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The Indian Wants the Bronx

By Manan Desai |
MARCH 24, 2016

Years before they were immortalized as the Corleone brothers in The Godfather, Al Pacino and John Cazale appeared together in a short and unsettling play that explored anti-Asian racism and violence in the late 1960s. Written by Israel Horovitz, The Indian Wants the Bronx centered around two teenagers who confront and eventually attack an Indian man trying to visit his son in New York City. Pacino played Murph, one of the two teenage boys. John Cazale, on the other hand, donned a turban to play Gupta, the Indian.

If the play were staged today, the choice to cast a white actor as the Indian would likely draw criticism for the use of "brown face," the long-standing practice of whites performing in South Asian roles.1 That said, unlike a character like Fisher Stevens' Indian scientist from the Short Circuit films or Peter Sellers' bumbling Indian actor from The Party, Cazale's Indian wasn't played up for laughs nor was his accent the butt of any joke. In fact, almost all of Cazale's lines were in Hindi.2 For most of the play, Gupta is either explaining that he is trying to reach his son or telling the boys that he can't understand them. Of course, much of the audience would have been put in a similar position as the young men, unable to follow a word of what Gupta was saying and inferring meaning only through tone and gesture.

For Joey and Murph, the Indian initially appears as only a mild curiosity. The two boys come on stage with all the bluster of mid-'60s teenage stereotypes, harmonizing a "rock-n-roll" song, threatening each other with noogies, and calling one another "schmuck" and "jerkoff." As the play unfolds, that banter gives way to dialogue that reveals more troubling pasts. We come to learn that both of them have grown up in neglectful homes, convicted of crimes both petty and violent. They wield their feelings of loss and anger into resentment towards everyone around them: their mothers, their absentee fathers, their neighborhood, and their social worker. The Indian waiting at the bus stop alone becomes the latest target of their angst.

At first, they are curious about Gupta's “fancy hat,” which leads one of them to guess that he’s a Turk. Joey teases Gupta at one point, asking him “How’s your teepee?” This slippage between Turk, Indian, and Native American offers the boys a new way to trade insults. They call each other “Turkie-lover.” They egg one other on, joking that “[i]t’s such a shame to kill these Indians. They do such superb beaded work.” The two ask the Indian about the “elephants” in his pocket and if “Indian broads” have “sideways breezers.” The only response they get from Gupta is confusion.

Murph: Is that right, Turkie? Your broads have horizontal snatches?
Indian: (Stares at him nervously) Mai toom-haree bah-at nah-hee sah-maj sak-tah. (I can’t understand you.)
In spite of the language barrier, Joey, the more sympathetic of the two boys, eventually opens up to Gupta. He confesses to Gupta about his conflicted feelings for Murph and their case worker. Sensing the boy's vulnerability, Gupta briefly embraces Joey in a climactic scene that Horovitz describes as an “insane father-and-son tableau." Soon after, Joey shows Gupta a knife, relating a story about how it was given to him as a gift. Gupta “misinterprets the move as spelling disaster” and attempts to flee. Joey instinctively assaults Gupta, “batter[ing] the Indian with punches” as he crumbles to the stage floor. Standing frozen above Gupta, Joey sobs and “senses his error” but can not manage to say anything other than “Indians are dumb.”

Horovitz described The Indian Wants the Bronx as essentially “a play about communication.” That theme appears most obviously in Gupta and the boys' clumsy attempts to communicate and understand one another. The inability to communicate yields a tragic conclusion, erupting, as it does, in a scene of violence.

But the play is also about the communication between the two boys, who only know how to speak to one another through the casual racism and misogyny of their masculine, white idiom. When they want to express a feeling of betrayal, they call each other “rotten Jap.” When one of them expresses an interest in the Indian, he’s accused of being a “Turkie-humper.” The Indian becomes the object onto which the two boys can utter the unutterable, projecting feelings of one-upsmanship, betrayal, and especially, their homosocial bonds, to one another.

This aspect of The Indian Wants the Bronx feels especially timely in our volatile political moment. It doesn’t matter much, in the end, whether Gupta was Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or a Turk. Harassing and eventually attacking the "other" provides a way for the young men to shore up feelings about themselves and each other as they confront the insecurity of their own lives. How different is that scene from the spectacles of violence we've seen in Oak Creek, Alabama, or Chapel Hill? How far removed is Horovitz's 1968 play from the racial climate of today?
1. For what it's worth, Israel Horovitz described how they had initially cast an Indian actor, only to find out he “couldn’t act a credible East Indian.” Horovitz writes, “True, John’s Italian, not Hindu… from Winchester, Massachusetts, not Delhi. But it’s also true that John Cazale is a fine, sensitive actor.” In many of the earlier productions of The Indian Wants the Bronx, the role of Gupta wasn’t played by a South Asian actor. In August 1975, the play was performed by the Steppenwolf Theater Company, directed by John Malkovich, with actors Terry Kinney, Gary Sinise, and H.E. Baccus.

2. The lines are written out phonetically in the play (with a translation below).

Image Credits
• The title picture is taken by Bert Andrews, and scanned from Israel Horovitz, First Season. New York: Random House, 1969.
• The second and third images are from the 1972 and 1973 production of the play by The Acting Company starring James Moody, Benjamin Hendrickson, and Norman Snow and directed by Gene Lesser.
• The fourth image is from a 1981 production of The Indian Wants the Bronx at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg starring Jonathan Rands, Michael Richard, and Bill Curry.
Manan Desai is Assistant Professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan.