Deconstructing Hollywood’s Misrepresentation of Hindus

Misrepresenting the Sacred: Hollywood’s Insulting stereotyping of Hindu beliefs

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The Western perspective has often misconstrued Hindu culture, perpetuating a detached, mystical perception borne out of Orientalist stereotypes. Such a limited view fails to capture the rich complexity and historical dynamics of Hindu society, which has always been an integral part of a global socio-political progression. Hollywood, as a proxy of its European founders, has often echoed these idiotic perceptions in its portrayal of Hindus. This has led to the propagation of historical stereotypes rather than fostering a nuanced understanding of Hindu culture. Hollywood’s representations have more reflected their creators’ cultural biases than an informed appreciation of the history and culture of Hindus society.

The history of Hindus’ stereotypical representation[1] in Hollywood traces back to colonial India when the discourse was dictated by missionaries, anthropologists, and officials who presented Hindus as primitive and unsophisticated. These narratives laid the groundwork for Hollywood’s longstanding tendency to perpetuate these misconceptions about Hindu culture and society.

Seventy-five years after the death of the colonial era, Western institutions like Hollywood have failed to shed their colonial mindset and continue to propagate the theme of Western superiority, routinely portraying Hindus as simple-minded, humorously naive, and socially inept or childlike. Conversely, they also frequently depict Hindus as sinister, malevolent, and antagonistic to Western principles and actions.

Gunga Din – The Birth of the Hindu Savage

The tradition of Hollywood’s stereotyping of Hindu culture can be traced back to 1939 when the movie “Gunga Din[2] depicted Hindus as savages. The film features them as fervent worshippers of the Goddess Kali, engaging in human sacrifices conducted under the oversight of an unhinged Hindu priest.

The passage of time, unfortunately, has not cured Hollywood’s colonial hang-over as it has continued to perpetuate the same old colonial narrative about Hindu culture and society to this day.

Savage Natives. Rapist Sadhus. Vile Gods.

In “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), Hindus[3] are depicted as savages, indulging in the consumption of snakes, bats, and monkeys. In one scene, a Hindu Maharaja is shown offering his Western guests a meal of snakes and bats and a monkey’s head as dessert.

Movies such as “Thirteen Women” (1932) and “Holy Smoke” (1999) present a skewed characterization of  Hindu gurus and sadhus, depicting them as engaging in the seduction of white women.

In “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001),  statues of Hanuman were shown transforming into demons that assailed the movie’s heroine, portrayed by Angelina Jolie, who responds by eliminating these ‘demons’ with her firearms.

Sex and Sacred Verses

In Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), there’s a scene that stands out. It’s a scene of a sexual orgy taking place in an extravagant setting, with a soundtrack featuring  Vedic chants held sacred by Hindus.

Garishly Dressed, Bumbling Idiots

In “The Party[4] (1968), an Indian doctor named Hrundi Bakshi is portrayed as an incompetent buffoon who blunders at every turn. The character, played by Peter Sellers, represents a stereotypical depiction of Indians, compounding the insult with the use of ‘brownface’ makeup.

“Short Circuit” (1986), similarly depicts Fisher Stevens, a white actor,  utilizing ‘brownface’ makeup and putting on an exaggerated accent[5] to play an Indian character.

In the Harry Potter series, the Patil sisters, characters of Hindu descent, were shown wearing garish neon pink outfits, presenting a stereotypical Western perspective of Indian attire. This depiction portrays the Western belief that Hindu parents would typically dress their children in such overly bright and flashy clothing.

In the television series “The Big Bang Theory,” the character Rajesh Koothrappali, portrayed as a North Indian man from Delhi with a typical South Indian surname, presents an array of misconceptions about Indian culture.

India – an Overflowing Gutter

Movies such as “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “Million Dollar Arm” (2014), and “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) often depict India[6] through a yellow-tinted sepia filter, portraying it as a sprawling slum characterized by unhygienic conditions, crumbling infrastructure, and semi-clad children running amidst filth. These images, often accentuated with scenes of individuals partially submerged in human waste, present an extremely skewed portrayal of Indian society. 

A “Seinfeld” episode[7] called “The Backwards Episode” shows the characters traveling to India. The show generates laughs by focusing on clichés such as excessive heat, fear of using bathrooms, and unnecessary inclusion of elephants, further propagating stereotypes. HBO’s “The Sopranos” exacerbated this trend, with the protagonist Anthony Soprano asking his daughter – “What do they teach in India? How to get diarrhea?”

Civilizing the Hindus: A White Man or Woman’s Burden

“The Simpsons” aired an episode titled “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bangalore” in April 2006, which portrayed India as an exotic land filled with industrious workers idolizing the Western character, Homer. Dispatched to India to train employees, Homer instigates the formation of a labor union, perpetuating the theme of the colonizer enlightening the ‘natives.’ This episode reiterates the ‘White Man’s Burden’ narrative, implying Western culture’s inherent superiority over Indian societal norms and practices.

The 2017 film “Basmati Blues,” directed by Danny Baron and starring Brie Larson, once again propagates the idea of a white Westerner swooping in to ‘rescue’ or ‘civilize’ people from non-Western cultures. In the film, Larson plays a white scientist who travels to India to sell genetically modified rice to rural farmers, supposedly as a solution to their poverty. As the story unfolds, she becomes aware of her company’s exploitation of the farmers, eventually choosing to align with them. This narrative reinforces the colonial stereotype of the Westerner as the heroic savior and the Hindu populace as the naive subjects in need of saving.

The Curious Case of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon:

No character in mainstream entertainment quite epitomized the perpetuation of racial stereotypes as Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from “The Simpsons.” This caricature of an Indian convenience store owner was presented with an exaggerated Indian accent, providing humor at the expense of the Hindu Community. The controversial depiction was so problematic that it necessitated the 2017 documentary ‘The Problem with Apu[8], which meticulously dissected the offensive racial stereotypes and microaggressions inherent in the character’s representation.

The portrayal eventually sparked significant backlash, leading to Hank Azaria, the actor who provided his voice to Apu, issuing an apology for his participation in reinforcing the stereotype. Azaria’s decision to step down from the role acknowledged the insensitivity and misrepresentation of such characterizations.

And this won’t stop

With India poised to become the world’s 4th largest economy by 2024, Hollywood, as the West’s cultural propaganda arm, is likely to amp up its old game of stereotyping India as a Hindu-dominated country, Brahmins as oppressors, or Indians as timid nerds. It may also revisit the tired-old themes like socioeconomic disparities to perpetuate a jaundiced view of the country’s immense progress since its independence from colonial rule some 75 years ago.

Despite its recent strides towards ‘wokeness,’ Hollywood remains tainted by a deep-seated prejudice, creating a culture that often fosters stereotypes. This industry, built on storytelling and representation, unfortunately, needs a significant reset, one that goes beyond surface-level acknowledgments of diversity. Given this context, it’s important for the Hindu community to approach Hollywood’s portrayal of their culture with caution. The expectation that Hollywood will suddenly shift towards a more reasonable and objective representation of Hindus is, at this point, a hope far removed from reality.


[1] A Content Analysis of the Portrayal of India in Films Produced in the West

[2] Scratches on Our Minds

[3] Demonising Hinduism, Hollywood style

[4] The curious case of Hrundi V Bakshi: Deconstructing Peter Sellers’ brownface act in The Party

[5] From Harry Potter To The Avengers, 10 Times Hollywood Stereotyped India & Indians

[6] 15 Stereotypes Indians Are Tired Of Seeing In Western Movies & TV

[7] Western media’s stereotypes of Indian culture

[8] What is the problem with Apu?

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