A History of South Asians in the American Entertainment Industry
“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.”
The show only lasted a few months, and no one can blame you if you’ve never heard of it. 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 would mark the first time that a critically acclaimed mainstream film centered upon a South Asian theme, with a significantly South Asian cast, located in a South Asian setting. The late great Richard Attenborough deserves a tremendous amount of credit for Gandhi, especially for casting Sir Ben Kingsley (who is half-Gujarati) as the lead in the film, and surrounding Kingsley with the likes of Saeed Jaffrey and Rohini Hattangadi in what has become a timeless epic. Gandhi went on to gross $52.7M in the US, and was not only a tremendous critical success, but also made significant waves commercially.
Large studio productions taking a chance on featuring South Asian actors paid off once again in 1984, when Amrish Puri, who was also in Gandhi, lent his commanding presence to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” marking yet another noteworthy milestone; perhaps the first instance of a true major Hindi Film Star crossing over with a major role in a blockbuster Hollywood franchise. 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 significant South Asian cast, including Victor Banerjee, Saeed Jaffrey, and Art Malik. The film would go on to gross $27M in the US.
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. Today, we are still waiting for the floodgates open, which warrants thoughtful reflection on just how much progress we have made over the past 3 decades.
“If you close your eyes, does it almost seem like we’ve been here before?…”
Close your eyes…go ahead, I’ll wait…ok not really otherwise how will you be able to read the rest of this masterpiece?! Imagine for a second, that in a three year span, the most critically acclaimed films and commercially successful blockbusters featured South Asian actors in feature roles. Imagine that one of those films won the Oscar for Best Picture. Now imagine the same South Asian actor appeared in each of these movies. Hard to believe right? If the phenomenon I have just described became a reality in 2014 or even 2015 we would hail it as a sign of true progress; a sign that the South Asian actors had finally arrived and earned a place in the mainstream entertainment landscape.
Now imagine the year is 1984 and your name is Roshan Seth. (If you don’t know who Roshan Seth is, why the heck not?! Wikipedia him, and then go and watch his work…you’ll be glad you did.) In 1984, Seth appeared in both A Passage to India and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom after having played Nehru in “Gandhi” in 1982. That 2 year hat-trick is one that many actors can only dream of today. (Note: Amrish Puri was in both Gandhi and Temple of Doom, and Saeed Jaffrey appeared in both Gandhi and A Passage to India). For those who are curious, Seth is still going strong today, most recently co-starring in the soon to be released indie film, “Brahmin Bulls.”
By the way, 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 including some hits like Steve Martin’s 2003 film “Bringing Down the House,” which grossed over $164M worldwide.
And so here it is, the “things that make you hmmm” moment of the day: 30 years ago, South Asian actors had meaty roles in acclaimed films, and also began their own Hollywood production houses. And here we are, in 2014, in what we feel is like a renaissance era for the South Asian artist in mainstream media, yet we strive to be in a position parallel to where we once were.
Continue reading Part II of this piece to learn more about how we got here, and where we go next...