A Passage to India
Farihah Zaman on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Although Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the most frequently derided of the first three films in the series, it’s the Spielberg movie nearest and dearest to my heart—primarily for personal reasons. From the age of eight until three months ago, approximately two decades later, it was the only Indy film I had seen, and it therefore formed the entire basis for my (skewed) perception of the series and Indiana Jones as a character. I viewed Temple of Doom one summer while visiting family in Bangladesh; my little sister, a dozen odd cousins, and I were crammed into a tiny room with a TV and VCR, braving the oppressive humidity and the film’s persistent racism-for-laughs. How strange it was to watch a film that so consistently and fundamentally stereotypes South Asian culture with a bunch of my fellow Desis but which enthralled all of us nonetheless. Despite the obvious offenses, there was something thrilling about the idea that Indiana Jones came here (sort of; inasmuch as India was close enough to us as far as American movies were concerned), that this larger-than-life Hollywood hero was sparring with the likes of Amrish Puri, an actor cast so ubiquitously as nefarious villains in Bollywood movies that his evil laugh already haunted my nightmares. For us, it wasn’t just an adventure movie long on kid-friendly action—if short on morally responsible storytelling—it was like the fabulous cross-cultural comic book crossover we never even imagined possible.

Temple of Doom, set in 1935, acts as a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which our intrepid archeologist, on the run from Shanghai gangsters with ditzy nightclub performer Willie (Kate Capshaw) and faithful Chinese orphan sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) in tow, crash lands in an impoverished village in British-occupied India. All he wants is a flight to Delhi and to be rid of the conspicuous, burdensome Willie as quickly as possible, but the villagers beg him to rescue their children and “sacred stone” (a hilariously vague euphemism for the Shiva-Lingam, an abstracted phallus representing creation), all of which have been stolen by the local royal family, the kids turned into slaves. When Indy agrees, he and his ragtag posse find themselves trapped in Pankot Palace, a sinister place with a deadly underground cavern that doubles as headquarters for the evil Thuggee cult.

Spielberg’s hackneyed neo-Victorian depiction of pre-independence Indians represents them as either cult-worshiping savages or simple, superstitious farmers waiting for a white hero to come and rescue them. Exaggerated or entirely fabricated oddities of the subcontinent abound for entertainment’s sake. For example, the cult followers, wearing “tribal” makeup like subcontinental Kiss members gone soft, call on actual Hindu deity Kali—who represents destruction in a complex conception of the necessity of death for regrowth—for the power to rip a human heart out of its living owner’s chest, suggesting real-world polytheism shares an inherently blurry line with the occult. Or during a lengthy gross-out dinner scene, the poor civilized white folk are served, among other delicacies, chilled monkey brains and “Snake Surprise,” which involves smaller snakes cooked into a cobra like some poisonous, slimy turducken.

Some critics have argued that these jokes are an extension of the generally lighthearted approach to the series, and aren’t racist so much as attempts to take an arch look at the racism of less enlightened times through hyperbole. If the intention was to lampoon the 1940s comic books Spielberg, creator George Lucas, and writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz drew inspiration from, that higher purpose remains buried; for each over-the-top sequence of oriental splendor played for laughs, there is an entirely sincere and therefore far more insidiously offensive depiction of Indian people. Take for instance the crush of brown humanity that envelops Dr. Jones in a sea of needy, grasping arms upon his arrival at the village, or how his bumbling local guides always seem to run away in fear when the going gets rough to leave the work of actual problem-solving to him. Particularly distasteful in a film set in colonialist India is the fact that the final showdown is resolved thanks to a rescue by the British Army, who come in guns blazing to set things right, handily dismissing Thuggee intellectual Chatter Lal’s earlier complaints about the way in which the British “inspect their colonies and treat them like little children.”

The film’s casual racism is Pan-Asian. Jones’s sidekick, Short Round, is a young Chinese orphan that Indy has creepily picked up so that he might travel around the world with him, having adventures and insulting dizzy dames as opposed to, say, going to school. While I may not have as fine-tuned an ear for offenses to the East Asian community, it is clear that this character is written not just to reveal Indy’s way with kids, but, like Long Duck Dong in the same year’s Sixteen Candles, to provide comic relief with his funny foreign pronunciation and general other-ness. Ke Huy Quan, who was born in Vietnam and auditioned for the part out of Hong Kong, said in interviews at a very tender age that Spielberg’s advice to him as an actor was to simply be himself. So the oft-repeated accent (“Mee-stah Jones! Mee-stah Jones!”) may be real (though, suspiciously, greatly diminished by the time Spielberg cast him as Data in The Goonies just one year later); yet regardless of any possible authenticity, his foreignness, exaggerated for humor, is once again the joke.

To add injury to insult, the film is also unforgivably unkind to women, whose only representative is the shallow debutante Willie (unless you count the Mother India types who silently but nobly bum-rush Indiana Jones when he plays the Pied Piper towards the end of the film, marching into town with their children). It remains perplexing that Spielberg would cast as this whining, pouting, hysterical shrew, a truly thankless role, the woman he would later marry. By comparison Karen Allen, who was Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark and reprised the role for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though hardly the most feminist of heroines, gets to play a gun-toting, liquor-swilling badass who has no qualms about using her somewhat awkward feminine wiles, and actually contributes to the fight against the Nazis. Even at the end of the Temple of Doom, when Willie has proven to be the only main character who has experienced any development, in that she has realized her own surprising strengths, her personal discovery is completely diminished when Dr. Jones seductively wraps a whip around her to pull her towards him for a kiss, demoting her back to the role of vulnerable damsel in distress. As the narrative of Temple of Doom actually predates its predecessor, perhaps it was necessary to create a romantic interest that audiences wouldn’t be too sad to leave behind.

Yet Spielberg’s film is more than one long, patently, rigorously reductive depiction of women and, particularly, South Asians. Beyond its success as a somewhat pleasingly relentless adventure flick, there are several things that Spielberg gets right—not about Indian cultural reality, but rather about the Indian film industry, stylistically and aesthetically evoking Bollywood filmmaking in a way that reflects a certain cinematic savvy. While those wide, Lawrence of Arabia–style landscape shots of the vast desert, or the courtyard of a Mughal-era palace in a riot of colorfully dressed dancing girls performing at a celebratory feast may be cliché, they are also bold, beautiful, and very Bollywood. Big-budget Indian historical epics revel in the kind of visual excess and attention to detail that Spielberg is piling on here. The charmingly goofy bedroom seduction scene, in which Willie provocatively bites into an apple and Indiana grabs at the breasts of a nearby statue but never quite touches Willie, is reminiscent of the Bollywood convention of the transference of touch to objects rather than people in love scenes (as ingeniously described by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children). The strange mix of insanely over-the-top, highly choreographed violence with cartoonish slapstick is also typical of classic Indian action films, like Sholay, the 1975 Amitabh Bachchan cop drama that is considered to have shaped the next twenty years of Indian action cinema; or more recent personal favorite Pyaar Ka Saaya, an unauthorized Desi remake of Ghost that significantly ramps up both the tenor and extent of the 1990 film’s gang violence and the loopiness of the medium character originated by an already scenery-chewing Whoopi Goldberg. This approach to balancing legitimately darker and more disturbing material with physical comedy is best evidenced in Temple of Doom by the Shanghai nightclub opening, in which Jones and Willie scramble on the floor looking for a poison antidote and a diamond, respectively, while all around them balloons fall, dancers appear, champagne corks pop, and gangster minions are brutally gunned down in an opera of chaos.

Then there is the inspired casting of Bollywood superstars in the larger roles; the one Indian gentleman in the film depicted with any cultural sophistication, Chatter Lal, is played by Roshan Seth, known not only for his work in India but for significant roles in A Passage to India, My Beautiful Laundrette, and for playing Nehru in Gandhi. Meanwhile, the villainous roles played by Amrish Puri in India at the time were not dissimilar to his red-eyed alpha-male in Temple of Doom; consider that his other prominent parts in the eighties include crooked politician and secret mobster S.K. Vardhan in Mashaal, released the same year as Temple of Doom, and the 1987 film Mr. India, in which he plays yet another savage brute named Mogambo, who threatens the well being of a nice guy who runs an orphanage and happens to own an invisibility device. While unable to condone the hokey, dismissive way in which Temple of Doom depicts an entire culture, I must admit that even the film’s racial insensitivity is not untrue to the spirit of Bollywood action films of the same decade. All the eighties Indian film industry cared to know about China, Hong Kong, and the Far East in general was that they invented kung fu (the Fu-Manchu-bearded karate guru was a common trope at the time) and possessed an impressive cadre of organized crime (which, as mentioned earlier, is pretty much Spielberg’s depiction of the Chinese in Temple of Doom, coincidentally). As for white Westerners, there was more of a range, but many of the types from this time reflect the persistent scars of British colonialism: the women are either priggish (in period films) or one-note sexual dilettantes (in contemporary titles), and Caucasian men, particularly Brits, were often depicted as heartless looters, pillagers, and landowners or oddly unmanly bureaucratic henchmen.

The astuteness of his casting and the specificity of his film’s Bollywood-referencing aesthetic suggest that rather than being purely exploitative in his choice of destination for the second film in the Indiana Jones series, Spielberg had a particular interest in India (after all he did shoot part of Close Encounters of the Third Kind there, as well) and perhaps a finger on the pulse of the Indian film industry long before it was fashionable in the West. However, this only serves to make the in-your-face racism of the film all the more perturbing. Despite his possible affection for the country, Temple of Doom was initially banned in India for its “depiction of negative Indian stereotypes.” Even more ironic—not to mention amusing—is the fact that the country that Spielberg here mined for cheap laughs and exoticism is now a primary source of his funding: after his 2008 break with Paramount, he signed a multi-billion-dollar deal with a Mumbai-based film group called Reliance, which at the time Anita Singh, show-business editor for the Telegraph referred to as “part of a Hollywood trend to harness the success of the booming Bollywood movie industry.” Reliance, indeed.