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Exoticism and Exclusion: Rudolph Valentino's Young Rajah

By Babli Sinha |
NOVEMBER 29, 2011
American films from the 1920s and 1930s frequently featured South Asian characters and settings. A short list might include such films as In the Clutches of the Hindu (1920), The Hope Diamond Mystery (1921), The Palace of Darkened Windows (1920), Black Watch (1929), Gunga Din (1939), Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Rains Came (1939). These films were part of a tradition of filmmaking dating to the 1910s which alternately romanticized and demonized Asians and Asian-Americans. They featured the major actors of the day such as Cary Grant, Rudolph Valentino, Gary Cooper, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple, and Tyrone Power.

The 1922 film The Young Rajah (Ed. Note -- watch a clip to the right - sorry, it has an ad at the start!), starring Rudolph Valentino characterizes South Asians as both alluring due to their exoticism and mysticism and threatening because of their despotic and violent tendencies. Often typecast as an exotic romantic lead, here Valentino plays the role of Amos Judd, an Indian prince brought to the United States as a boy to escape a coup in his kingdom. Once an adult, he must grapple with a romantic liaison with a white American woman, Molly, who is battling her own prejudices and the despot who has discovered his hiding place and seeks to kill him. Although Molly overcomes her fear of carrying on a romance with a man who “was not of my own people” and eventually marries Judd, their marriage dislocates them to India.

The film was made at a time of anti-miscegenation and anti-immigration legislation in the United States including the California Alien Land Act of 1913, which prevented Asians from owning land, the 1917 Barred Zone Act, which eliminated migration, and the 1923 case of Bhagat Singh Thind, which foreclosed citizenship for South Asians on the basis of race. The film’s dislocation of interracial romance has to do with the incommensurability of such a romance with the reigning political climate. The film characterizes Judd as attractive but un-American. As enacted by Valentino, Judd is muscular, elegant in his turbans and formal attire, and mysterious due to his gift of clairvoyance. Yet, he, like his enemies, is depicted as fundamentally despotic, even toward his beloved Molly. Even his good qualities are too culturally alien for him to remain in the United States.Yet, he, like his enemies, is depicted as fundamentally despotic, even toward his beloved Molly. Even his good qualities are too culturally alien for him to remain in the United States.

Although this was not the case with The Young Rajah, films with South Asian settings were met with scrutiny by the censorship boards of the Indian Cinematograph Committee by the late 1920s, and in the 1930s, the rise in racial caricature resulted in excoriation in the Indian press and even in street protests. As we know, these responses did little to alter the representation of South Asians in the American media.

Learn more about the film, The Young Rajah, at Turner Classic Movies.
Babli Sinha is Assistant Professor of English at Kalamazoo college. She is the editor of South Asian Transnationalisms: Cultural Exchange in the Twentieth Century (forthcoming, Routledge) and the author of Cinema and Transnationalism in India: Entertaining the Raj (forthcoming, Routledge).