The rise of Indian characters in Hollywood

Shattering the shackles of stereotypes


October 29, 2018

/ By / Kolkata

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A shot from the 2016 critical darling, "Lion".

A shot from the 2016 critical darling, “Lion”.

From ‘Indiana Jones 2’ to ‘Lion’, decades have passed and now after years of being bound in stifling stereotypes, Indian characters can finally call themselves being justly represented in Hollywood. 

If you are to see any American or British film that is over thirty years old, you will find that Indians in these films are portrayed based on the colonial image that the English speaking parts of the western world had of us. The image of the typical Indian in those films would be one of either extreme opulence or of exaggerated poverty. One thing common among both classes, however would be the bushy beard and the turban wrapped head.

This stereotype has inspired some of the most iconic characters in Hollywood history such as Kabir Bedi’s Gobinda – the menacing antagonist from the Bond film, ‘Octopussy’. On the other hand, Amrish Puri’s iconic turn as Mola Ram in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ has perhaps embedded the impression of tribal violence in the minds of the western audience.

We have come a long way since then. From the 1990’s leading up to the present day the perception has changed. Suddenly, the stereotype of a turbaned Indian playing tech support hunched over a computer with a phone on his ear was not veritable anymore. In its place, we saw some of the most iconic characters in pop culture history.

The Comedic Beginnings

Kunal Nayyar as Raj Koothrappali from "The Big Bang Theory".

Kunal Nayyar as Raj Koothrappali from “The Big Bang Theory”.

Starting off with ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ which shot to fame in 1998, Indian characters for the first time ever, comprised of almost the entire cast of an English TV series. This production by BBC featured the hilarious duo of Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar as first generation Indian immigrants whose sense of patriotism is comically over-zealous. The show was aired on BBC worldwide to universal praise and in the words of critic Roger Ebert, “absolute comedy gold”.

American TV was not far off as Kal Penn joined the cast of ‘Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle’ in 2004. The movie put Penn in the shoes of Kumar Patel, a habitual stoner who leads his room-mate, Harold – a Korean immigrant into a weed fueled adventure where they face an out of control Neil Patrick Harris, an escaped cheetah and an extremely racist police department. The success of the comedy and its lead ensemble birthed two sequels and the trilogy grossed USD 116 million.

2007 saw Kunal Nayyar burst forth into the TV scene with the launch of the CBS sitcom, ‘The Big Bang Theory’. He plays the affable, shy, awkward astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali. A man who seems to lose his tongue in the presence of women but can also be the only one who goes toe to toe in a battle of wits and stubbornness with the series lead, Sheldon Cooper. The show has been running eight years straight with the on-going season being seen as the conclusion. Raj’s character has undergone one of the most fascinating journeys in a sitcom and he has gained a cult following unlike any previous Indian character.

Lighting up the Silver Screen

Priyanka Chopra as Agent Parish from the 2015 sleeper hit, "Quantico".

Priyanka Chopra as Agent Parish from the 2015 sleeper hit, “Quantico”.

In the dramatic scene, the likes of Dev Patel and Naveen Andrews have played some of the most poignant and deep characters in their films. Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and Garth Davis’s ‘Lion’ saw immense critical success in the States while pushing Patel to become the go to guy for directors looking for Indian actors. Patel’s portrayal of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ gained particular acclaim. Patel’s performances gained a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe nomination among others. Andrews on the other hand gained immense fan following for his portrayal of Sayid Jarrah in the ABC prime timer, ‘Lost’.

Drama and Thriller Staples

‘Quantico’ which premiered in 2015 and ended after three seasons earlier this year was a launch pad for Bollywood heart throb, Priyanka Chopra and her character, Agent Alex Parish was described by film critic James Poniewozik as, “the strongest human asset” of the show. Similarly, Jai Ali’s character, Agent Rahul Nadeem who debuted in this season of Netflix’s ‘Daredevil’ has been hailed as “possibly the most real character to have ever been put in a superhero show” by the likes of Ani Brundel.

As the Indian diaspora comes more and more into the spotlight in and around the States, it is only natural that the old misconceptions and stereotypes give way to a fairer representation.            

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