Two actors of North African and Indian descent were cast this weekend in the lead roles of Disney’s upcoming live-action “Aladdin” remake, which faces on-going criticism about possible erasure of Middle Eastern actors.
The Hollywood Reporter (THR) announced Saturday (July 15) that Disney cast Mena Massoud (“Jack Ryan”) and Naomi Scott (“Power Rangers”) as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, respectively. THR notes that Massoud was born in Egypt and raised in Canada, while Elle reports that the British Scott is of Gujurati Indian descent. Will Smith (“Collateral Beauty”) will portray the Genie, a role voiced by the late Robin Williams in the 1992 animated film on which the live-action film is based.
The news came four days after THR reported that Disney executives and director Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes”) were struggling to wrap up a worldwide search for actors to depict Aladdin and Jasmine, whose tale of love forms one of the musical’s core storylines. Anonymous sources told THR that the studio considered Scott and Indian actress Tara Sutaira (“Oye Jassie”) for Jasmine, as well as British Desi actors Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of”) and Dev Patel (“Lion”) for Aladdin.
THR’s earlier story prompted criticism on social media. Buzzfeed reported that many users of South Asian descent suggested Ahmed, Patel, singer Zayn Malik and a variety of blockbuster actors from Bollywood, India’s massively popular film industry. These suggestions were criticized by people who view Aladdin as explicitly Middle Eastern or Arab, and see the casting of South Asian-descended actors as erasure. Tweets aggregated by the British Broadcasting Corporation suggest that Scott’s casting remains controversial for this reason:
If i keep reading Naomi Scott was the perfect choice bc “no Arab women can sing/act like her” imma drop a thread on those who can do BETTER
— yasmin (@zarasglory) July 16, 2017
Very disappointed in the casting of Princess Jasmine. I like Naomi Scott but she is not Arab. Indian =/= Arab. She isn’t dark enough too.
— (@Stacieleya98) July 17, 2017
A newer Buzzfeed article says that the controversy stems in part from ambiguity about Aladdin’s origins. French archeologist Antoine Galland originally developed the story for his French translation of “The Book of One Thousand and One Nights,” a compilation of Arabic-language folktales from 8th to 13th-century Muslim-ruled lands. Those areas span the Middle East and South Asia, and Buzzfeed adds that Galland set “Aladdin” in an unnamed Chinese city. “One Thousand and One Nights’ ” earliest English translations were retitled “The Arabian Nights,” which the 1992 animated film ran with by including an opening song of the same name and locating its fictional Agrabah setting near the Jordan River, which borders present-day Jordan, the West Bank and Israel.