Actor on racial profiling: hamlet with an adjective

Murali Perumal played rose sellers, cab drivers and Islamists. Then he opened his mouth. What stigma is his skin color today?

Murali Perumal in January 2017 in the foyer of the Nestroyhof Hamakom theater in Vienna Photo: Rois & Stubenrauch.

That voice. Eyes closed – and you have no idea who the actor is to whom it belongs. Baritone pitch, but sometimes, when outraged, his voice rises octaves. The man could live in a clinker house with a stainless steel extractor hood, or in an old apartment building, so polished is the High German. He could be Hamlet or the steward on the "Traumschiff". The voice makes everything conceivable.

Then you open your eyes. And the question that everyone has to answer for themselves is: What associations do you have when you see that the man is not white?

Murali Perumal has played Shakespeare, Kleist, the nurse in a stage version of "Pretty Best Friends," who is black in the film version. But: no Hamlet, no Faust, no William Tell. "If I were to play Tell, it would be set up as a play about terror," he says.

In front of the camera, he has appeared as an Indian cab driver, a rose seller, a computer specialist, an Indian neighbor, an Islamist, and a Pakistani called "the Greek," among others.

Because he doesn’t just have a voice, he has a skin color.

Are we all a bit of a racial profiler?

The question comes after weeks of talk about racial profiling, spurred by the events of Cologne’s New Year’s Eve, during which men who fit the surface grid of "North African" were surrounded by police: In the long run, isn’t it too little to just talk about the police? Aren’t we all perhaps a bit of a racial profiler? And what about theater, film, television, media, those who are responsible for representation?

In any case, in the acting industry, which reflects and performs social roles, the subtleties of stigmatization and the progress of a society can be observed as if through a magnifying apparatus.

0 Actors with a visible migration background played Faust in 2014/15. According to the statistics of the German Stage Association, 28 theaters in Germany, Austria and Switzerland staged Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s "Faust" during this period – "Faust I," "Faust II" and "Urfaust" added together. Together with the stage version of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s "Tschick," the classic was number one in the performance statistics

3 out of 44 investigators in "Tatort are currently played by actors with a visible migration background: Aylin Tezel (Dortmund), Sibel Kekilli (Kiel) and Fahri Yardım (Hamburg).

Just under one-fifth of the inhabitants of Germany has a so-called migration background, or about 15 million people. In some metropolitan areas, the proportion of migrants and their descendants is more than 40 percent.

81 percent of the programs on ARD and ZDF that addressed Islam had negative connotations in 2007. Researchers criticize this not for the portrayal of the negative, but for the omission of the everyday. A 2012 study found that the image of Islam in Germany is characterized by stereotypes, and that there are far fewer people wearing headscarves than the media convey. This is an example of how media and artistic representation and existing prejudices are likely to be connected.

Nestroyhof Theater in Vienna. Murali Perumal, 38, sits on a stage covered in white flokati, arguing with his rival, Prince Myshkin. Perumal is the merchant Rogozhin in "The Idiot," based on the Dostoevsky novel. His slender full beard is neatly shaved, and he wears a shiny wine-red jacket. What you immediately remember are his eyes, which fill an entire auditorium with warmth, but from which the whites of his eyeballs also flash strobe-like when he turns them sideways with a rage-laden expression.

And yes – even if one could pretend that the skin color doesn’t play a role, because it shouldn’t play one: It is perceived, of course. And it is career-relevant in the reality of the actor’s life, who slips into other roles with his body, thus embodying them.

Murali Perumal, born in Bonn in 1978, son of a South Indian working-class family that emigrated to Germany, his father a chauffeur in the Indian and other embassies, his mother a cleaning lady, is one of the German actors in the ranks behind the stars who play commissioners or lead roles in series. To become so famous, you first have to get such roles.

Perumal would be a Hamlet with an adjective

Perumal attended a high-profile acting school, worked in international productions with Oscar winners, and has survived for 15 years in what many consider a precarious profession. He plays theater, comedy, crime; everything.

The only problem is that if Murali Perumal were to play Hamlet, for many he would not simply be a Hamlet, but a migrant Hamlet – which theater managers obviously prefer not to subject to what Perumal once called the "sea of silver" in the audience; who knows how great the disturbance would be.

Perumal has been reporting on the logic behind such decisions for years. Sometimes accusingly, as in an open letter he wrote in 2013, theaters have a responsibility to "portray a realistic picture of our society, not a demographic scenario from 1920." More often, he weighs in, or takes the funny route, if only because pussyfooting around quickly breeds resistance. Murali Perumal does it in discussions, interviews and on his website, where he also comments flippantly on his roles ("As an Indian actor in Germany, I play an Egyptian in Tunisia. Cracker!").

Murali Perumal and I have met before. In January 2002, he was studying acting at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna, and I was studying cultural studies in Munich. One of my fellow students, Alexander Hirl, began making a documentary film about him during this time, a long-term project that has not been completed. I was holding the sound rod.

Perumal and Hirl talked about questions that today are connectable to the racial profiling debate: Is there a stigma attached to an actor in the German-speaking world who you can tell is not a twelfth-generation native of East Lower Franconia? Is he, after a brief face check by directors, producers and viewers, put away in pigeonholes from which it is difficult to get out again? Will Murali Perumal make a career primarily in the role of an Indian flower seller?

At the time, he at least harbored the quiet fear that it might come to something like this; he had already played the first roles that reduced him to an exotic.

What has happened in the past 15 years?

We stayed in his student digs in Vienna’s 14th district, Perumal instructed us in the art of the Indian accent, just in case he ever dropped out as a rose seller or Ayurveda masseur. We were all not even in our mid-twenties and were on familiar terms.

Now, in January 2017, I would like to know how things have developed since then.

It is a dry cold in Vienna, minus one degree. Murali Perumal now lives in Munich, but now he is back in town for two weeks, playing Hamakom in "The Idiot" at the Nestroyhof Theater. The play has seven characters, only one of the actors is not white, and he plays the murderer: Parfjon Rogoschin. Murali Perumal. Is that necessary?

"Here I am the rich merchant who is passionate, who wants a woman, and who also goes about murder," he says. "But this is not a classic villain, and certainly I’m not playing that because of my background. No, this is an ambivalent, exciting character – I mean, this is Dostoevsky. This is the third time I’ve worked with the director, and she’s cast me every time regardless of skin color or background. Most recently with her, I played a lawyer named Heinrich Brand."

"What would be a classic villain?

"A terrorist, for example, who clearly marks evil in a play. A thug, a drug dealer. When I get roles like that, I get them because of my background, at least that’s how it often is on TV if you’re dark-skinned."

"There was this ‘Tatort’ about Islamic terror, for example.

"That was a great job in itself, and it’s important for me to be seen by millions of people. But I was an Islamist. The problem with such roles is that many directors and producers then have me in their minds as a Pakistani terrorist. For some, there is not enough imagination to cast me in any other way. And the other thing is that with such roles you also create an image in society. The Turkish thug, the black drug dealer, the Oriental terrorist, that always resonates: Look, they’re criminals, I’m telling you."

"A lot of actors would love to play a bad guy in ‘Tatort,’" he says.

"I’d love to be a bad guy who’s just a crafty guy. But I only get the terrorist because of my background."

"So has the fear of being cast primarily by skin color and origin come true?

"There are improvements in television and film, I must say. There are more and more people with a visible migration background being used; not often in leading roles, but there are more. And in the theater: more and more. But of course, for quite a while there was this narrow-mindedness: Schiller, what’s the boy doing in Schiller?"

Alexander Hirl, who has followed Murali Perumal’s career with his camera, has met him dozens of times over the past 15 years. He has traveled with him to southern India, to his family, which has left Bonn again, he was in Magdeburg and in Cologne, when Perumal played theater there.

Now Hirl, 36, is standing in his office, a basement in Alt-Schwabing, searching through two spindles for a DVD – the one with the interview in Vienna, January 2002. "Here, you search through the stack, we need the one with the number one."

"He had doubts," Hirl says of Perumal, "even then, about whether he could make money as an actor." Especially since there were people who warned that Perumal had to be twice as good as the others. "But at the same time he was in a special mood of optimism," says Alexander Hirl: "I can do it, and even more so now." That’s how Perumal puts it, too: "I wanted to show some doubters that it’s possible to make it as an Indian actor. Even though there were no well-known Indian actors in Germany before me."

His acting training was about to be completed at the time, and he himself was about to move to Berlin. He had just taken part in a major cinema production for the first time, "Anatomy 2," a horror film with Heike Makatsch. His character, a doctor, was named Dirk. That was a signal for Perumal: Dirk, simply Dirk, like Stefan or Thomas. A name that did not mark him as a migrant. "I was playing Dirk and thought, now it’s going to take off," he says. But it didn’t.

Previously, in his first TV movie role, he had played the Indian Shirkan – like the tiger Shir Kan in "The Jungle Book" – who gets stranded in Lower Austria. Indian tabla music mixed with church bells was part of the soundtrack – including the insinuation that something didn’t fit together. After "Anatomy 2", things continued with this kind of music for the time being. Perumal played the Indian neighbor with a fruit basket, a kitchen boy or the aforementioned rose seller. The characters were called Magesh Tiganjani, Abhay Dhiri, Amal Chopra or Moraji Desai.

During a break in rehearsals, it’s 4 p.m., two days before the premiere in Vienna, Murali Perumal, beige wool collar sweater, sits in a Japanese restaurant next to the theater and orders fried noodles. "The names of the characters," he says, "are not so crucial. First and foremost, it is important not to stereotype origin and profession: the Turkish greengrocer, for example. Or the Indian rose seller. That doesn’t mean I don’t like playing Indians, but I’m not the Indian on duty. And if I am, I at least want to represent the community – but the second- or third-generation Indians in Germany are completely neglected. They’re insurance brokers and bankers, too."

The waiter walks by; Perumal asks him for a fork instead of chopsticks.

"If you play someone stupid, it can’t be related to your origin," he says. "You have to separate that. Unfortunately, that was often not the case."

"How did that come about with the role of Dirk?

"A casting director chose me, and the Dirk had to look striking. That was because he appears in four different places in the film and then you have to remember him each time. It didn’t have to be an Indian. But it would have been difficult with an average blond."

"Actors are profiled all the time, right?

"Yes."

"Is that problematic?

"No, it’s quite normal, this type casting. There are always certain types sought in casting. But there could be more types, I think."

"Doesn’t the career of most actors then proceed under similar conditions? Even the Stewart on the ‘dream ship’ is a cliche."

"Nah, nah, my career already runs differently. I can’t deny my skin color, nor do I want to, but I’m a person with my own personality. And as such I want to be cast. But actors from Africa, from Central America, from Asia, they have it harder and harder because they’re pushed in one direction, regardless of what they can do."

"Can we talk about racial profiling in the theater?

"Yes. At theaters, when it comes to permanent engagements, it has often been the case that applications are sorted out on the basis of the photo, because they say: No, we don’t have any roles for that. But Sultan Saladin from "Nathan the Wise" is often played by Germans, and that’s a Persian."

Munich, Turkenstrabe, Alexander Hirl’s office. "Do you drink coffee?" he asks, answering himself, "Oh, yes, you’re a journalist." We walk across the street to a cafe and flip through the memories imprinted in Vienna in 2002, like in a photo album.

There was snow. The drama school, magnificent house. I remember Murali Perumal’s bathroom – because, for visiting relatives, it was also equipped with a wash pot common in India. Pictures have an effect, even if they are not supposed to.

Murali Perumal is not the only one in the German acting scene who is concerned about this issue, but he was one of those who spoke up years ago.

This has set things in motion. There is a debate going on around the Munich Kammerspiele about, among other things, how much a theater should represent society beyond its traditional bourgeois clientele: Do you cast plays with actors who speak German with an accent? The artistic director says yes, for the sake of a "contemporary representation of Munich’s urban society," but he is also criticized for this.

The Gorki Theater as a model

At Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater, what Perumal demands and praises happens: Actors and actresses of different origins and skin colors get engagements, and the result is that the question of who looks like what fades into the background – they are simply there.

Murali Perumal himself also had a permanent engagement, at the Schauspiel in Cologne. In 2007, the theater so consistently cast actors and actresses with a visible migrant background that the population of Cologne was roughly represented. The intention, said artistic director Karin Beier at the time, was to establish "a matter of course" so that "not every casting has a dramaturgical significance as soon as an actor has a different skin color than the one he or she is used to."

There are more migrant actors on television today. Sibel Kekilli. Pegah Ferydoni. Fahri Yardım is a "Tatort" investigator. Elyas M’Barek a poster boy. And it didn’t stop at rose sellers for Perumal either. The next Dirk came in 2009, seven years later, a role as a drug investigator in a ZDF crime series. His name was simply Herbert Reiser, done.

"There were always directors who did that," Perumal says. Heiko Sutter, Rudiger Zimmermann – he also played characters with these names. "And no one complained. Why should they, people don’t ask themselves, is he adopted or what? When I played Herbert, an audience member wrote what race I belonged to. But that was a comment!"

The role that best illustrates what he criticizes about casting politics was that of Rachid in the 2010 Josef Hader two-parter "Der Aufschneider." Rachid is a cab driver who tells his passengers about tropical fruits in an Indian accent. A classic role cliche. Until a friend, played by Meret Becker, gets into the cab.

She: "Rachid?"

He, mumbling to himself, turns around and recognizes her. "Anke?"

She: "What the fuck kind of accent are you speaking?"

Him: "It’s Indian."

She: "That’s shit."

He: "I can’t get any customers in Vienna with High German."

But despite all the movement, there is also a countermovement, especially in the theater scene, that considers diversity to be a crock of shit. At Schauspiel Koln, for example, the many ensemble members with a visible migrant background largely remained in the second row of the cast or played in plays that dealt with migration. There are theaters in major German cities that have no or only one person of color in the permanent ensemble. There are not enough good non-white actors, they often say in explanation. But then you have to ask yourself where theaters like the Gorki in Berlin get all these great people.

Something is happening. Little is happening. We are on a good path. We’re not very far along. It’s all true, depending on your perspective.

Murali Perumal also says, "The refugee debate has set us back socially." The spaces for people "with a visible migration background," as he calls them, especially those of the second and third generation who grew up in Germany, have become tighter again as a result, he says.

"Did the police behave appropriately on Cologne’s New Year’s night?

"The police got hit so hard a year ago that they were forced to act. It is understandable to me that they then wanted to show all the more severity. Unfortunately, these things happened back then, and unfortunately there were refugees, migrants, and therefore they were just put through the wringer. It’s tricky. I don’t approve of these controls that are based on appearances, but I’m also glad that controls are being carried out. I thought the uncontrolled opening of the borders was a mistake."

"Can you tell from the volume of checks what the world situation is like?

"I was checked for the first time shortly after September 11, 2001. After that, I had the experience several times of a customs officer coming into the train at a border, walking straight toward me, and then walking straight out again. I simply recommend officials to check two other people. Then it’s less bad for me, even if I know beforehand that I’m going to be there. But there were also phases when I wasn’t checked. Maybe I had a book in my hand, I didn’t fit the pattern somehow."

"Before 2001, there were no controls?

"Not for me. In Bonn, as a teenager, I had a great time. Bonn was the capital and accordingly international. I went to a Unesco school, there were basically all nationalities, so it didn’t really matter where someone came from."

"There were no differences because everyone was different.

"In any case, I felt excluded only once during my time in Bonn – when a teacher recommended me for the Hauptschule. My parents were Indian workers; I think he just didn’t trust me more. The second time was only when I was already at drama school and heard, ‘You’re going to have a hard time.’ “

8:55 p.m. at the Nestroyhof. After ten hours of rehearsals, the tension falls from the ensemble. Out of the costumes, into the jeans. Rehearsal critique. There is a white spritzer, wine spritzer.

Later, in a bar in the second district, a stone’s throw from the Prater. Electronic music, an older man in a corduroy jacket sits at the bar and chain smokes. A journalist? No, he smiles too much for that. Dramaturge? No, he’s drinking beer. Maybe a university lecturer, says Perumal.

That New Year’s night in Cologne …

"I probably would have fit in with the police. Even young people talk to me in Arabic. A police officer once said to me during a checkpoint: "We just have our target group. But then I ask myself, what is the target group, Indian Hindus?"

"You can’t become invisible like most of the others."

"Yes. And that’s a loss of modernity."

"What to do?

"We, I mean now us actors with a visible migrant background, need chances to show ourselves. We need to be able to show that we belong in this society."

"And the audience then wonders: what is the cast of this William Tell supposed to tell us?

"Maybe. But as soon as there’s a Chinese woman in the ensemble, it’s different. Then something switches in the head. Then the person playing Tell no longer stands out as different. Then it’s normality, a matter of course. That’s where I’d like to be. That I am not the Indian Murali. I’m the Murali."

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