Before venturing out on the very first printing of A Lion’s Mane, I had reached out to Waris Singh Ahluwalia. I did not anticipate a response at the time. I was communicating through his representatives, and was virtually an unknown. Except – he did take the time to respond:
“A beautiful book for children. I would have loved this book as a young boy growing up in New York. This book not only shares Sikh ideals but shows them in a larger context to reflect the ever increasingly multicultural world we live in. It will inspire confidence in all the little lions and princesses.”
Waris was recently featured in CNN’s United Shades of America episode with W.Kamau Bell talking about the nuanced identity of Sikhs in America. He was asked, “What is that like to be an actor in Hollywood?”
He spoke about growing up in Brooklyn, NY and how he sees himself as the guy next door.
“So, I can play that part, right? I’ve played that part in life.”
For Inside Man he was approached by Spike Lee, who told him –
It’s your experience.
This is it.
Put it out there – and Waris did.
In response to the role, he shares an insight: “The turban being ripped off is an important scene and it’s something I’m sure every Sikh male fears so to portray that is important.”
Waris has played characters in Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel. These may be quirky storylines but they move away from the stereotypical roles usually set aside for characters who look like Waris, and that’s certainly refreshing.
Aside from acting, Waris Ahluwalia is owner of the House of Waris jewellery and accessories label. I did read though that the label he’s most comfortable with, is himself – Waris.
Using his platform for Good is another role worthy of mention. He works to bring awareness to the fact that Indian elephants are in danger of extinction. Waris continues his passion for philanthropy and raises attention to the need for conservation. Through an organization called Elephant Family, he is committed to stopping the destruction to habitats of wildlife including those of the Asian elephant.
Six months after 9/11 he was brutally punched in the face leaving his retina broken to this day. He wasn’t angry though and when Kamau Bell looks surprised, he defines his journey with “You know how I’m going through life? Celebrating it.”
In 2013, he faced another form of bigotry when a holiday ad for Gap featuring the words “Make Love” was defaced in a NY subway station with Make Bombs”. Underneath, a message read, “Please stop driving TAXIS.”
Later in 2016, he was denied boarding onto an AeroMexico flight because he refused to remove his dastaar or turban. He chose to turn this experience into an opportunity to educate. Instead of purchasing a ticket to fly out on a different airline (as the AeroMexico staff had suggested), he canceled his plane ticket and decided he would remain in Mexico City until the airline acknowledged their error and agreed to training around religious head coverings. This was achieved but not without him amplifying his voice to stand up to discrimination and ignorance.
Anyone who has gone through security screenings at airports while wearing a dastaar, can testify to how dehumanizing this experience can be. I still remember when my young son was pulled aside to have his dastaar/patka (small turban) inspected. He looked at me for support. I felt helpless. A misconception that exists is that the Sikh dastaar can be removed like a hat. It cannot. A Dastaar is an article of faith and TSA guidelines when asking for its removal are in place for reasons of civil rights.
As far as Hollywood, it’s quite clear from the scripts that “they’re not looking for Sikh actors” but that’s precisely why he emphasizes an important point.
“What we need are Sikh directors, Sikh writers and Sikh producers to tell our own story.”