When director Lena Khan started writing what would eventually become The Tiger Hunter, starring Danny Pudi, she had a very different vision.
The first script was an amalgam of stories from her father and different immigrants she'd spoken with. She partnered with Modern Family writer Sameer Gardezi, found a star and a champion in Pudi, and years later The Tiger Hunter is releasing in a world starkly different from the one in which it was conceived.
"I think that’s one of the first things is seeing this community of immigrants as human and seeing their story in a way very different from that scary picture that Donald Trump is painting right now," Khan told Mashable. "Last year I would've been happy if people's takeaway from the movie is that they fall in love with these sorts of characters and their journeys, and sort of forget for a while that they all happen to be Indian or Pakistani."
In The Tiger Hunter, Pudi plays Sami Malik, who comes to the United States in the 1970s and tries to find a successful business career so that he can prove himself worthy of marrying his childhood sweetheart. He finds solidarity in fellow immigrants, including Babu (Rizwan Manji) and Vikram (Parvesh Cheena) while struggling for validation at work under boss Frank (Kevin Pollak).
This is what a traditional Muslim immigrant to the country looks like. These are the people who are coming here, these are the dreams they have, these are the lives that they're living.
"I never wrote it thinking, ‘I need to write a movie about an immigrant’" Khan elaborated. "It was a story about a son who’s trying to live up to the glory of his father and not being able to, but for me the biggest thing is I wanted a movie that had my feelings on the idea of success, which I think is very different here as opposed to maybe some cultures."
The immigrant story is one of the film's strongest threads; not only does it encompass Sami's story, but he finds support in several other South Asian immigrants who give him a place to stay and, in one of the film's best sequences, a suit to wear.
Khan never pictured herself making a feature about South Asian immigrants, but when she started to, she wondered why that was.
"I think when you’re a minority filmmaker...you sort of internalize this feeling that when you do work about your own community or minority interests, that it’s a little bit less valid, that you’ve made it a little bit less in the world," Khan said. "So if you have a movie that has a whole bunch of white people, and your movie gets popular, it’s like you've made it more than if you do a movie that’s popular that had a bunch of brown people."
Khan attempted to conquer that fear by speaking to dozens of immigrants in her research to deepen the film's connection to its subjects. She recalls a conversation with one man from Bangladesh — instead of speaking about his family and the process of moving to America, he told her about going to In N Out Burger and the organized process of order numbers and how people don't steal each other's food.
"He was just so moved by that," she says. "Those are the sorts of things you just pick up, those tiny little things that he picked up, and he so appreciated about being here."
"I was always going to make Sami Muslim in as much as Seinfeld is Jewish," Khan said. "It’s just something that happens to be part of his character and when it’s natural to come out it comes out...With the backlash that’s happening right now and people having really strong feelings on the subject, now I want people to notice that this is what, generally, a traditional Muslim immigrant to the country looks like. These are the sorts of people who are coming here, these are the dreams they have. These are the lives that they're living which are generally very benign, and they’re loving people — they have been making contributions to society that totally go under the radar."
In The Tiger Hunter, that contribution is simple but pivotal: The microwave. Sami teams up with friends and colleagues to innovate the device in every American home. Everything seems to hang in the balance of his success with the microwave; his status at work, his chances with Ruby, his faith in America.
As essential to the story is the backdrop of the 1970s, in which Sami can't Facetime his family at home or depend on technology to ease the transition.
"The feeling I get from people from that generation — not just immigrants, but people living here — is that it did seem to be a time of a little bit more...a greater sense of community amongst people, and a little bit more of a welcoming," Khan says. "You can see the stark difference with the way people view immigrants in right now. Obviously there was a time when there wasn’t that much antagonism because our country is full of them working at so many different sections of society — which is sort of what the movie is talking about."
"It’s a comedy so I didn’t want to get too dramatic in it, but I didn’t want to make things too easy either," she added. "The 70s were also just a great palette for wardrobe and music. We got the music from the people who did That '70s Show and Cat Stevens came and gave us a song as well. He saw the movie and he loved it."
A year ago, Khan would have been happy for audiences to love her film and its characters. That's still the goal — but now she sees a wider resonance in the stories of Sami, Babu and the others.
"Babu at the end of the day is working a food cart, but he is ridiculously happy," Khan explains. "And that’s sort of the trajectory that a lot of immigrants have. People at our screenings now have been like ‘You need to get Donald Trump to see this movie!’ and I think that’s what they’re commenting on. You need to see the way that these immigrants embrace America. They love it."
The Tiger Hunter will appear at select film festivals and debut in theaters this fall.Topics: danny-pudi, Entertainment, Movies, immigration, interviews, jon-heder, karen-david, lena-khan, parvesh-cheena, rizwan-manji, the-tiger-hunter