Forget Leo — One of these actors should play Rumi!

A painting of Rumi (left) and Leonardo DiCaprio (right).
A painting of Rumi (left) and Leonardo DiCaprio (right).

By Guest Contributor: Lakshmi Gandhi (@LakshmiGandhi)

I was slightly jet lagged on my commute home Monday night. So, at first, I thought the stream of tweets invading my timeline buzzing about Leonardo DiCaprio possibly playing the beloved Sufi poet Rumi were part of some sort of elaborate joke. After all, Hollywood must be paying at least a little bit of attention to the 2016 Oscars controversy and online campaigns like #whitewashedOUT and #AAIronFist, right? RIGHT?

Actually, no.

The Guardian reports that screenwriter David Franzoni (who also worked on the Oscar-winning film Gladiator) has signed on to work on a new biopic based on the life of the 13th century Persian poet. Franzoni says he hopes the film will challenge anti-Muslim stereotypes… by casting non-Muslims to play the film’s primary roles.

“Franzoni and Brown said they would like Leonardo DiCaprio to play Rumi, and Robert Downey, Jr. to star as Shams of Tabriz,” the Guardian reports.

Let’s pause for a second here, and give everyone a moment to get their heads up off their desks, which is where I’m sure they are after reading that last sentence.


Following the jaw-dropping news, Australian comedian Aamer Rahman quickly started the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite in reaction to the story.

In his interview with The Guardian, Franzoni explains his rationale for making a biopic on the poet’s life by saying that Rumi is ‘like a Shakespeare’ to much of the world. This is absolutely true, though it could be argued that Rumi’s influence may actually be even greater than the Bard’s. Rumi’s impact on poetry and music can be heard throughout Iran, Turkey, Central and South Asia and beyond.

So, why-oh-why is Franzoni eyeing Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr. to play historical figures who were very much not White?

Apparently, Franzoni doesn’t seem to know any Middle Eastern or South Asian actors who could play Rumi. So, I thought I’d make a list for him. Feel free to nominate your own choices in the comments.

Rami Malek in USA's Mr. Robot.
Rami Malek in USA’s Mr. Robot.

Rami Malek

Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the Mr. Robot star in a period drama? Malek has long been outspoken about the need for diverse roles in Hollywood, telling TIME he used to ask himself “Was I too ethnic, or not ethnic enough?”while auditioning for roles early on in his career.

Aasif Mandvi in the Mystic Masseur.
Aasif Mandvi in the Mystic Masseur.

Aasif Mandvi

The former Daily Show correspondent didn’t sound too thrilled about the Guardian piece on Twitter. Many comedy fans may not know that Mandvi got his start as a dramatic actor, including his debut in the Merchant-Ivory film The Mystic Masseur.

James Floyd in My Brother The Devil.
James Floyd in My Brother The Devil.

James Floyd

This is basically just my pitch to see James Floyd cast in more things! Plus, it’s nice to see an actor fully aware of his privilege. When asked about typecasting last year, Floyd told an interviewer that “I [managed to avoid] it because I’m half-white. I’m good enough and versatile enough to play various things, racially or culturally or whatever.”

Riz Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Riz Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Riz Ahmed

Ahmed’s powerful performance in 2012’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was perhaps the best of the movie’s all-star cast. Plus, the film’s soundtrack was filled with traditional Sufi songs (and — randomly — Peter Gabriel.)

Take a listen:

Got your own better actors to play Rumi? Add them to the comments section below!

Lakshmi Gandhi
Lakshmi Gandhi

Lakshmi Gandhi is a journalist and pop culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Metro New York, NBC Asian America and NPR’s Code Switch blog, among other sites. She likes it when readers tweet her @LakshmiGandhi with their thoughts on Asian American issues and romance novels.

Learn more about Reappropriate’s guest contributor program and submit your own writing here.

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  • Iram Parveen Bilal

    Adnan Jaffer
    Jimmy Mistry
    Riz Ahmed
    Kumail Nanjiani

    just to name a FEW!

  • Uzma Zakaria

    Ghassan Massoud
    Riz Ahmed
    Jimmy Mistry

  • Megha Subramanian

    Nazeeruddin shah
    Irfan khan
    Aamir khan
    Dev Patel
    There are soooo many!!!!

  • A M

    Or, you know, the n number of brown actors casting directors suddenly can easily find to play “brown terrorist #1” in tv programmes.

  • VirginiaK

    I vote for looking at Indian actors now working in India, who bring bankability along with genetic plausibility and somewhat suitable accents in English. Rather than guys of Indian heritage living and working in the west. I love Dev Patel but he’s still unconvincing to me as “Indian” since he’s not.

    Irrfan Khan is my first choice for one of the main two roles. If one role is appropriately cast as young and charismatic, maybe Ranvir Singh – I thought that in Lootera he showed that he can rein it in and act. Nasseeruddin Shah is a great actor BUT if this is conceived as a diCaprio-like role, he’s not a good substitute.

    I wish I could see Aamir or SRK in this but I can’t.

  • VirginiaK

    My best idea – I am right! – Ali Zafar, the great Pakistani star. Matches DiCaprio in charisma and approximate age. Also can sing, writes, well cast as poet.

  • Clover Mathis

    Haaz Sleiman.

  • beyondasiaphilia

    I also vote for Ranveer Singh for one of the leads–he killed it in Bajirao Mastani and he can
    speak perfect English, too. Although Ranbir Kapoor would also be a great
    choice. Those two are the most charismatic young actors in India today,
    imho. From the older set, Irrfan Khan or Nawazuddin Siddiqui would be
    great.

  • Andrea Plaid

    Why not fine-ass Faran Tahir from the Star Trek reboot? Or, if Hollywood insist on keeping it blue-eyed, why not fine-ass Alexander Siddig?

  • Andrea Plaid

    Why not fine-ass Faran Tahir from the Star Trek reboot? Or, if Hollywood insist on keeping it blue-eyed, why not fine-ass Alexander Siddig?

  • Vassago Gamori

    “Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”

  • Marianne_C

    Cast Alexander Siddig.

  • Marianne_C

    Cast Alexander Siddig.

  • Susana

    The best to be Rumi is Engin Anyürek?