It’s evident from the cheerfully realised 1970s setting of Lena Khan’s debut feature The Tiger Hunter that her tale of a plucky Indian engineering graduate striving to succeed in the United States was conceived as a nostalgia trip. Yet viewed in the early months of 2017, following the disturbing anti-immigration sentiments stirred by Donald Trump’s election campaign and recent inhumane travel ban, this cultural assimilation comedy could almost be taken as a wide-eyed yearning for an alternate America that just happens to be bathed in beige. Choreographed to feel good music, the sequence in which the protagonist arrives at Chicago airport then passes people of various nationalities and faiths is as sincere in its vision of inclusivity as it is self-aware in its style choices.
Aspiring to live up to the legacy of his late father, a legendary tiger hunter, Sami (Danny Pudi), leaves his small Indian village for an engineering job with a large manufacturing company, but after arriving in the US, discovers that his employer is restructuring and is forced to accept a lowly, temporary draftsman position instead. Strapped for cash after being mugged, Sami moves into a small apartment where he shares limited space with a dozen other men from South Asia who cannot progress beyond menial jobs despite their considerable qualifications and sets about working his way up to permanent engineer in order to become a “professional American” before his 30-day visa runs out. Career prospects aside, Sami has another reason to climb the corporate ladder in double-quick time: his childhood sweetheart Ruby (Karen David) is visiting in the company of her stern father, General Iqbal (Iqbal Theba), to meet potential suitors, so an image of success is absolutely essential if he is to stand a chance of marrying the love of his life.
Making the leap to leading man status after playing the film-obsessed student in the cult NBC sitcom Community (2009-2015), Pudi hits all the right notes as the naïve but determined Sami. There are laughs to be had from watching Sami trying to blend in at work or answering the standard job fair questions of “What brings you here?” in an overly literal manner. However, Khan is keen to foreground the character’s intelligence and capacity for adaptation – instilled by his father’s advice that, “To become a great tiger hunter, you must become a tiger” – so she rarely subjects Sami to the usual ‘fish out of water’ mockery. Instead, the amiable Pudi largely plays straight man to his cohabitants, of which the standout is engineer-turned-parking-valet Babu (Rizwan Manji), the de facto group leader and communal chef. There is some bickering but it’s mostly a supportive environment – the film’s best gags involve the cramped sleeping arrangement and the sharing of a suit for interview purposes.
Sami also strikes up a friendship with laidback fellow draftsman Alex (Jon Heder), who turns out to be the son of the company CEO. Unlike Sami, Alex has no desire to prove himself and is happy with his near-invisible position as it enables him to spend time on social documentary photography. There’s potential tension in this dynamic as Sami is working hard out of reverence for his father who, despite his standing in the village, had to sell his prized possessions to put his son through the best British school in India, whereas the stability afforded by Alex’s background has enabled him to jettison ambition. This is a film about acceptance, though, so Khan sidesteps this dichotomy and has Alex play a key role in its most farcical development by allowing Sami to pretend that the family mansion is his new home to impress Ruby’s father.
In addition to its winning performances, much of the film’s charm comes from Patrice Lucien Cochet’s cinematography, which exudes the warm glow of the Polaroid photography practiced by Alex, making it entirely understandable that Sami and his friends are so keen to stay in a ‘promised land’ that has spectacularly failed to meet professional expectations. Khan recreates the US circa 1979 in an affectionate manner, having fun with such period details as polyester clothing and the Dodge Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985), which Babu covets, but never flat-out lampooning the period or her characters’ enthusiasm for the American way of life. Fitfully amusing and genuinely heartfelt, this is an immensely likeable underdog story with a savvy hero who is really worth rooting for.
The Tiger Hunter will be shown on March 9 at CAAMFest 2017.