(Disclaimer: modern day South Asia loosely comprises Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. These articles will primarily focus on people of Indian and Pakistani descent since they tend to be most represented in American media.)
In 1960, 12,000 Indian immigrants lived in America. There were many factors for this, including the Immigration Act of 1924. This act placed a quota on the number of immigrants who could enter the United States. It also practically eliminated people from South Asian countries from entering.
When the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 passed, America allowed more South Asian Immigrants to migrate. By 2015, the number of Indians in America had increased from 12,000 to 2.4 million.
During the 1990’s, most western actors of Indian descent came from the country that originally colonized India and Pakistan: Britain. While most mainstream cinema tended to portray Indians in a stereotypical or simplistic manner, more complex South Asian characters emerged in American Independent cinema. During this time, two actors came to represent India in Independent cinema: Kumar Pallana and Sarita Choudhury.
Among the 12,000 Indian immigrants in 1960 was Kumar Pallana, a professional juggler who immigrated from India in 1946. Before the 1990’s, Pallana had appeared in bit parts in Broken Arrow (1950) and Viva Zapata! (1952). On TV, he appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1996) and Captain Kangaroo (1955-1984) as Kumar of India. Pallana played a Mexican Soldier in Viva Zapata!, which featured Marlon Brando and Jean Peters as its Mexican leads. Pallana also played a Native American in Broken Arrow. During his life, he worked as an actor, a juggler, and a Yoga Teacher.
After living in California for a time, Pallana moved to Texas. He remained there until Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson discovered him working at his son Dipak’s coffee shop. Anderson would cast Pallana and his son in his first three features. He would expand the elder Pallana’s role slightly over the course of each film. As a result, Pallana became Gene Hackman’s best friend and sidekick in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Pallana would work fairly steadily with directors such as Anderson (he would appear in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) as a little more than an extended cameo), Danny Devito (Duplex (2003)), Steven Spielberg (The Terminal (2004)), John Turturro (Romance & Cigarettes (2005)), and Brad Silberling (Ten Items or Less (2006)) until his death in 2013.
Although Pallana had become known to the public again, he never saw his acting career defining his life. If an acting offer came to him, he would take it. This method of choosing roles led Pallana to appear not only in the Hollywood film scene, but also in the Milwaukee film scene, where he appeared in multiple films for various unknown directors.
Sarita Choudhury: ‘Mississippi Masala’ and ‘Learning to Drive’
In the early 1990’s, actress Sarita Choudhury would first become known to American audiences for her role in Mississippi Masala (1991). A British Woman of half Indian descent, she became known a character actor, often playing the best friend of the female lead. Unlike White actresses, any film with Choudhury as a lead needed a male star to get greenlit and financed.
In 1991, only one movie star of South Asian heritage in the Western world had become known: Ben Kingsley. Born Krishna Pandit Bhanji, the half Indian Kingsley took his stage name from his father’s nickname and the King’s clover that his maternal grandfather used to sell. After winning the Oscar for Gandhi (1981), Kingsley spent another ten years acting in British films. He began starring in American films with Bugsy (1991), which garnered him another Oscar nomination. A versatile actor, he has played multiple Jewish roles, a Nazi, Russians, Egyptians, Iranians, and Italians. However, Kingsley would not headline a film as an Indian character again until Learning to Drive (2014). At one time or another, the two movies in this section both required his participation to get made.
Kingsley started out as the first choice for Indian-American director Mira Nair’s love story Mississippi Masala. The film starred Choudhury and Denzel Washington as two star crossed lovers in Greenwood, Mississippi. In Romeo and Juliet type story, Kingsley would have played the role of Choudhury’s third generation Indian Ugandan father who disapproves of her relationship. He lost his home to the dictatorship of Idi Amin, which expelled Asians from the country in 1972. Kingsley’s Gandhi co-star Roshan Seth said that Kingsley dropped out after deciding to exclusively play non-Indian roles after Gandhi. After Kingsley’s departure, the filmmakers had to find a new star and new financing. This decision led them to Washington, who felt the part of Choudhury’s boyfriend was too small. Feeling that she needed to delve deeper into Washington’s family to create a more satisfying narrative, Nair expanded the role.
With Kingsley gone, Seth took over his role and had mixed feelings about his story in the final film. The original version would have focused more on the father’s prejudice against African Americans. In the current version of the film, his lifelong African best friend told him that he needed to leave Uganda. Nair’s original screenplay also delved deeper into how the best friend’s mother raised both him and the best friend. John Kenneth Muir covers all of this and more in his book Mercy in her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair (2006).
Nair’s second film after the Academy Award Nominated Salaam Bombay! (1988), the film presented many challenges getting made. Unlike the other films, Masala does not feature a white lead. In the film, Choudhury and Washington’s ancestors both had their homes taken away by racial intolerance. While this is strong subject matter, there were very few black movie stars appropriate for the role at the time. Washington had only just become a star in America after winning the Oscar for his supporting role in Glory (1989). For most of the 1980’s, he worked more as a character actor than a movie star.
Although she plays the main character, Choudhury receives third billing due to her status in the American star system. In the years between Masala and Learning to Drive (2014), Choudhury built her career in America around playing supporting roles predominantly in the New York film scene. Besides her two other roles in Mira Nair films (The Perez Family (1995) and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996)), she would often appear in films set in New York during the 1990’s. In the 2000s, she appeared in supporting roles in Lady in the Water (2005), Admission (2013), and both parts of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014-2015) and in the TV shows Homeland (2011-) and Blindspot (2015-). While she played some leading roles in some American films in the 1990’s (Wild West (1993), Fresh Kill (1994)), they tended to be much smaller films.
Kingsley would return to Choudhury’s career playing her new husband in an arranged marriage in Learning to Drive.
This was the first time that Kingsley played an Indian lead in an American film. He said that the role truly interested him. He based his portrayal of a Sikh on his Sikh bodyguard and chauffeur on Gandhi. Playing a Sikh immigrant in the story, Kingsley also has to deal with the various problems of immigration. Early in the film, ICE comes to pick up some of his roommates. Kingsley shows them identification to prove his status. Later on, an irate driver tears off his turban after a traffic accident. He also works as a driving instructor because he finds it to be the only job where he can hold onto his true identity as a Sikh (which includes keeping his beard and his turban).
In this film, Choudhury plays a less educated woman than Kingsley and co-star Patricia Clarkson. Unlike both of them, she left school, cannot read English, and struggles with everyday life when she comes to America. It Is not until she meets other women from India that she starts to feel that she belongs there and starts taking classes. The film presents many involved complex situations that it rarely offers easy answers for. The film ends with Kingsley and Clarkson’s characters making decisions about how to live their lives. Kingsley decides to stop working nights so he can spend more time with his new bride.
Since most American studios would not finance movies about Indians, Choudhury acted in films about different cultures. Some of these films featured movie stars of European descent playing Hispanic characters. This practice was common in Hollywood during the time. The Mask of Zorro (1998) featured Welsh actors Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins in Mexican roles.
In 1995, Nair directed The Perez Family. The film stars Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, and Anjelica Huston. Choudhury appeared in a minor role in the film. Like Scarface (1983), it tells the story of Cuban immigrants coming to America during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. Both films also feature Italians and Jews playing Cuban roles. The Perez Family does have more people of Spanish ancestry in its primary cast.
The film also came out a few weeks after My Family, a lower budget film made by a Mexican American director (Gregory Nava, who had made the successful low budget film El Norte (1984)) and featuring a largely Hispanic cast (including Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, and Edward James Olmos as the leads).
Choudhury also played many Hispanic roles. As a Chilean peasant girl in The House of the Spirits (1993). A Perfect Murder (1998) lists her character’s name as Raquel Martinez, but the film never explores her character that much. In Gloria (1999), she plays the matriarch of a broadly Hispanic family and the daughter of Miriam Colon, a Puerto Rican actress who also played Al Pacino’s mother in Scarface. Choudhury later said that Hollywood never knew quite where to place her in terms of race.
The Long Wait: ‘The Terminal’ and ‘A Hologram for The King’
Stephen Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) and Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for The King (2016) tell the same story: In a post 9/11 world, Tom Hanks waits indefinitely in a foreign location for something to happen.
As a movie star, Hanks often plays a lovable (if somewhat eccentric) everyman. The stories that center around him often frame him as the relatable lead.
As an actor-producer, Hanks has made many films where he plays a man dealing with the modern world. The first film he produced, Cast Away (2000), began with Hanks wondering what would happen if a FedEx plane went down. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) examined a man deeply connected to America’s relationship with the middle east. Larry Crowne (2011) focuses on a man having to rebuild his life after being downsized. The last film Hanks produced and starred in, The Circle (2017), focuses on a Google like company.
Many of the films he has starred in also feature many actors of South Asian descent. This included Pallana (The Terminal) and Choudhury (Hologram for the King). The most expensive and mainstream films in this article, both The Terminal and A Hologram for The King relied on Tom Hanks’s genial persona to get made. Both films use that persona in different ways.
Although he did not produce it, Terminal looks at an immigrant (Hanks) trapped in a post 9/11 America. The film uses Hanks’s persona to suggest the greatness of immigrants coming to America, but also tries to be as inoffensive as possible in a post-9/11 world. His character and the film reflect a post-Cold War era world more than a post-9/11 world. He finds love with stewardess Catherine Zeta-Jones, who carries on an affair with a married man who only agrees to help Viktor if she comes back to him. Villain Stanley Tucci wonders “what Gulag he crawled out of.” Spielberg also made The Terminal after Catch Me If You Can (2002), which aimed for a nostalgic version of flying.
Kumar Pallana plays the type of character that a leading man like Tom Hanks cannot: an Indian janitor who fled his country after stabbing a corrupt cop who tried to shake him down. If he gets arrested, the government will deport him back to India to face prison time. At the film’s end, he sacrifices his freedom so that the lovable Hanks can fulfill his dead father’s wishes.
Hologram for The King (2014) features Tom Hanks as Alan Clay, a former Schwin executive hoping that a big deal in Saudi Arabia will revive his career. Like many Dave Eggers protagonists, Clay represents a part of society. In this case, Clay stands in for an older generation struggling financially after the 2008 housing crisis. Even the name Clay suggests how he has to mold himself into a new man. Hologram’s opening sequence features Tom Hanks singing a version The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” a song that filmmakers have used to illustrate upper-class middle aged male malaise since Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986).
Hologram’s director, Tom Tykwer, had previously directed Run Lola Run (1998) and brings his usual surreal touch to this comedy. Both Hanks’s wife and daughter have Lola’s same hair color. He also casts American Alexander Black as Hanks’ driver and Choudhury as his Saudi Arabian doctor. A large part of the story revolves around Hanks trying to remove a mysterious lump on his back. Choudhury plays his Saudi Arabian doctor, who Hanks starts a relationship with. Such a story might not have happened years ago with a mainstream American director.
The film looks at the Middle East from a white man’s perspective. In the story, Hanks plays plays an American clueless to foreign customs. He gets in trouble at one point for jokingly claiming to be a CIA agent. Choudhury had a rewarding experience working with Hanks:
“To do a movie with someone like Tom Hanks that when you tell your dad, your dad knows who Tom Hanks is – it feels like you’re finally giving back to your parents. It’s like you’ve actually done something they can recognize and there’s something that makes them superproud.”
Like many stars, Hanks represents an American export to the world. He brings a natural likability to many of his roles. Through Hanks’s productions, many actors from other countries around the world have found a new presence in American cinema.
When the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 first became law, neither then president Lyndon Bains Johnson or Senator Ted Kennedy expected it to change the population drastically or change the lives of the people in the country. While not as widely represented as other groups, Indians and South Asians became larger voices in America and American media in the late 20th and early 21st century due to the policy change.
- The Terminal marks the second time Pallana plays a character with a backstory involving stabbing somebody. The first time was The Royal Tenenbaums.
- There was one other movie star of South Asian descent besides Kingsley in the early 1990’s: British actress Gabrielle Anwar. However, Anwar has a quarter Indian ancestry and never really played Indian roles.