When Aziz Ansari wrote “Indians on TV,” the fourth episode in the first season of his superb Netflix series, Master of None, he wrote it to critique projects like The Tiger Hunter: innocuous entertainments featuring American-born actors of Indian descent in roles that demand they affect Indian accents. Here, the actor is Community’s Danny Pudi, a native son of Chicago, cast as Sami, a lovesick Indian man who moves to America in 1979 to pursue a career in engineering and win the heart of his childhood love, Ruby (Karen David), in the process. If Ansari were to watch the movie, his eyes might roll out of their sockets at the blatant typecasting.
But Pudi isn’t Kal Penn, and The Tiger Hunter isn’t Van Wilder. It’s the product of Lena Khan, an Indian-American director out to subvert, or at least confront, that kind of stereotyping through comedy. In fact, Khan and her film nearly squeeze juicy commentary out of her casting choices by dovetailing those choices with a standard underdog plot, pitting a team of Indian expats against America’s grinding and backstabbing corporate sideshow as our heroes strive to perfect microwave technology for consumers. Stories of underestimated misfits and the establishment giants keeping them down are as American as frozen TV dinners. Casting an actor with American roots and asking him to adopt speech patterns that aren’t his own, then, becomes pseudo-commentary about what it means to be “a professional American.”
It’s a fine sentiment in an otherwise average movie. The Tiger Hunter’s name is derived from the lead character’s remembrances of his late father: Young Sami grew up in the shadow of his dear old dad, a renowned tiger hunter beloved by his village. (Occasionally, the movie flashes back to the past to recall sage advice passed down from sire to son, which by happy accident has universal application despite being packaged in the language of macho hunter’s wisdom.) Grown up, Sami tries to live by his father’s sterling example while attempting to impress Ruby’s dad, an intimidating and decorated general (Iqbal Theba), but after leaving India, he finds himself drowning in the inequities of life as an “other” in American capitalist culture. For all of his impressive qualifications, Sami can only find work drafting blueprints for which white men inevitably claim credit.
Pudi makes sense as Sami: He’s immediately likeable, charming, easy to root for, and he’s great either playing the straight man, or the fish out of water, or the punchline. Still, Khan, along with her co-writer, Sameer Asad Gardezi, puts too much of The Tiger Hunter’s burden on Pudi’s shoulders, saddling him with exposition in voiceover that reveals a weakness in her filmmaking. Without the voiceover, much of what we’re meant to understand about Sami’s philosophy on life would be lost; with the voiceover, we’re fed an overabundance of information we should be able to infer on our own. You do not watch The Tiger Hunter for its first 30 minutes or so as much as you listen to it, and the listening makes it something of a chore to sit through.
For viewers with condensed attention spans, the experience will feel something like compressed hell, as Pudi explains, ad nauseam, Sami’s motivations, the truth of his dad’s folkloric status, the origins of Sami’s infatuation with Ruby (who isn’t fleshed out as anything more than an object to be won)—soon there’s nothing left for us to intuit, and worse, we’ve been narrated to the point of near-boredom. Pudi eventually carries us through to the good stuff, lighthearted comedy involving the woes of the expat commune he falls in with, led by Babu (Rizwan Manji), a Dukes of Hazzard obsessive with a preternatural gift for making samosas. Like Sami, these characters have traveled stateside for opportunities they’re denied the moment they set foot in the country. They’re educated. They’re skilled. They’re dismissed by the white male ruling class.
Wacky hijinx of the 1980s and 1990s comic persuasion ensue, with Sami and the gang working ’round the clock to figure out the microwave issue while also hoodwinking Ruby into thinking he has become something he’s not: a success. The Tiger Hunter pulls apart the great American myth that anyone, no matter how humble their origins, can come to this land and make a name for themselves with hard, unrelenting work.
Maybe that’s the intent, to show that American identity forces people to change who they are to fit its definition. Sami certainly changes throughout the movie. “Hey Linda! Thank god it’s Friday!” he calls out, cheery but hollow, on his way to confront his boss, Kenneth (Samuel Page), smiling as he says it, stone-faced as soon as Linda walks past him. The point is well taken, and in The Tiger Hunter’s defense, it’s presented by minority voices, which partially undercuts the implications of its accenting.
But the accenting is a constant and troubling reminder of the entertainment industry’s casual racism: Movies need recognizable names to get made, and Pudi has a recognizable name. Yet, Khan needs a lead who not only has the cachet needed to attract an audience, but who also speaks with the right inflection. So it goes. The Tiger Hunter isn’t exactly the most woke comic effort you’ll see in 2017, but there’s a particular pleasure taken in watching Khan pick apart our beloved national fable through a South Asian lens, even though that lens indulges a traditional and long-expired style of racial profiling.
Director: Lena Khan
Writers: Lena Khan, Sameer Asad Gardezi
Starring: Danny Pudi, Rizwan Manji, Karen David, Iqbal Theba, Samuel Page, Jon Heder, Parvesh Cheena, Kevin Pollak
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.