“Aladdin,” the latest in Disney’s live-action remakes of their iconic cartoon films, is a topic of much controversy for South Asians and Arabs across the world, and it isn’t just about Will Smith’s topknot.
Some see the original film and Director Guy Ritchie’s re-imagining as a disrespectful bastardization of the original folklore, while others find it a source of campy comfort — not quite true to the experiences of Arabs or South Asians, but still the only other place a young child from the late-'90s or early-'00s could see someone brown like them on screen.
As avidly as I align with Said and Fanon’s ideas about post-colonialism and orientalism, I must confess: I really, really enjoyed the film, and at the same time felt aghast at my own reaction. Where did my principles go?
I was outraged when I learned Disney put white extras in brownface instead of going the extra centimeter and seeking out brown talent. I was conflicted by what Agrabah — which, as one Twitter user pointed out, really ought to be Agrabad, to keep with South Asian nomenclature — represented, mashing up two completely distinct cultures that were each rich enough to carry the story on their own.
Above all, I was horrified by the genie’s topknot. Truly, a travesty on its own! So what was the supernatural force that came over me when I walked into the theater, prepared to cringe my way through two hours of orientalist hodgepodge disguised as cinema? Is no one immune to the magic of Disney?
I cannot speak for the cryogenically frozen mastermind behind this growing entertainment monopoly, nor can I speak for the scores of South Asian and Arab critics who find the movie lacking and disrespectful on various levels. I can, however, speak for myself and to the electrifying epiphanies I experienced in two hours and ten minutes.
First, Naomi Scott and Will Smith’s musical numbers stole the show. Second, government inaction in the face of anthropogenic climate change and a growing tide of global fascism will, in all likelihood, turn our planet to some manner of apocalyptic wasteland by 2050. In the meantime, why rob myself of the luxury of seeing Will Smith belt out “Prince Ali” with vaguely Bollywood-esque choreography exploding behind him?
Let’s call this idea “happiness in the time of global warming,” a la Gabriel García Marquez. I deserve to be happy and so do you. Disney is buying out every franchise we know and love, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates look like a lineup of clown college dropouts and, in all likelihood, few people from our generation will have children because we’re too scared of bringing them into a world whose man-made expiry date is rapidly approaching.
If we spend too long thinking about the ramifications of all of these things, if we let these worries crawl under our skin and burrow into our bones and hollow us out, we will go mad. So let yourself enjoy “Aladdin.”
That isn’t to say Ritchie could not benefit from a cultural consultant (read: hire more brown people). Maybe a lone Indian or Arab producer could let him know that the pinstriped wool H&M slacks Aladdin has on in his street rat uniform should be a cotton shalwar — given, you know, scorching desert heat.
Or let him know that energetic choreography does not need to be sped up to a jerky, frenzied pace to best emulate Bollywood. Or even tell him that there are, shockingly enough, brown people of all kinds in various professions, including the entertainment industry, so we can all put down the industrial-sized bronzer and tell Caucasian PA No. 4 to take a breather for this next shot of the bustling streets of Agrabah.
Enjoying media does not mean letting its failures run wild, especially when there are consequences to be had. Agrabah, many might argue, is imaginary and cannot affect real brown people in the least. Yet a shocking number of respondents, including self-identifying Democrats and Republicans, agreed in a Public Policy Polling survey that the United States should bomb Agrabah back to the stone age.
Even in the realm of the imaginary, people find the homes of brown folk to be threatening. Even in the imaginary, where there is not even a real, distinct culture to be had, there are conclusions drawn from the mere sound, from the mere proximity to brownness.
So I will critique "Aladdin." I will laugh at this attempt to mix watered-down Arab culture with the attire and dance of South Asian culture and the gaffes that ensue. I will find it deeply disappointing that even in 2019, when Bollywood has already broken into Western markets for a decade, when independent South Asian American filmmakers are telling their stories in Hollywood, the makers of "Aladdin" felt that brownface was a better option than brown actors.
I will continue to wonder who approved that indefensible topknot. All of these things can be done while listening to the soundtrack on loop, because this is the nature of humanity — living in the space between contradictions.
Call it hypocrisy if you will, to have your cake, to eat it, and then write a thoughtful Yelp review, too. I will reserve my righteous anger and my commitment to boycotting for a cause more worthy and less catchy — something like fascist policies toward reproductive health or the horrors ravaging Sudan — but I will wave to you if your road here is made for marching and slogans. The world is ending. It has always been ending, but the maw of catastrophe seems like it is inching too close for comfort as of late. So have your fun.
Let’s have our genie-shaped cake, and eat it, too.
Aroog Khaliq is a junior from Overland Park studying English and psychology.