Scott Fitzgerald, which emphasizes the materialistic society of the Roaring Twenties through Jay Gatsby’s tragic love story, was to hit the silver screen this coming Christmas, I made sure to watch the trailer as soon as it was released. Directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Titanic’s Leonardo Di Caprio and Spiderman’s Tobey McGuire, the trailer proved to be no disappointment—in fact, I felt that Luhrmann properly captured the vivid symbolism that Fitzgerald uses throughout his entire novel. However, after watching the trailer, I was surprised, not because of the incredible scenery or the lavish essence of the film, but because it featured a face that many Indians are more than familiar with—Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan is a well-respected Bollywood actor, so his debut into American films should really be no surprise. Yet, the idea of Bachchan acting as something other than Indian in a classic American movie was unexpected.
Hollywood has generally cast Indians as Indians. Whether it was the Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire or the hilarious TV show Outsourced (which was cancelled after one season because many critics claimed that it was offensive and racist), Indians have rarely ventured past the so-called Indian stereotype. Hackneyed names and cliched roles seem to be the norm in Hollywood. We all have encountered movies or television shows that overly dramatize Indian accents and exemplify persisting Indian stereotypes that are mildly negative or perceived as negative.
“A lot of times American movies tend to depict Indians in corny roles and I do not think that is entirely apt,” says Nisha Ramesh. Ramesh, a soon-to-be high school senior, enjoys watching many Bollywood movies with her American friends. “I like to share these movies with my friends because they are absolutely hilarious and very dramatic.”
Over time, there has been a move towards Hollywood’s understanding of the Indian culture. A few Indians are beginning to play roles that are more assimilated and sophisticated, but still retain the roots to their heritage. Recent examples are Dev Patel, in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma in the television show The Good Wife; and Parminder Nagra who starred in the 2002 British comedy-drama Bend it Like Beckham and then as Dr. Neela Rasgotra in the American medical series ER and more recently in Alcatraz.
Ben Kingsley, born to Indian parents, and described as an “Englishman” on Wikipedia is one actor of Indian origin who has played varied roles in Hollywood. People have all but forgotten that Kingsley is of Indian descent.
Bachchan plays Meyer Wolfsheim, “a flamboyant and suave Jewish money lender” in the The Great Gatsby. This is a novelty because the Bollywood actor is solely and wholly Indian and is representative of the India we are familiar with. The question, however, is whether Bachchan is carving a pathway for other Indians to emulate?
“Desi people are meant to star in Bollywood movies, not English movies,” says Sana Raza a rising senior at Los Altos High school. Raza watches many Bollywood movies in her free time. “Desi people should stick to playing desis because that is what they are known for.
Being in an English movie just puts them in an awkward spot.”
This really speaks to the assimilation process for many of us desis growing up here in America—we are identified as Indians first and Americans second and we continue to perpetuate and follow Indian beliefs and ideals. Our culture, strong and fascinating, dominates our lifestyles. We have not surrendered our roots entirely.
As a teenager born and raised in America, I know for a fact that it’s not possible to hide my heritage. Although, I attempted to forget it, I realized that it is a key element of my identity. At school, I’m Indian—often referred to as “curry” by my classmates, known for being able to read and write in my mother tongue, and profoundly influenced by my family’s values.
Usually, storylines for movies reflect what our culture has come to represent. Our numbers indicate a growth not merely in bodies but also in our influence. In 2000, Indians were about 0.6 percent of the U.S. population (1.9 million people). When the same census was conducted in 2010, Indians were said to be almost 0.9 percent of the U.S. population (3.18 million people), a growth rate of 69.37 percent, considered one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States. Throughout the decade, we’ve also seen an increase in awareness of the Indian-American culture. Here in the Bay Area, we are exposed to a profusion of Indian festivals, movies and restaurants.
Due to the popularity of Bollywood, some aspects began to seep into the Western world. In 2001, Baz Luhrmann was inspired to make the musical Moulin Rouge! which in turn sparked many other musical films such as Chicago and Mamma Mia!. Bollywood films and Indian culture directly influenced Danny Boyle to direct Slumdog Millionaire which sparked a deeper international interest in Indian films. Slumdog Millionaire went on to win eight Academy Awards in 2009, including for Best Director and Best Picture.
“I love all the dancing and singing, elements that most American movies lack,” Cathy Liu says. Liu, a soon-to-be senior in high school, watches many Bollywood movies with her desi friends. “It’s sort of like a mini-musical, and you get a taste of Indian culture. Also, I like how everything is more dramatized and more intense because it’s more entertaining. I mainly watch for entertainment purposes, but I get a sense of Indian culture and lifestyle along the way.”
This attitude is also why we have not been able to break the mold of venturing past Bollywood inspired films and Indian characters in the west. Many of these films and characters tell the story of the adversities that Indian-Americans face as they try to melt into the “melting pot.” The molds seem to persist because individual actors and actresses cannot tear down the strength of their culture and the interest and fascination it provides to American society.
“Even though in Bollywood movies, the characters seem really Western and are influenced by mainstream American culture,” Liu explains, “they still retain a their Indian heritage through food, music, and celebrations. Their culture kind of carries on with them wherever they are.” They seem to carry their culture with them, wherever they are.
Maybe, the reason why it’s odd to see Bachchan acting as someone who isn’t Indian is because we are not ready to see ourselves as different from the established perceptions of ourselves. We haven’t fully embraced the idea of a completely assimilated Indian American. Bachchan’s new role symbolizes the transition that our community must face in order to adjust to the waves of a new definition. A definition that is closer to America and a little more removed from India. On the scale of completely American and completely Indian, we lie somewhere in the middle, something that Hollywood has struggled to capture. However, if, as they say, life imitates art, then we could be on our next assimilative stage, with the Myer Wolfsheim role setting the stage for a new dawn in casting calls.
Shilpa Venigandla is a senior at Los Altos High School and is interning at India Currents over summer, besides working on her high school journalism assignments.