Today as we celebrate the success of a Moonlight for being a coloured movie which went on to win Hollywood’s most prestigious film award, we forget it’s been a long journey to get to this particular moment. Showbiz has not always been so conducive for someone without white skin. And as we find the name of Kuldip Rae Singh in the archives, we realise how prevalent the race factor was for those trying to make it in showbiz, especially in the 1950s.
Kuldip was everything one could hope a celebrity to be – music was his life, he was a dapper-looking young man with an Elvis-like wave on his head, witty on his feet and he had his smooth way with the ladies. He could make them blush with his romance-soaked voice. And still, there was one hindrance when it came to him going on to find wide-spread fame. The colour of his skin.
Born in the Kashmir Valley to an international lawyer, Kuldip was a student of medical sciences at UCLA. He planned on coming back to his place of birth after getting his degree to practise as a doctor. However, he dropped out in favour of his long-time passion for music and tried to make it as a singer in Hollywood.
Having been invited to Groucho Marx’s TV show to perform, this was Kuldip’s big chance to make his way into the hearts of the American audience. And in spite of being peppered with condescending questions about his heritage, his racial identity. Kuldip, however, stood his ground with dignity and fended off the uncomfortable questions with tact.
Marx continued to make jokes lathered in race, and Kuldip gracefully ducked most of it. It is interesting to note that even though the host appears to be bullying the singer of Indian-origin, some have noted that Marx was equally rude to all his guests.
The TV appearance helped as he became an overnight sensation among Americans. He dropped out of Medical school to record his first record, Cool Dip. He was even offered a few acting jobs in TV shows which were all relegated to stereotypical roles.
The new-found fame made him an easy target for the immigration authorities. Kuldip was in the US with a student visa and was deported to Mexico till a work visa was processed. Unable to shake off the stigma of deportation, Kuldip’s acting jobs dried up for good.
He moved to Spain to finish his medical studies, he temporarily returned from Mexico on a tourist visa. But he soon found himself with stereotypical ‘oriental’ roles, like when he was cast in the ‘Son of Alladin’. He found much greater fame in Spain, often shown with a ‘turban’ to assert his ‘exotic’ lineage.
Today as many second-generation Americans like Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj and Mindy Kaling break their way on to mainstream media and then vocalise their dissent for traditional Hollywood, it begs the question – Has anything really changed that much since Kuldip Rae Singh?
Is there still a Kuldip Rae Singh out there today, struggling as a singer because of the colour of his skin? This crooner from Kashmir never got his due, because of deportation and racial stereotyping, and sadly many incredible talents like him may be meeting the same fate around the world.