10 Underrated Films about South Asians You Need to Watch
We’ve all heard of the phrase “April showers bring May flowers,” but have you ever wondered what to do while Mother Nature graces the Earth with beautiful rainfall? I personally like to unwind by checking out some films that most people look past twice. Ever since I realised I wanted to pursue a career in entertainment, I’ve made it my mission to delve into some amazing films which truly deserve more credit than what’s been initially given in order to really recognise what’s come before me. While many “underrated” films tend to be labelled as obscure and flat out ridiculous, I define this selection as incredible works which exquisitely encapsulate the common themes us South Asians might encounter on a daily basis. Witnessing these features has given me something to contemplate about and I encourage you all to give these films a chance as you seriously won’t regret it!
With that in mind, here’s a list of ten underrated films about South Asians you have to watch to feed your soul and beat those rainy day blues.
East Is East (1999) dir. Damien O’Donnell
The first film on the list revolves around a Pakistani family living in Salford, England in 1971. East Is East is a comedy-drama that showcases the unbelievably chaotic life the Khan family leads.This motion picture captures the journey of the Khan family’s children as they navigate the nuances of being both Pakistani and British while tackling the resistance that comes with each identity. I love this film because it captures many elements of diaspora life that you sometimes feel like you’re dealing with on your own while reminding you of the joy that comes with it.
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) dir. Danny Leiner
If you’re looking for an inane and hilarious cinematic experience then this film is it. Harold and Kumar's simple hunt for the perfect meal to satiate their munchies unfolds in such an absurd way; from running circles around cops to stealing Neil Patrick Harris’ car, the pair embark on a death-defying odyssey that offers the sweetest reward – a burger from White Castle! This process displays an interesting take on being the product of the diasporic experience, and proves that Asian people can in fact break the model minority myth.This film is so stupidly hilarious and honestly surprised me that I enjoyed it as much as I did, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Hotel Mumbai (2018) dir. Anthony Maras
One motion picture that is definitely not spoken about as much as it should be is Hotel Mumbai. This depicts the true story of the 26/11 terrorist attack that took place in 2008 on the Taj Hotel, in Mumbai. It shows how the ordinary hotel staff became unlikely heroes in the defence of their patrons, some laying down their lives to protect both the hotel and each other. After watching, I was feeling a lot of different emotions; it has a lot to say about India’s own political climate of that time period. While I’m not keen on watching films where brown people are shown as terrorists, I was moved by it as it showed the lengths people will go to in times of crisis. Plus, it was so lovely to see two iconic figures of cinema from different generations like Anupam Kher and Dev Patel share some scenes together!
The Namesake (2006) dir. Mira Nair
If there ever was a film that chronicles the candid truth of being an immigrant living in the west, The Namesake would be at the top of that list. American-born Gogol desperately wants to fit in with his New York peers, so much so that he goes by a different name when he’s older. If you have a name that is more on the traditional side, you’ll understand the conflict of wanting to preserve your family and culture’s history but also the ridicule and alienation that comes with it. Maybe you go by a nickname amongst friends or co-workers, or let people mispronounce your name so it’s easier for them. This film tackles just that very issue and a whole myriad of obstacles immigrants face when they move countries. I definitely cried, at least once, because this film hits incredibly close to home and offers you with a different perspective on the generations who have come before you that you may not have otherwise considered.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002) dir. Gurinder Chadha
Bend it Like Beckham’s Gurinder Chadha is a genius and knows exactly how to pull at your heart-strings. The story concerns Jesminder, the tom-boyish daughter of a strict Indian couple, who, despite being eighteen years old, isn’t allowed to play football like she so badly wants to. This film has been with me since I was a child, and makes me tear up every time I watch it, because it bestows a powerful message on any viewer: do what you love. We’re constantly facing the conundrum of doing what we want to pursue in life; a never-ending battle between doing what we feel like we were meant to do versus what your parents want and, for those with parents who push their ambitions on their children more so than others, this film will definitely speak to you. Similarly in East is East, Bend it Like Beckham reveals a careful balance Jess has to keep between her home life and the influence British culture has on her and the different viewpoints each aspect offers. If you’ve ever felt like you’re caught between the pressures and privileges of several communities, I can’t stress this enough, watch this film!
Funny Boy (2020) dir. Deepa Mehta
Being the only non-English language film on the list, Funny Boy features Deepa Mehta's wonderful direction and poetic writing as the story follows a young boy, Arjie, through the milestones of his life. Set in 1970s Sri Lanka, a country that was stricken by social turmoil and political unrest/injustice at the time. In the midst of all this, our funny boy must navigate issues of his sexuality, identity and familial ties. There are very few films made by South Asians about LGBTQ+ members of our community, but this is one of them and it was an absolutely beautiful watch. At times, it was a little graphic so if you’re thinking of watching this, beware that there may be some upsetting scenes of violence. Whilst the film displays what life was like for LGBT people nearly fifty years ago, it’s very evocative of what life is still like for sexual minorities today and is a reminder that they have a long way to go before achieving true harmony with their heterosexual counterparts in all aspects of society.
The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015) dir. Matt Brown
Now, I am definitely not one for anything remotely math related but, and hear me out, this film is outstanding! Capturing the dramatised real-life tale of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliantly talented mathematician from Madras, India, I was hooked when I watched this film. After leaving everything he’s ever known behind to travel to Cambridge University in England, he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories whilst having to tackle the immense struggles of being one of the only people of colour amongst his peers. This film depicts the raw and, at times, horrific truth of how the British Empire and many Britons perceived Indians. Dev Patel gives a great performance, as always, and shows a side of history that is often neglected or omitted from common knowledge.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) dir. Stephen Frears
When I discovered this film, I was beside myself. A camp story about a gay couple in 80s Britain… plus the legend of cinema that is Daniel Day-Lewis?! I only mention him because ever since he amassed an impressive career prior to his retirement, more people have peeked into his earlier works and realised how inspiring and wonderful My Beautiful Laundrette is. This is further punctuated when you consider the era in which this film was produced because of the potential controversy that would have followed this rising star. While My Beautiful Laundrette may have that classic rigidness in tone and stiff delivery that only older cinema can really depict, the narrative is a considerate story that exhibits the struggles gay South Asians face when dealing with the realities of home and personal life. This cinematic feature consists of topics including arranged marriage, inter-racial relationships, racism, patriotism and class division. The performances were brilliant and this film is, in all, a cute watch.
Mogul Mowgli (2020) Dir. Bassam Tariq
You may have heard of Riz Ahmed’s recent hit film, Sound of Metal, that I purposefully left off this list since it received such amazing critical acclaim already. However, did you know he starred in another film with a similar storyline after that? In what seems like the first time in western film history, we see an all South Asian ensemble-cast and an American director, Bassam Tariq, who is of Pakistani ancestry. The essence of this film revolves around a young British rapper, Zed who is about to begin his first world tour when he is struck down by a debilitating illness. Ahmed gives a showstopping performance as his character is tangled in an overwhelming struggle of self-identity within his music career and the person influenced by religious family traditions. For many creatives, approaching your parents with the proposal that you would rather strive to be a musician, actor, writer, director etc. can be daunting. They might not have had that idea in mind for you or they might reject it completely, but this film eloquently portrays the effects of that very notion when Zed’s parents realise how life is on the line and his career choice is the least of their worries.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. (2018) dir. Stephen Loveridge
Finally, we are concluding this list with a documentary about an influential Sri Lankan-born music artist M.I.A. I’ve loved this woman’s work for years and when I found out she produced a documentary highlighting the ongoing socio-political divide in her home country, I instantly knew I had to watch it. Many of the few western films about South Asians are male-centric, often having women in the background and given far fewer lines or screen time in general so, to see this empowering documentary about an incredible immigrant woman simply living her life, is something special and rare. By including parts of her own artistic process with home videos of her as a child and her journey to Sri Lanka to visit relatives, this documentary is eye-opening in more than one sense. Not only do we see some of the background that has inspired M.I.A.’s music, but also how it has defined the era from which she rose through the ranks and just how she brought attention to her activism through her art. I would recommend this the absolute most out of all the films on this list for everyone to watch. Even if you haven’t heard her music, you may relate to M.I.A.'s outlook on authorities, society as a whole and the constraints of personal-identity she faced as an immigrant living in London.