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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

The South Asian Invasion at the Oscars

By Shilpa Davé |
FEBRUARY 22, 2013
Indian accents are thriving in the Academy Award Best Picture nominated films from 2012. Since the success of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) as the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards in 2009, Indians, South Asians, and South Asian Americans continue to make an annual appearance in the more Representations of South Asian and Indian objects and subjects have a history of evoking, simultaneously, both a comfortable foreign-ness and a recognizable difference from American culture.prominent categories at Hollywood’s biggest event. Some of the contemporary narratives rely on action adventure storylines featuring variations on early Hollywood genres of colonial India (threatening natives, brave youth, and spiritual wise men). But also present are alternative genres in drama and comedy that provide opportunities for South Asian actors to act and portray different types of roles.

The films Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty feature South Asians in familiar stories as the spiritual sojourner, the model minority sidekick, and the menacing threat to America. In Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (nominated for eleven awards including best director and best film), the geographical setting of Pondicherry in South India only occupies the first quarter of the film, but the actors, aesthetics, and stunning visuals of the film emphasize the spiritual nature of the story. In the film, the protagonist Pi (Suraj Sharma and adult Pi played by Irrfan Khan) describes his story as one that addresses all religions and is ultimately about the “belief in God” and the universality of human experience. In my previous work, I argue that South Asians and South Asian Americans are racialized as foreign but are also valorized as an idealized American immigrant because they speak English and portray an uncomplicated assimilation into dominant American culture. Representations of South Asian and Indian objects and subjects have a history of evoking, simultaneously, both a comfortable foreign-ness and a recognizable difference from American culture.

Sometimes the foreign aspect of that difference can be threatening, such as in recent post 9-11 narratives where South Asians are associated with terrorists. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the events and intelligence operations in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and is primarily set in Pakistan. In the film, government bureaucracy (both U.S. and Pakistani) blocks the efforts of American CIA and invisible South Asian operatives and factions threaten to expose their presence.

At other times the foreign and exotic nature can be made to be the object of humor where characters speak with funny accents and are lovable geeks such as Apu from The Simpsons and Raj from The Big Bang Theory or exotic and wise individuals such as in spiritual narratives. The film Silver Linings Playbook features a combination of the comic relief sidekick and the model minority Indian embodied in the character of Dr. Cliff Patel (well known Bollywood actor Anupam Kher), the court appointed therapist to the protagonist Pat (Bradley Cooper). As part of the multicultural male posse surrounding Pat that includes best friend Ronny (Jon Ortiz) and law savvy fellow inmate Danny (Chris Tucker), Dr. Patel is the Asian in the Black/Latino/Asian roster of racial characters in the film. The three nominated films for Best Picture represent the ongoing use of Indian stereotypes but in the case of Silver Linings Playbook, also finds a way to interrogate some of the preconceived notions of these stereotypes.

As a therapist, Dr. Patel is the efficient doctor who counsels Pat. His character, however, deviates from the stereotypical physician role, when he suddenly appears as an enthusiastic Philadelphia Eagles football fan complete with Eagles face paint and a busload of Indian Philadelphia Eagle fans (aka the “Asian Invasion”) and a more than working knowledge of football and Philadelphia Eagles trivia. The film blurs the definition of “crazy” and shows how all the characters are alienated from standard or normal behavior. Being crazy is expanded to include obsession with rituals that aid in the outcome of Eagles games, desperate efforts to win back a lost love, an overactive attention to the details of exceptions to certain laws and court cases. While Cliff Patel first appears to represent the authoritarian who curtails Pat’s passions and impulsive behavior, he also is shown to be a victim of prejudice and intolerance. A group of mostly white Eagles fans attack him and the other group of Indians in a racially motivated fight that brings Pat to his defense. In turn he supports Pat’s interest in ballroom dancing and becomes part of Pat’s extended family. Along with Ronnie and Danny, Cliff helps Pat and his father (Robert DeNiro) win back some money from a lost football bet by supporting Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in a ballroom dancing competition. Indians are still sidekicks to the story of the white protagonist but in this film Kher is one of the multicultural male cohorts that is more nuanced than we have seen before. Dr. Patel is not only a football fanatic that is educated about the game but he is also shown as a savvy therapist who is supportive of his patient.

In general, the film roles for prominent Indian actors gestures towards a divide in casting practices between blockbuster films and television narratives. While Indian American actors are appearing in a variety of television shows and formats including Hannah Simone’s character Cece in New Girl and Mindy Kaling’s new show, The Mindy Project, Hollywood has shown a tendency in the last few years to cast established and famous India cinema actors in Hollywood scripts. Anupam Kher has acted in over 300 Hindi films but his most famous Western film roles are as the father in Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and a short stint in the series ER (1994-2009). Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor have landed roles in blockbusters playing small roles as a scientist in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and a wealthy playboy in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol (2012). Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be making an appearance as Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby (2013). Kher’s character in the alternative romance narrative of Silver Linings Playbook hints at more complex roles for Indians that take stereotypes such as the brainy scientist or physician and round out the character as a participant rather than a stranger to American culture. The increased presence of Indian actors might be an indication of the importance of international box office profits for Hollywood film or the increased collaboration between Bollywood and Hollywood. It certainly will be interesting to see who shows up next.
Shilpa Davé is the author of Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film (forthcoming from University of Illinois Press Feb 2013) and is the co-editor of the collection East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture (NYU Press 2005). Shilpa Davé is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University.