Life of Heems
I’m a little preoccupied with race. The first time someone suggested I read Life of Pi, the novel by Yann Martel about an Indian boy and his journey across the ocean with a Bengal tiger, I took a look at the author’s name, and my race wheels started turning. I thought, What does this guy know about India? I tried to read it, I swear. I read the first 30 pages or so and put it down. It bored me. When a friend asked to borrow the book, I gave it away and have never seen it since.
Two months ago I saw an advertisement for the film version of Life of Pi featuring an image of a shirtless Indian male with a turban-like scarf wrapped around his head. That image reminded me of Mowgli and Sabu, those first representations of South Asians to the West, and I wondered if the South Asians were about to be set back. In recent years, South Asians have been all over American screens. And we’re no longer limited to roles as turbaned savages or man-servants or Kwik-E-Mart owners or taxi drivers or even just doctors and engineers. Actors like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling are playing roles that aren’t quite as reductive. Stripped away of some of the stereotypes and clichés about South Asians, the roles these actors have taken, or in Mindy’s case written for herself, are turning more than half a century of otheredness on its head. Life of Pi troubled me.
Visibility of South Asians in Western film, American particularly, has a long but limited history. It started with Sabu Dastagir, who at the age of 13 was given the role of an elephant driver in the 1937 film Elephant Boy, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. In 1942, he played Mowgli in a film adaptation of The Jungle Book, also by Rudyard Kipling. In the 1940s and 1950s, a man who went by Korla Pandit became America’s “Godfather of Exotica,” except he was born John Roland Redd, an African-American. In the 1960s, a young man by the name of Sajid Khan starred alongside Jay North in a film called Maya. It was subsequently spun off into a series on NBC of the same name from September 1967 to February 1968. Around this time the mystique of South Asians in the West peaked when the hippies discovered Ravi Shankar.
In the 1980s, all we had was Fisher Stevens, who said he went to India and learned yoga to be “method” about his role as Ben Jahrvi in the Short Circuit movies. In the 1990s there was a guy in the Sprint commercial who counted “one minute, two minute, three minute.” That actor also lost his arm when a train suddenly stopped in a Rice Krispies Treats ad. I think he’s on Glee now as a principal. With the 2000s we finally saw a somewhat humanized depiction of South Asians with actors like Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Danny Pudi, and Maulik Pancholi on TV and in films. All this is to say, we’re relatively new at being portrayed on television and in film despite our history here since the mid-1960s. I’m a little protective of how we’re put out there.
I got a chance to see Life of Pi at the 50th New York International Film Festival back in October, but I missed the press screening and had to attend the official premiere. Everyone was in a suit. The women wore fancy dresses. The only people of color I saw in this colossal room were myself, Suraj Sharma, the lead actor in the film, and Ang Lee, the director. I looked for Irrfan Khan, an old-school Indian film actor who was also inSlumdog Millionaire, but he was nowhere to be found. Ang Lee spoke about his film and about storytelling, and I got excited.