Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: What western pop cultural depictions of 'India' reveal

Kuzhali Manickavel

Oct 14, 2019 09:10:03 IST

Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.


When one has taken it upon one’s noble self to conquer racism, sexism and stuff like that by writing on the internet, it is important to always choose soft targets. These allow you to be witty without actually doing anything worthwhile, which is the best way to conquer anything. So the soft target of this column is going to be an old and trusted favourite, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and its flabbergasting portrayal of India and Hinduism.

It has been my distinct pleasure to review and be endlessly snarky about old radio plays which have dealt with that very special thing some people like to call “India” and I like to call “what the actual heck, is this Mars and are these aliens”. The one thing that most of these shows had in common was that even though they were about India, there was an almost complete lack of knowledge about India.

This happened despite the fact that India is an actual place on this Earth with real human people in it. Delicious half-truths, romantic notions and vague ideas about what India was probably like made these shows incredibly fascinating. India and all things Indian were treated like some alien species. And when you’re dealing with aliens, you can basically make up whatever you want, which is always a fun thing to do. Anyway, that was all in the dark, dark ages of American radio in the 1940s. The '80s were a more enlightened age, right? Of course not! It was, for the most part, just as bad as the '40s, except we had evolved into movies and television.

 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: What western pop cultural depictions of India reveal

We must also consider the fact that Indiana Jones is essentially pulp fiction

We must also consider the fact that Indiana Jones is essentially pulp fiction. What is the point in whining about problematic representations in a genre which isn’t particularly known for its wokeness? No point whatsoever. It’s just…well, there is something uncomfortable about being an actual, real-life Indian and then seeing this Indianness presented as an exotisized mess on the big screen. It is bewildering when you actually have to explain to some people that you don’t eat monkey brains for dessert. It is not normal to see the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark and feel happy because that means that they are leaving the Indians alone.

Once, an American publication asked for my writer’s bio and was disappointed to see that I now lived in a city instead of the previous ‘small temple town’. The ‘small temple town’ had been a nice, quaint Indian touch, they said. It would add something special to the publication. But I don’t live there anymore, I said. Right, but it’s a nice touch. Why don’t we keep it, they said. I literally do not live there anymore wtf, I said. In the end, they begrudgingly went with the truth though it was clear that it was a disappointment to them. This flabbergasting incident occurred because sometimes people think it’s okay to take something that actually exists in real life and twist it into something else. Why? Because they think it looks better that way. I feel this is what happens to India in movies like these.

And now! Let us re-focus our attention on the movie itself. I understand that I should probably re-watch it because that would be the smart thing to do but frankly, I am scared. I am scared that it will be far worse than I remembered and that I will start thinking about how short my life is and how I spent a chunk of it watching this when I could have been napping. Anyway, in our next column, we will see if I have the guts to watch this movie again or no. Probably no, I’m thinking.

Read part 2 of this column.

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

Updated Date: Oct 15, 2019 09:35:37 IST