While questions of immigration and discrimination divide discourse in society, the long fight for diversity in the film industry continues. Can movies help us empathize with people different from ourselves? We spoke to Lena Khan about her film The Tiger Hunter, and the importance of making diversity relatable.
The Tiger Hunter is a comedy/drama about Sami Malik “a young Indian who travels to 1970s America to become an engineer in order to impress his childhood crush and live up to the legacy of his father — a legendary tiger hunter back home. When Sami’s job falls through, he takes a low-end job and joins with a gang of oddball friends in hopes of convincing his childhood sweetheart that he’s far more successful than he truly is… or perhaps ever could be.”
The film is Lena Khan’s debut as a California-based film writer and director. Being a South Asian Muslim filmmaker, she has experience with the struggles of introducing diversity into Hollywood. Thinking about the contrast between her current success and the fight it took to get The Tiger Hunter made, she laughs at the memory of studios approaching her after screenings. “They were so excited about the movie,” she says. “They were like ‘Oh, it’s such a great movie, we love it so much! We wish we had known about it early on,’ so that they could get on board. And the funny part is: some of them… did know about it. Like, we asked.”
Even with a rising wave of demands for more diversity in casting and storytelling, it’s still a difficult task to persuade studios that films about characters who aren’t white are worth investing in. Studios were unconvinced by The Tiger Hunter’s main character – Sami Malik, a South Asian Muslim immigrant. “They would say it in different ways, you know; that it was obviously ‘a niche audience movie,’ or whatever it is.”
“We got that sort of perspective from normal people, who were thinking ‘No, no, nobody is really going to be interested when you have a South Asian lead, or a movie with a bunch of brown people.’”
In the end, much of the funds for the project were raised via Kickstarter, by people who believe in telling diverse stories.
But The Tiger Hunter didn’t seek to tell a story for a “niche audience.” It sought to tell a story that was relatable – unique because of its background and true to its roots, but also open to audiences from any walk of life. That’s why Khan decided to make it a comedy… and set it in the colorful, dynamic era of the 1970s.
“What I’ve noticed is that a lot of times when you’re heavy-handed with things, especially with movies, people don’t see those movies,” Khan says. “And so you don’t reach your audience, and I didn’t want to be preaching to the choir when I wanted to make these characters and their stories and their journeys relatable to people that may not want to sit through a heavy drama about the travails of an immigrant coming into the country. So I really wanted to make it approachable to more people.”
“Our lead character happens to be a South Asian Muslim, but we don’t really fixate on that. He’s Muslim in the same way Seinfeld is Jewish: we know about it, there’s jokes about it… and that was purposeful.”
But how to achieve this balance of diversity and relatability? Sometimes, filmmakers still feel like they’re walking on eggshells, shouldering the representation of an entire population through one character. Relatability, after all, is not about eliminating what characterizes the character’s background – otherwise the diversity isn’t authentic or realistic, it’s cultural erasure – but rather mixing it all in to form something cohesive, and to showcase the individuality and humanness of each individual.
Still, there will always be dissenting opinions. “There are people who are worried that at one point he says ‘Allah’ in the movie, and… there’s people who are worried that he should be more religious, ‘why doesn’t he have a beard?’”
In a time when many people are still disconnected from the reality of a more globalized and inclusive world, the importance of bringing diversity to screen can’t be underestimated. Stories make us relate to characters, and make us feel like they’re one of us, regardless of whether they’re superheroes, aliens, or a person you might see walk by you on the street. As humans, we relate to complexity. Although a story in itself might tell of a reality we have never experienced and probably never will, we want characters that go beyond those striking differences, and who ultimately tell a human story.
“Many minority characters are boxed in by ‘oh, this is an immigrant story’ or ‘this is a slave story.’ It wasn’t really about that; it was about a character who had all those sorts of things going on, and these goals, and he happened to immigrate here in order to try to achieve them.”
Normalizing diversity is about much more than just telling a story about a character that belongs to a minority. It’s about widening that lens to take in that entire world, and allow diversity to permeate every aspect of it. It’s about allowing diversity to be intersectional. It’s about being unapologetic. “Those things do happen,” Khan adds, after sharing an example: not all of Sami’s roommates in the movie are South Asian – one of them is African American, and how he came to live with them is never explained. “It’s not all so black and white.”
But it can still be hard to move away from the whitewashed content we’ve internalized, even while being a member of a minority community. “We noticed, in the process, the roadblocks that we give ourselves,” Khan says about creating ‘stock characters’ – background characters who don’t necessarily hold much weight on the movie’s plot. “Sometimes when you have a stock character, you say ‘oh, we’re going to have a stock character: they’re going to be the newspaper salesman, or the desk clerk, or something like that.’ A lot of our default, usually, even some of us being minority producers and directors, was to think ‘Okay, that person is going to be a white person, and maybe a white male.’ And as you start having a more diverse crew, we started taking some of our own ideas… like why does that person have to be a white male, or why is that your idea of a stock character?”
And then there’s the casting process. Casting minority actors is a long-standing problem in Hollywood. African American roles and female action heroine roles are often relegated to the same handful of people, instead of giving new talents a chance and bringing in diverse actors in larger numbers. For South Asian actors, the horizon often seems equally bleak. One of the reasons studios turned down The Tiger Hunter, Khan cites, is that they feared the perceived risk in casting the lead: “’you have only three or four actors to choose from who really can tell the film.’”
But The Tiger Hunter refused to back down. After all, talented South Asian actors are everywhere, with films like Lion and The Hundred-Foot Journey, as well as TV shows like The Mindy Project and Master of None showcasing just how much audiences are willing to fall in love with South Asian stories, regardless of genre.
The Tiger Hunter’s own lead, Danny Pudi, hails from popular shows like Community and Powerless, and is backed up by a stellar cast of actors such as Karen David (Waterloo Road Reunited, Castle), Rizwan Manji (Outsourced, Better Off Ted) and Iqbal Theba (Seinfeld, GLEE). The Tiger Hunter posed a unique opportunity, offering them a chance to transcend all-too-common typecasting.
“All of [Sami’s] roommates, they weren’t just like, token immigrants or something like that. We took pains to make sure each of them had a story, and a personality, and a character – a reason that they are there, and that they could play that role accordingly.”
The filmmakers did a lot of research to establish those stories with as much realism and heart as possible. While interviewing dozens upon dozens of immigrants from many different backgrounds, not only South Asian, an idea of what The Tiger Hunter’s characters had to share began to form. The character of Babu, one of Sami’s roommates, became a means to share the story of many immigrants across America. “We wanted to show… the story of someone who truly is living the American Dream, who loves this country with all his heart and soul, in the sweetest way.”
And naturally, all manner of sweet stories began to pop up in conversations with immigrants; stories that were later incorporated into the movie in one way or another.
“Somebody was talking about how he just loves this country so much for little things, and he was saying ‘you know, here when you stand in line (I think he meant at places like In-n-Out) nobody steals your food’… I had a guy who told me about his dad… he lived with these guys, and they all had this really awesome suit. They thought ‘this is an amazing suit,’ so they would plan all their interview schedules around the availability of the suit, so they’d be waiting at home in their undershirt and boxers, waiting for the guy to come home and switch suits with them, and so we have a whole little piece revolving around that.”
The Tiger Hunter is a story about immigrants, and one that many people can identify with, or can see their parents’ stories in. Khan believes that they have succeeded in telling a story that’s relatable, regardless of the audience’s background. “There’s plenty of people who have no connection to people with that story or anything like that. They see the love story, and they see this idea of trying to live up to [one’s] father, the struggles of corporate America, and all those sorts of things.”
So how can audiences support films like The Tiger Hunter that seek to build bridges between cultures and create that sense of empathy that we sorely need in a divided world? Khan has some interesting insights for us about the power of the public over Hollywood.
“Audiences do have a responsibility that I think people don’t realize, and it has a positive side, of course: that yes, it helps to go support movies like this. And then the other side of the coin is maybe being a little bit more responsible about what things you do support.
“People are talking about how Muslims are vilified right now, but Hollywood has played a huge role in that, in kind of creating that terrorist fear. And so you have shows like 24 coming out right now that made it the case that any Muslim you see can be a terrorist, and things like that, even if they have good characters. And you have things like Homeland, and all that sort of stuff. Or you have really ridiculous representations, like in that X-files episode where of course some Muslims had to come in and bomb something. You have those sorts of things, and there is no pushback against the studios, and people are still watching these shows just as much. What would help in terms of diversity – and this goes for any population where you see like really stereotypical bad roles – is to speak out with both your pocketbook – meaning, you know, not to watch those things – and also tell the networks, because they listen to that.”
She goes on to point out that one of the reasons for why the LGBTQ community (and perhaps also women) have made such great strides when it comes to representation in recent years – although we are still far from where we would like to be – has been their courage in being outspoken about representation onscreen. The same outcry, unfortunately, has yet to be heard when it comes to Muslim and South Asian depictions.
“It’s very okay right now to make fun of Muslims, or paint them as caricatures, and it’s very okay to demean South Asians,” Khan says of the impression well-received films and TV shows are making upon the wider community. “If we can play some sort of part in [supporting diversity], you can do that by being more responsible about what you will passively consume.”