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 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.