There’s never really been a place for South Asians in western science fiction. Even at nearly a third of the world’s population, rare is the Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi face in mainstream narratives set mere decades in the future despite our enormous western diaspora (not to mention our near-total absence from Star Trek despite Indian space programs and our presence at NASA), which is why there was something surprising about the production design of Blade Runner 2049. An early trailer displayed a neon sign with the word “bar” written in Hindi, and the police headquarters in the finished film features not only Hindi signs and instructions galore, but a main character with a Hindu name. That’s where the South Asian influence begins and ends, though, as even the character in question (Madame Joshi) is played by Caucasian actress Robin Wright, a decision emblematic of the film’s approach to Asian cultures.
2049 is a fascinating film. It may even be one of the year’s best, an investigation into decades-old technological anxieties mixed in with a few we haven’t even had yet thanks to a world where the walls between the physical and digital keep thinning, bringing human authenticity itself into question. Like the design of its predecessor, it draws from a multitude of sources, several of them Asian. Korean signs adorn the Vegas hotel Deckard hides out at, glaring Japanese katakana accompanies the neon advertisements (though the film’s concept art incorrectly labels it kanji; you do the math), and Hindi not only gets to have a presence, but an authoritative one at that. For once, a portion of South Asian culture gets to be part of Hollywood’s amorphous “future aesthetic” that often draws from Asia (primarily China and Japan, owing to cities like Shanghai and Tokyo), but there are also barely any Asian faces to be found in the actual film, Southern or otherwise, and certainly none that any main character interacts with. Its Asian aesthetic is just that - an aesthetic.
In contrast, the Chinese influence in the original Blade Runner felt tangible. There was a solid presence of actual Chinese characters, even though they were mostly extras and some might consider the ones who spoke to be caricatures, but the Los Angeles of 2019 (back in 1982) felt like a real hybrid culture you could walk through and interact with, or sit down and experience and ingest alongside Deckard. The aesthetic had purpose. Much like the Chinatowns of any modern American city, the signs were a reflection of its people and existed for them to read. Who is it that’s reading all the Asian languages in 2049 when there are barely any Asians to be seen, even as part of the backdrop?
That isn’t as rhetorical a question as it may seem, and as it so happens, it opens up a much broader discussion on both the film and on American science fiction in general. The borrowing of Eastern cultures for mostly white narratives while excluding their people is a pervasive pattern in genre storytelling, one that takes the form of both character whitewashing (Star Trek Into Darkness, Ghost in the Shell) or the centering of white characters within mystical or “exotic” Asian narratives (Iron Fist, Doctor Strange), but you’re probably familiar with all that by now. The failure to contextualize its lack of Asian faces despite its use of Asian names and languages does push Blade Runner 2049 closer to the aforementioned examples. While it’s certainly possible there were more Asian extras that simply didn’t make the edit, the text is the text (though there being even fewer Asian faces than the ’82 original is still a problem), and it’s a fascinating text to approach through a lens of cultural appropriation because of its subject matter. Who in this story is even human to begin with?
Well, Robin Wright’s Joshi probably, and while the Sanskrit influence for her name (“the holder of light;” she sees herself as enlightened) is neat to see in a Hollywood studio film, it seems to highlight the lack of South Asians even further. But other than her? It’s hard to state with any certainty, and that’s a doubt the film very much wants us to have. Even Deckard, the subject of this very debate for the last 35 years, is offered no such clarity. For all we know the man bringing his reality into question, Niander Wallace, could even be a replicant himself. Which brings up a fascinating question given that most of the replicants we see are also white: is this just how humans are manufactured now?
That isn’t a way out for the debate, mind you, given that none of this is even remotely contextualized in a racial sense (2049 only has a handful of main characters to begin with, though people did bring up similar meta-textual white supremacy arguments prior to Ghost in the Shell and they were flimsy at best), it’s entirely possible race wasn’t even on the minds of the filmmakers while telling this story – which in and of itself is an interesting quandary whether or not it’s accurate, given the end result.
Like the X-Men films before it, and like so many modern American sci-fi tales, 2049 is very much a story about systemic oppression. And like X-Men and the rest, its bigotry begins to feel both abstract and hypocritical as its oppressed characters are, in addition to their fictional status of mutant, replicant, etc., straight, white and cisgender, as has been the Hollywood norm for decades, thus shutting out actors and perspectives that may belong to the groups being spoken about in the first place. Yes, these are meant to be metaphors, but at what point do their logistics work against their very own text and subtexts? They’re certainly not as drastic as Addio Zio Tom, an Italian time-travel mockumentary lampooning American slavery whilst using actual Haitian slave labour – that might actually be the most extreme example – but I bring up Addio Zio Tom because the disconnect exists along the same lines. At what point does American science fiction contribute to that which it’s trying to critique?
That dissonance often stems from aesthetic choices (one can perhaps include casting mostly white actors in this category if one so chooses), and it extends to the case of 2049’s production design. The original Blade Runner was made during a period of increased Chinese immigration into American cities – the number of American residents of Chinese origin had doubled since 1970 and would double again by 1990 – making Ridley Scott’s heavily Chinese-influenced 2019 Los Angeles a realistic possibility and a reflection of the (then) present that you can almost reach out and feel as Deckard sit down to order at the noodle bar. And while Blade Runner 2049 certainly expands on the idea, including a handful of other Asian influences in addition to Chinese, does it also merely borrow its superficial optics and apply it to Japanese and Indian imagery? The signage is all there, but watching Villenueve’s sequel it’s not hard to imagine that it’s all or mostly white people speaking Japanese and Hindi now. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself as the future is undoubtedly multicultural, but this future isn’t. The possibility that the characters speak these languages isn’t because we actually see them speak them. Rather, it’s because we see no one speak them, and no one who looks like either language would be part of their cultural identity a mere thirty years from now.
There is certainly potential for the story’s themes to include this monoracial dynamic. Blade Runner and its sequel are, in part, about who does or does not get to be human, and given the all-encompassing influence of white supremacy in both colonial nations and contemporary America, it’s not hard to imagine Wallace Corp’s “ideal” humans being white either (their virtual sex-bot “J.O.I.” can change her hair and her outfit, but appears unable to become non-white). Of course, none of this appears to be an intentional part of the film’s text – it rarely is in works of science fiction by white authors – and yet it becomes a part of the film’s textual conversation by omission. Why is this Asian-influenced future so white? Is it because all the actual Asians left the planet? Or is there no actual satisfying “in world” answer, as fan theory or otherwise, because the question has inadvertently joined the film’s myriad of cultural meditations?
It’s easy to label this is another instance of white Hollywood doing what it always does in terms of casting and influence (in fact, that’s what I’m definitively saying it is), but it’s also an added layer to 2049 worth discussing given the film’s choice of subject: an oppressed people saying “enough is enough” once they realize they have an equal claim to things. Who is it that gets to be humanized? In the original Blade Runner, it’s humans who get to decide this. In the sequel it’s both humans as well as newer replicant models, either as they “retire” old ones or are seen as “real” in constrast to digital A.I. (Mariette refers to herself as a “real girl” in comparison to Joi), and the humans are even on the precipice of losing the power to decide this definitively now that a replicant may have given birth.
It’s a sliding scale, one that shifts depending on how much of these people we’re allowed to know – the original’s most human moment involves a replicant lamenting his own death – and it’s one that Hollywood also happens to follow as the global point of reflection of multiple cultures, broadcast to the world, shaping whether we see an otherness in certain people, or whether we see parts of ourselves. I know for a fact that most Americans’ perception of me when I moved to the U.S. was shaped by what little they saw of South Asians on television. It was mostly caricatures, and I can’t help but wonder how differently I would’ve been treated if the characters they’d seen had felt like real people.