Always a hot-button issue, the topic of immigration has recently dominated the political discourse often taking on some of the ugliest forms of rhetoric as means to limit entry to those seeking a better life in a different land. Community star Danny Pudi headlines a unique take on the immigrant’s tale with The Tiger Hunter, a comedy from director and co-writer Lena Khan. The Tiger Hunter is a kind-hearted comedy that doesn’t always deliver big laugh, but it has a distinctive personality that takes its story beyond the framework of an immigrant’s tale and examines matters of class and privilege as well as the myths that families create through the passing down of stories.
In the ‘70s, Sami Malik (Pudi) has grown up in India in the shadow of his deceased father, the famed tiger hunter who in lore slain the wild beast. With his education complete, Sami is readying to move to America where he’ll use his knowledge to become an engineer. However, when arriving in Chicago, Sami finds a harsh and unforgiving urban metropolis. In a stroke of luck, though, Sami meets Babu (Rizwan Manji), a fellow immigrant who invites Sami to share his apartment with his other roommates. In that small apartment live a number of immigrants, all of whom are educated but trapped working menial jobs. Economics have forced them into tight living quarters and societal prejudices place them in low paying jobs that they’re overqualified for. For Sami and those he lives with, America doesn’t live up to the title of Land of Opportunity.
Eventually Sami finds himself working as a temp in a company that designs microwaves. He befriends the boss’ goofball son Alex (Jon Heder), who is struggling to climb the corporate ladder despite the advantages bestowed upon through nepotism. Even though the company is struggling to reinvent the microwave, Sami’s engineering expertise is overlooked in favor of the unimaginative status quo of Kenneth (Sam Page), an arrogant and dismissive executive.
Complicating matters for Sami is the fact that Ruby (Karen David), his crush since childhood, is coming to America with her father General Iqbal (Iqbal Theba, who, funnily enough, played Pudi’s father on Community). The General is a demanding parent and refuses to arrange his daughter into a marriage unless the suitor has established himself with a well-paying job. Sami schemes with Alex to make it look as if the struggling immigrant has climbed to the upper echelons of the corporate world by putting up a charade at Alex’s father’s house, a lush mansion in the suburbs. It’s a kind of classical farce that takes a few expected and unexpected turns and is really one of the few parts of The Tiger Hunter that is rooted in some sort of storytelling familiarity.
What Lena Khan and co-writer Sameer Asad Gardezi so clearly establish is a difficult transition for their migrant characters, one where they have to work twice as hard for a third of the acknowledgement. Yet, though all these hardships, Sami and his many roommates persevere through it all. Making matter tougher, these are characters that want to retain elements of their culture while assimilating into a completely foreign culture dominated by the Dukes of Hazzard and baseball. Because Sami is so determined, the hardships are soon woven into his daily routine. The bed that awkwardly crammed himself into as it was overflowing with bodies, becomes cozy as Sami grows used to the nighttime routine involving a synchronized rolling over.
The Tiger Hunter becomes more interesting when it focuses on class and more specifically how work ethic isn’t passed down among generations. The drive that keeps Sami going through the hardships isn’t shared by those who’ve nestled themselves into complacency as they’ve easily climbed the ladder of success. This film has a harsh view of complacent Americans in the executive suite, coasting by on the advantages afforded them through birth and class. That harsh portrayal isn’t rooted in an anger or mean streak – there’s no mean streak to The Tiger Hunter – but it’s rooted in a form of pity, a sense of sadness that the indomitable American spirit has become stagnated with success. As the film illustrates with some colorful flair, when that happens there is a need for a hungry wave of eager immigrants ready to become the new embodiment of that spirit.
Given such a unique role, Danny Pudi does an admirable job headlining this film. He’s not just doing a variation of Abed from Community. Sometimes I wished The Tiger Hunter was a bit better at crafting its jokes to better accommodate the comedic talents of Pudi, and yet the film retains a heart that isn’t always reliant on obvious comedic beats. One of the more moving moments in the film comes late, and I won’t dare spoil it, but a less capable actor would’ve let the scene become their big acting reel moment, bursting with oomph and emotion. But Pudi plays it coyly, allowing the audience time to absorb the emotional aspects of the moment and letting the story do the work instead of trying to steal the show. The performance of Danny Pudi here is a testament to his talents and a rallying cry for the actor to be give more varied roles.
The Tiger Hunter doesn’t always bring the big laughs it aims for at times, but it’s a movie with its heart in the right place in so many different areas. For a debut feature, Lena Khan brings a sharp visual style that carefully keeps the frame enticing while always working in service of the story. The Tiger Hunter is a debut that presents the promise of its creators even when the film struggles with its more comedic aspects. At a time when immigrants are seen as nothing more than human fodder for political warfare, the kindness of The Tiger Hunter and its celebration of immigrants and their difficult struggle into a new land is more than welcome.