Why is a white or Arab guy playing Rumi?

Published: June 9, 2016

The decision to cast big name Hollywood actors of European decent in the role of an Asian character is disappointing.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, better known as simply Rumi, is one of the most beloved poets of all time from Asia to the United States. An Islamic scholar, thinker, and Sufi mystic, he was born in the Eastern part of the Persian Empire – now Afghan territory – which is why it is surprising that Hollywood wants to cast Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor of Italian and German descent, to play him.

What’s more, Hollywood wants to cast Robert Downey Jr as Shams Tabrizi, who happened to be Rumi’s spiritual instructor, close friend, and a source of inspiration for his work.

The intentions behind the Rumi film certainly seem noble. According to The Guardian, Stephen Joel Brown, the producer of the film, and David Franzoni (Gladiator) the writer, both believe that their film will challenge the stereotypes of typical Muslims in Western cinema.

Franzoni says that Rumi should be held in the same esteem as Shakespeare,

“He’s a character who has enormous talent and worth to his society and his people, and obviously resonates today. Those people are always worth exploring.”

Both Franzoni and Brown are certainly doing their homework, having visited Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya and consulted Rumi experts in Istanbul.

Much of Rumi’s life, such as him fleeing from Afghanistan after the Mongol invasion, and traveling through Baghdad, Makkah, and Damascus towards Turkey is undisputed, and should make for compelling viewing. Other aspects, are heavily dipped in legend, and will give those working on the film the artistic license to strongly craft his characterisation.

Let’s just hope they tackle it in a nuanced manner. The filmmakers see Shams as a ‘chaotic influence who distracted Rumi from his teachings and family,’ which is a sign of the sort of chemistry we expect to see between the two characters. As long as they don’t turn Shams into a villain, this should work out well.

But though the intentions are clearly good, the decision to cast big name Hollywood actors of European descent in the role of an Asian character is disappointing. Especially when the powers that be say they want to use the film to change how Western audiences view people from this part of the world. Is Hollywood really telling us that they want to use non-Asian actors to portray Asian characters in a better light?

As expected, Twitter was outraged by the casting news, and #RumiWasntWhite quickly began trending across the world.

This leads to a bigger concern. Asian, black, and other minority actors earn disproportionately fewer roles in Hollywood according to numerous statistics. What’s worse is that the roles these actors earn are of a poorer quality in terms of exposure and billing. This whitewashing is evident in the Academy Awards where for two years in a row, only white actors were nominated, which is highly improbable statistically. An example is how two black films, Creed and Straight Outta Compton, powered by numerous black actors and black producers, only received Academy nominations for the non-black talent. For Appolo it was Sylvester Stallone in a supporting role (the black cast was ignored), while for Straight Outta Compton it was the two white screenwriters (the dozens of black actors and producers were ignored in a story about black hip-hop artists in a black neighbourhood).

Asian and Arab actors have it even worse, with very few roles. The whitewashing is so obvious that in films set in the Middle East or Asia, the bad guys are all played by Arabs and Asians, while the good guys, even when Arab or Asian, are sometimes played by American actors of European descent. I can recall several videogames and Disney movies, where the villains were brown and carried thick Arab accents while the Arab heroes had lighter skin and spoke in soft British or American accents. Of course, who can forget the biblical drama, Gods and Kings, where the major Egyptian characters were anything but Egyptian.

I have seen a few tweets like this one, where the outraged are upset that an Arab actor isn’t being considered for Rumi:

I know these tweets mean well, but there is just one problem. Rumi wasn’t Arab either. Let’s give this role to an Asian or Persian actor. Just let me know when casting begins.

Do you think Leonardo DiCaprio is the right choice to play Rumi?

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Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Lets look at logic

    DiCaprio is a fine choice. He will deliver.Recommend

  • salman

    The movie was called Creed, not Apollo….and yes, should have got some more nominations at globes and oscars.
    But I think Leo would do fine as Rumi. In one way, it’s more likely to do better at the multiplex in middle america with leo rather then an unknown actor, and they are the ones who most need to learn about Rumi. :)Recommend

  • ajay gupta

    the idea is to appeal to a bigger audience with saleable names. also, why should asian actors get top billing in hollywood? it is their land, their culture & their themes that will obviously be the mainstream narrative. in pakistan shias cant live in peace, but in hollywood asian actors should be treated at par? at least the USA doesnt stop people from this part of the world from making an honest living there, give them religious freedom & in case of indians, let them head conglomerates as well!Recommend

  • Laskero

    Are there are any Persian actors that have a global name recognition like DiCaprio? I am sorry but Hollywood is not going to invest in a multi-million dollar project without a big actor in the lead. Maybe Iran should develop their film industry if they want to cast a Persian Rumi.Recommend

  • curious2

    The color of your skin doesn’t make you a good actor … and a good makeup person can change the color of good actor to anything they want.Recommend

  • vinsin

    How does it matter? Let Arabs, Persian make movie on Rumi with cast as persian, arabs etc. Movies need actors and actresses not ethnic people. Anyway acting is unislamic for a Muslim.Recommend

  • Amir

    There will be more interest in Rumi and the Islamic culture if a big star plays. Nothing wrong. Hollywood need to make money and sell it’s product. If an Arab or Asian played the role, no interest will be generated. Perfect business decision.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You have two names Ahmad and Shah ………and then you have DeCaprio and Downey Jr ……which two will pull in the crowds and the money ?

  • gp65

    “But though the intentions are clearly good, the decision to cast big name Hollywood actors of European descent in the role of an Asian character is disappointing.”
    Why? Ben Kingsley, a Britisher was cast as Gandhi in the Attenborough film of the same name. The movie treated Gandhi fairly and was a cinematic treat.
    If getting a mainstream actor increases the number of people who watch the movie, why would you have a problem with that?Recommend

  • Amin Amin

    an unknown actor will not draw a larger audience, Leo is famous and will catch more tractionRecommend

  • Nomad1412

    Agree with you, but bear in mind that Ben Kingsley is one-half or one-quarter Indian. His name at birth was Krishna Bhanji and his father belonged to the same sect of Islam as Jinnah. All Ben Kingsley had to do to fit into Gandhi’s role was to spend some time under the sun in India to get a tan! My personal feeling is that his portrayal as Gandhi is unequaled and could not have been as well enacted nor would it have captured minds in the West if it was an Indian actor especially around that time. These days we have more actors like Irfan Khan who are adept on the international stage.

    Fact is Leonardo won’t even need to get a tan to portray Rumi who was fair-skinned. We are not talking actors in blackface here, so I don’t agree with @Noman on this one.Recommend

  • Shahid Akbar

    Rumi was from Afghanistan, born to a Persian family, and most probably was WHITE as many Persian speaking people from the area are generally white.
    An Asian – generaly means Chinese – and Arab would not do the justice to the character either. By that Logic only Pesian Guy from Aghanistan will be the true representation. I think Di caprio, with a bit of Tan, would be the best.Recommend

  • Karim Javed

    It’s not about black or white it’s about his teachings and this is acting nothing else. What do you think Naseeruddin Shah could have done justice to his role?Recommend

  • Fahimuddin

    I think author and those who are criticizing Di Caprio based on ethnicity don’t understand the message of Rumi.Recommend

  • Ily Khan

    Watch out for ‘ARTISTIC LICENCE’ in the story line. After all , some passages of Rumi’s Diwan Shams Tabrezi are so homo-erotic that the post Victorian english translators skipped them, or rendered them in greek! That is the real fascination of Rumi in USA.Recommend

  • hoshiar singh gill

    It really depends on how well the film is made. Many things have to come together. Omar Sharif who was a Brown skinned Egyption played a Russian in Doctor Zivago and several other roles portraying Europeans and did very well not only because of his acting but so many other things which make a film authentic. In most Hollywood and British films where white men played Red Indians, Arabs , East Indians, Mongols or Persians etc. in the early days the characters looked mediocre and comical. However there are some very nice films where European or Ameriacan actors played all above ethnicities remarkably well.Anthony Quinn, Ben Kingsly (partially Indian), Lawrence Olivier have portrayed above ethnicities very well in some hit films like The message,Gandhi and Lawrance of Arabia.Recommend

  • maynotmatter

    Irfan Khan would have been a better choice. Or Nawazzudin for that matter.Recommend

  • Jayman

    Raza Rumi should play the part of Rumi.Recommend

  • Gratgy

    Their movie, their choice, deal with itRecommend

  • 19640909rk .

    Ansari sab, who will see a movie on Rumi – acted by bollywood actors? It will be a flop. If Leo acts, it will earn good money and Rumi will become that much more famous.Recommend

  • Jardar Nygård


    He was
    not from the east
    or the west

    Not Christian or Jew or
    Muslim, not Hindu,
    Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.

    He belong to the beloved,
    has seen the two
    worlds as one and
    that one
    call to and know,

    first, last, outer, inner,
    only that breath breathing

    human being.Recommend

  • So It Goes

    Come on. It’s ACTing. Anyone can play anyone, if he captures the spirit, and is changeable in the looks department. It nonsense. Why should an American studio risk the success of a movie/take on extra risk/effort/time spent to find a “suitable” Middle eastern actor? To please the political classes. Foooey.Recommend

  • Ako Sa

    Shouldn’t we be just thankful that they are making a movie of RUMI? Casting Dicaprio means more money. They want to make a good film with well known actors. Putting an Asian or Arab to act doesn’t change the fact that are just acting and the choice of a well known recognized actor will bring quality to the movie.Recommend