History
Kal Mansoor, who some may recognize from his role as recurring guest star “Ado” on iCarly, is a British-born Indian actor, producer, and writer who has made appearances on BBC and ITV as well as on-stage in London. Kal is now moving to the New York stage to perform a one-man comedy show discussing India's colonial history and the media representation of people of color.
1) Could you talk a bit about yourself and your background?
Kal: My parents emigrated to England from India in the 1960's when they were teenagers, not long after India had been completely destroyed by the British: they has spent the last 400 years basically looting the country. By 1947, when the British finally left, India had barely any resources left and millions had starved to death. My grandparents really felt they had no choice but to send their kids to England. That was the only chance they saw to have a decent life.
That was how I came to be born and raised in a small English town called Maidenhead. I had a pretty good childhood because my parents worked incredibly hard to make a good life for us. I was the youngest of three, so I was given a lot more freedom than my older siblings (hence my chosen profession...)
I went to Church of England schools, and I ended up reading the Bible a lot and studying different religions. I chose to study French language and Politics at university because they both interested me, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I graduated. I started acting as a hobby and then realized that it was the only thing I really wanted to do, so I moved to London, bar-tending at night and going to auditions during the day. Eventually I managed to get a work visa for the US, so I moved to Los Angeles and then to New York.
2) What has your experience been as an Indian Muslim actor in the acting industry?
Kal: Not great. My first ever TV role, 15 years ago, was playing an Afghani terrorist. No one really cared if I spoke Pashtun. They were quite happy for me to make it up, but luckily someone on set spoke the language. It was probably the most humiliating experience of my life, and I swore I would never do it again. Every acting agent I met with, however, said that would be the bulk of my work and that they wouldn't represent me if I didn't want to play those roles. I managed to make money doing voice-over work and the occasional TV commercial, and every now and then I landed a small TV role playing some form of ethnic stereotype like a cab driver or 7-Eleven owner.
15 years later things have changed somewhat, but I still end up turning down a lot of what my agents offer me. I rarely audition for film because it’s still a white male-dominated area. TV has gotten a lot better; I do get to audition for some interesting roles now, but the majority still have very little substance. Stage is my current focus because the New York Theatre scene is so amazing and supportive and I have access to a much wider variety of parts that are well-written and less stereotypical.
3) So what is A Brief History of Colonization?
Kal: A Brief History of Colonization is a one-man comedy show about India's colonial history, how it shaped the world today, and the media representation of people of color. I also talk about my career in Hollywood and the self-loathing minority complex I had growing up.
It’s funnier than it sounds, I promise.
4) Why did you decide to create A Brief History of Colonization?
Kal: Well, first and foremost, I just wasn't getting much work as an actor. Things were very hard, and I was contemplating doing something else with my life. I was also incredibly angry after the Christopher Nolan movie Dunkirk came out because it just erased all 2.5 million Indian soldiers from the British Army, and from history, like they didn't fight and die for a country that enslaved them. It’s a technically brilliant film, but what he did was wrong.
Colonial history is not taught in western schools. I was never taught a single thing about the horrors of the British Empire when I was at school in England, so I didn't know why the India I saw on television was so impoverished and seemingly backward. This made me want to be more like my white friends, which, thinking back on that as an adult, led me to eventually explore the colonial amnesia effect.
I initially wrote the show as funny history lesson about India, and I was quite happy with it. However, after a couple of early performances, I found that audiences wanted to hear more about me and my experiences, so I decided to then highlight the effects that colonial amnesia and erasing people of color from history have on a person's identity. I wanted to do it in an entertaining way, though, because making people laugh is the reason I got into this business. So I decided to use the Hollywood movie-making process as my comedy source.
5) What do you hope people will take away from watching A Brief History of Colonization?
Kal: I hope that people who watch the show will, firstly, laugh, and then learn why India is considered a "developing" country. I also want the audience to think about the real consequences of media representation and the importance of diversity because, in my experience, a lot of people still don't understand the problem.
6) What advice do you have for anyone facing discrimination or limitations due to stereotyping within their industry?
Kal: My advice—to anybody who isn’t a straight white male, really—is to do it yourself. You’re going to have to fight harder now than ever, given what’s happened recently in politics, but it’s possible. So create your own path: write, produce, start companies. These are all very scary things, but if you're waiting for the phone to ring or for someone to hand you success, you might be waiting quite a long time.
Kal will be performing A Brief History of Colonization at the New York Fringe Festival in the West Village on October 20, 21, 22, 23, and 27. Additional information can be found on his website: www.colonialkal.com.