As the country debates immigration policy under the Trump administration, director Lena Khan’s The Tiger Hunter (in theaters September 22) offers up a warmhearted rendition of the immigrant dream. Sami Malik (played by Community’s Danny Pudi) is the son of a tiger hunter. He leaves India for a job opportunity in Chicago, which he hopes will (A) win him the affections of his childhood sweetheart, and (B) allow him to achieve the same mythic status as his father, who died when Malik was just a boy. The film, Khan’s first feature, is a fresh retelling of a familiar trope, one spun with humor and warmth and inspiration from Khan’s father’s own experience (his father was a tiger hunter, too).
For Khan, who grew up in Rancho Cucamonga and graduated from UCLA’s film school, The Tiger Hunter represents more than five years of work, from writing the script to cold-emailing potential investors to filming in India while seven months pregnant. We spoke with her about representation, balancing entertainment with purpose, and a stolen stool sample (believe it).
How did the idea for The Tiger Hunter come about, and where did your dad come into it?
My brother’s friend randomly wrote me an email one day, and he’s like, since you’re in the industry, I wanted to tell you a story about my dad. When he came into the country, he and his roommates didn’t have much money. Somehow they pulled [their money] together and got this amazing suit, and they scheduled their job interviews around the availability of the suit. They’d sit around in their underwear, waiting for the guy to come back with the suit so they could go to their interview. And he’s like, You should do something with that. Do Coming to America, except with Indians.
When I was working at Participant Media, I was telling stories about my dad—like when he came to the U.S., they weren’t letting Indians come in unless they spent six months with a doctor because they said all Indians had something called Amebiasis. It’s something that Indians had because of whatever’s in the water there, but it’s totally benign. But my dad was like, I can’t do that because then my job will be gone. So he moved somewhere that had a lot more Europeans, and he purposefully started living with one of them. [To avoid the doctor], he broke their toilet, waited for one of them to use it, then stole their stool sample. He had his visa in like, two weeks. I was telling that to the people at my company, and they were like, “Oh my goodness, you should totally bark up that tree.” It’s almost sad that I needed white people to tell me, “Hey, you can tell your own stories,” but that’s what it took.
You interviewed other immigrants for The Tiger Hunter, too—what was that like?
When you ask people to tell stories of coming here, you don’t actually hear sob stories. They look back on it with nostalgia and humor and big-hearted dreams. Or when they’re talking about the missteps they had with the people here, they’re not talking about it in a sad way. Somebody told me about how he went to the mall and he was trying on different perfumes, and he didn’t realize they were women’s perfumes, and he got on the bus and this guy looked at him and said, “You smell like a bitch.” They’re just so funny. And they’re so grateful for this country. When I spoke to these people, that was bleeding out of them.
When Sami arrives in the U.S., it’s very diverse—it’s not just a white vision of America. Could you tell me about the process of building that world?
That’s why it’s so important to have diverse filmmakers. A lot of people default to, any stock character is pretty much a white person. And if you put in a minority, you have a purpose behind it. But that’s not really how a lot of minority filmmakers see things. You choose whoever the best person is for the role—sometimes they’re Mexican, sometimes they’re African American.
When did you begin to want to tell stories about your community?
I don’t think I ever thought South Asians were cool. If somebody had told me when I was 20, “Your first movie is going to be a whole bunch of brown people. Not just one, but, like, a whole bunch of them,” I’d be like, “Yeah, right.” Because when you’re a minority filmmaker—or person—you have to try harder, right? You’re not trying to “other”-ize yourself even more.
Now I look back and there are small things that were formative. When I was little, my mom took me to this meeting to talk to the heads of studio about The Siege. Because the Muslim community was really upset at how they were being portrayed in all these Hollywood movies: always as terrorists. So knowing that those sorts of misrepresentations existed and how much they affect a community, I probably knew somewhere in the back of my head that it’d be so nice to say, “No, this is who we really are.” And Sami, for instance—it’s not in the forefront, but he is Muslim.
Are there other stories being told by minorities right now that you’re particularly into?
I adore Fresh Off the Boat, and I’m trying very, very hard to direct an episode this season. It’s such a relatable story, and it’s the model of what I want to do in terms of entertainment: use good storytelling to call attention to things without beating you over the head with it. TV and movies take so much time—they take, like, years of your life, and it feels like they should have more of a purpose for such an influential medium. But the thing is, unless you make things fun, unless you make them entertaining, nobody’s going to watch them.
For a full list of theaters screening The Tiger Hunter, visit thetigerhunter.com.