A look at South Asians in western media – Contributed by Parag D. Parikh:
A. “We’re not here to start no trouble…”
January 26, 1986…the mighty Super Bowl Shuffling Monsters of the Midway Chicago Bears had just finished demolishing the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX…minutes later Vijay Amritraj took to the screen in the premiere of NBC’s new show “The Last Precinct.”
For many, including myself, it marked the first time they saw an actor of Indian descent on a TV show. Three years earlier the same Vijay Amritraj, along with Kabir Bedi, shared celluloid space on the big screen with Roger Moore in the James Bond classic “Octopussy” (1983). A few years earlier, in 1979, Miss India 1965 Persis Khambatta was cast as Lieutenant Ilia, in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. Khambatta was also to play the lead in “Octopussy” but was ultimately passed over for the part.
The year prior to “Octopussy”, “Gandhi” (1982), won the Academy Award for Best Picture and took home eight total Oscars. Gandhi went on to gross $52.7M in the US, and proved a South Asian focused project could garner critical success. The film’s central character was played by Ben Kingsley who is half Gujurati. Richard Attenborough also deserves a tremendous amount of credit for casting actors such as Roshan Seth, Amrish Puri, Saeed Jaffrey, and Rohini Hattangadi in this timeless epic.
The formula of a studio film with South Asian supporting actors continued in 1984, when Amrish Puri lent his commanding presence to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (Roshan Seth was in the film as well) marking another noteworthy milestone; perhaps the first instance of a true major Hindi Film Star crossing over with a major role in a global blockbuster Hollywood production. Temple of Doom would go on to gross $180M in the US and over $333M worldwide.
1984 also brought us “A Passage to India”, which was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning two. The film, much like “Gandhi”, was a critically acclaimed British production, with a non-South Asian actor in the lead. To its credit, the film also counted Victor Banerjee, Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, and Art Malik amongst its cast. The film would go on to gross $27M in the US.
Did you know that around the same time Amrish Puri was facing off against Harrison Ford in the “Temple of Doom,” Vijay Amtritraj’s brother, Ashok, began a long run behind the scenes as a producer? To date he’s produced over 100 films (mostly “B” rated films starring the likes of Shannon Tweed) including hits like Steve Martin’s “Bringing Down the House,” which grossed over $164M.
High profile projects such as “Gandhi,” “Octopussy,” “A Passage to India,” and “Temple of Doom” occurring in quick succession foreshadowed a wave of opportunities for South Asians to break through into mainstream cinema. Alas in 2012 we are still waiting for the floodgates to be opened, though the water is certainly flowing more swiftly than before.
B. “Phir bhi dil hai hindustani…”
While these examples are from the early 1980s, our look back at the journey of South Asian Artists in the mainstream consciousness would be without merit if it did not go back further in time to include the Showman, India’s Charlie Chaplin, the Great Raj Kapoor who earned two nominations for the Palme d’Or grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his films “Awaara” (1951) and “Boot Polish” (1954). Years later the inclusion of the Nargis classic “Mother India” in the best Oscar foreign film category in 1958 marked another milestone in South Asian cinematic history; one that would not be repeated for 40 years.
Of course it can be argued that the first significant South Asian media moment came in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda began his speech with the words “Sisters and Brothers of America” through which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.
[But here are the million dollar questions…from Raj Kapoor at Cannes to the moment James Bond made his superspy way over to India in 1983 how many other milestones were there? How many have occurred since? Why isn’t there more content out there featuring South Asian Artists targeting South Asian Audiences?]
(To be continued – watch this space next week!)
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