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The White Tiger rides the surge in streamed south Asian stories | Film

The White Tiger, the film adaptation of the Booker prize-winning book by Aravind Adiga, marks a new stage in the convergence of the world’s two most powerful film industries, in the US and India. Like Bong Joon-ho’s multiple award winner Parasite, The White Tiger is a film about the upper class, and their hired help turning against them; it is directed by Iranian-American film-maker Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) and among its producers are A Wrinkle in Time’s Ava DuVernay, and Indian actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas (who also plays a major role in the film). The film was snapped up by Netflix – and it is no overestimation to say that streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have played a key role in enabling this surge of interest in south Asian stories.

Chopra Jonas has been at the forefront of this development, having made her name in Indian cinema with hits such as Don and Fashion before crossing over into Hollywood with a voice role in Planes, and a part in the TV series Quantico in the mid-2010s. “It was hard for me when I came to America to be taken seriously and find the kind of roles that I wanted to do,” says Chopra Jonas. “It took me a lot of digging my feet in, and finding amazing partners who had faith in me, who gave me the opportunities. It shouldn’t be that hard for south Asian talent, whether writers, directors, actors, to be a part of global entertainment, especially right now, when streamers give us the ability to tell any kind of story. I want to be a producer at the helm of that and tell as many south Asian stories, or stories from different parts of the world or female stories, as I can.

“I’m one of the few people who’ve come from the entertainment business in India, who’s held my ground and said that Indians are one fifth of the global population, and our portrayal in English language global content should be one fifth at least. We’re not anywhere close.”

Chopra Jonas also says it was a longstanding dream to work with DuVernay: “Ava is someone I’ve really admired. You meet a lot of people and have these conversations in rooms, especially at post-awards parties, and say we should work together – and that goes away the next day. Ava came on board because she has faith in the movie and is an ardent admirer of Ramin’s work. I was very excited to see my name attached to hers.”

Bahrani, who was born in the US as the son of Iranian immigrants, is a friend of Adiga from university days at Columbia and is very aware of the reach that Netflix has given him. “This is such a specific and authentic Indian story, and the right partner to bring it to that global audience that Priyanka and I felt it could reach. A lot of my films have been about immigrant and diaspora characters, and I’ve watched my films at awesome arthouse cinemas. What’s great about these streamers is that they’re giving people a chance to tell their stories and they’re not limiting them any more. In my early career, it was always such a struggle to get my films made.”

The interest in south Asian stories is not limited to prestigious India-set novels, however. Evil Eye, a horror film released on Amazon Prime Video as part of the Welcome to Blumhouse series, combined supernatural elements and domestic abuse, drawing on India’s storytelling tradition from myths and superstitions, with an excellent south Asian cast. Chopra Jonas also acted as an executive producer, alongside Jason Blum, who produced Get Out and Us. “With Welcome to the Blumhouse, we wanted to use under-represented film-makers.” says Blum. “I’m very against tokenism. If you’re going to do it, you should do it, and it’s led to unusual and interesting movies that represent our audience more completely.

“The advantage of doing movies on a streaming platform is that when you’re making theatrical movies, there is a rhythm that you have to hit, like jump scares, whereas these are more thrillers. We call them unsettling, or disturbing. I think there is a lot of interest in mysticism, ghosts and scary things. We’ve actually done more in India than any other country in terms of borrowing lore. We tried in South Korea, but never got it off the ground.”

Jennifer Salke, CEO of Amazon Studios, is firmly committed to giving these films a widely accessible home. “When a powerhouse talent like Priyanka Chopra Jonas comes on to projects and lends her voice to the content development as a storyteller, it really makes an impact on the end result. Such stories speak to the new, evolved global viewer that looks at content as a window into various cultures. India is the country in which we currently produce the most Amazon Originals outside of the US.”

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (right) in Never Have I Ever, with Lee Rodriguez and Ramona Young.
Breaking barriers … Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, right, in Never Have I Ever, with Lee Rodriguez and Ramona Young. Photograph: Lara Solanki/AP

In recent years, Mindy Kaling has been at the forefront of breaking down barriers in the Hollywood mainstream. Her TV series Never Have I Ever became a huge hit across the globe on Netflix: it featured a Tamil American family and boasted a Canadian Tamil lead in Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Still a teenager, Ramakrishnan is keen for accuracy in representation: “I’m keen to take roles of girls who are Tamil, and roles around my culture – but also roles that are not about my culture but the character happens to be Tamil. I wish to create a space for it to be a Tamil character, rather than it being written as one.”

Tamil diaspora voices are also central to Funny Boy, from Oscar-nominated Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta, and distributed by DuVernay’s Array outfit and showing on Netflix. “I am moved primarily by stories that I am curious about,” says Mehta. “Can humanity survive in the middle of chaos? Can we learn from our mistakes? Will all wars be fought on women’s bodies? Will we ever stop seeing people as ‘the other’? Will refugees ever be integrated? When will we stop having to scream for our right to breathe? As a British south Asian Tamil woman, raised in three countries where I’m seen as ‘the other’, I can’t help but be delighted to see this reflected on the screen.

The White Tiger is on Netflix on 22 January. Funny Boy and Never Have I Ever season one are on Netflix. Four new Welcome to the Blumhouse titles – The Manor, Black As Night, Madres and Bingo – will be on Amazon Prime Video this year. The book Unfinished by Priyanka Chopra Jonas is out on 9 February.

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