Hollywood’s love affair with the depiction of South Asians is very one-sided. It’s always about Taj Mahal, samosa, and colorful Bollywood songs. Don’t get me wrong; all of those are extremely important to our culture. However, mainstream Western media often chooses to revel only in those sides of us without giving it depth or meaning.
This also applies to how South Asians are shown in relationships; arranged marriages. However, there are some movies that explore interracial relationships that feature desi actors and characters. These are rooted in reality and focus on a rarely explored or even talked about aspect.
Yes, most of these interracial romances feature one desi while the other half is usually a straight white person. There’s very minimal representation of LGBT interracial relationships or even those which are about a desi and an African-American or any other non-white races. But for now, we’ll take what we have because if anything, it’s a sign of lots more greatness to come.
“The Namesake” (2007)
Starring: Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kal Penn, Jacinda Barrett
Director: Mira Nair
Based on the Jhumpa Lahiri novel of the same name, Nair churned up an emotional and moving story on the big screen that deeply resonated with South Asian-American immigrants. Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli moved to New York City from Kolkata years ago but still struggle to assimilate. This isn’t a problem for their American-born son Nikhil, known as Gogol. He doesn’t understand why his parents believe in age-old traditions. While studying at Yale, he dates Maxine, a wealthy white woman, and bonds more with her family than his own. His parents don’t take kindly to him dating an American, pressuring him to marry a Bengali woman. It’s only after his father’s sudden death that he immerses himself in his culture, growing distant from Maxine and eventually ending things with her. The movie is a somber representation of life for second-generation immigrants who struggle with dual identities, especially when it comes to dating people of other races and the importance of your parent’s seal of approval.
“Bend it like Beckham” (2002)
Starring: Parminder Nagra, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Keira Knightley, Anupam Kher
Director: Gurinder Chaddha
With a revenue of $32 million, “Bend it Like Beckham” is the highest-rated Indian-themed movie in the United States. It’s easy to see why so many people instantly loved this story. Jesminder ‘Jess’ Bhamra is a prolific football player who, against her parents wishes, joins the local women’s football team and quickly becomes one of their best players, forming a close friendship with Jules and a romantic bond with their coach Joe. All hell naturally breaks lose when Jess’s family finds out and after lots of struggles, they allow her to play in the finals, which earns her a scholarship to a university in California. She resists a relationship with Joe, fearing her parents won’t approve but before leaving for the U.S., they promise each other to figure a way around it. Cut to Joe helping Mr. Bhamra regain his strength to play Cricket. Really, there’s no better way to a desi dad’s heart.
“Mississipi Masala” (1995)
Starring: Sarita Choudhary, Denzel Washington, Roshan Sheth, Sharmila Tagore
Director: Mira Nair
This movie is truly a rare gem because it boldly goes where not many others have, especially on the big screen; depicting a strong relationship between a South Asian and an African-American. It lends a strong narrative to interracial romances with its poignant storytelling. Jay, Kinnu, and their daughter Mina end up settling in Greenwood, Mississippi, when they are forced to leave their Ugandan town of Kampala. Mina easily adjust to her new life, making diverse friends, and falling in love with Demetrius. Jay, meanwhile, grows distrusteful of African-Americans. Mina faces her own challenges while trying to win over Demetrius’s black community. The movie’s central romance comes with many nuanced stories about acceptance; from your family, from your community; from your country and motherland.
“Bride and Prejudice” (2004)
Starring: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Martin Henderson, Daniel Gillies, Naveen Andrews
Director: Gurinder Chaddha
This desi spin on “Pride and Prejudice” comes packed with intense family drama, Bollywood-style song-and-dance, and wrapped amidst all of it is Lalita and Will’s budding romance. The latter visits Amritsar, India, for a wedding with his best friend Balraj. He meets Lalita, the eldest daughter of the Bakshi family. Her mother wants to marry off her and her three sisters into wealthy families. Initially, Will’s ignorance about India comes off as arrogant to Lalita but they can’t help their mutual attraction. This is one of the biggest Indian-American themed movies in terms of casting, gaining positive reviews for a classic story mixed well with flamboyance and Bhangra.
“Mistress of Spices” (2005)
Starring: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Dylan McDermott, Padma Lakshmi, Anupam Kher
Director: Paul Meyeda Berges
Another successful book-to-screen adaptation, this one is based on the novel by Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni. In it, Tilo is an Indian immigrant who runs a special spice shop. The spices she use help satisfy her customer’s desires and solve their problems. As a Mistress of Spice, Tilo has to follow certain rigid rules, including never physically touching her customers. All of it changes when she meets Doug, who meets with an accident outside her store and she rushes to heal him. As they start falling in love, Tilo’s spices start working negatively and she has to take crucial steps to rectify her mistakes. The film was met with poor reviews but it still left an imprint on the representation of interracial relationships featuring South Asians.
6. “Today’s Special”
Starring: Aasif Mandvi, Jess Weixler, Naseerudin Shah, Madhur Jaffrey
Director: David Kaplan
This quirky tale of a restaurant owner in Queens hits close to home in many ways. Samir has to take over his father’s restaurant, Tandoori Palace, when he falls sick and abandon his own sous chef job at an upscale New York City restaurant along with his hope to learn how to cook French food. Unfortunately, Tandoori Palace is barely making the cut and even Samir’s limited knowledge of Indian food doesn’t seem to be saving it. The only bright light is his growing relationship with his co-worker Carrie. Meanwhile, his mother is (as usual) trying to get him to marry an Indian woman. Samir get help from an unexpected source; a taxi driver and gourmet chef Akbar and together, they turn their little eatery into one of the most visited Indian food spots in the city.
“New York, I Love You” (2009)
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Natalie Portman
Director: Mira Nair
This movie is a collection of ten terrific short films with an interlaced theme: New York City. One of them, directed by Nair, is a beautiful story between Jain man who is a diamond merchant and a Hasidic-Jewish bride-to-be. She’s a jewelery broker who is in his store to negotiate and before they know it, their conversation deepens into talking about the strictness of their respective religions and the traditions that come with them; like what they can eat and can’t eat, their languages, and their relationships. Their bond isn’t necessarily outright romantic, its deeper than that. Their scenes might have been very few but leave a lasting impact.
“The 100 Foot Journey” (2014)
Starring: Manish Dayal, Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
I suppose Indian food is a subject that always works. In this case, Hassan is a young chef who moves to France with his family after his mother’s death. They end up buying an abandoned property that belongs to Madame Mallory, who runs a Michelin-star restaurant. Hassan’s father and Mallory slowly become nemesis, and this is fueled further when Mallory offers Hassan a job after seeing his potential. Meanwhile, Hassan strikes up a romance with Mallory’s sous-chef Marguerite. It’s a slightly complicated situation but eventually, it all ends up on a good note and leaves you rooting for the young couple. It also gives us a unique cultural purview; a French-Desi romance.
9. “The Big Sick” (2017)
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter
Director: Michael Showalter
One of the biggest movies of last year, “The Big Sick” tells the true story of Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon’s relationship. The two met when she heckled him at his stand-up comedy act and their one night stand bloomed into a real bond. However, he kept it hidden from her for a while that his family is pressuring him into marrying a Pakistani woman. They break up when she finds out. Unfortunately, Emily’s health deteriorates suddenly and she’s put in an induced coma. Kumail visits her and meets her parents and together, the three of them go an unexpected journey as they wait for her to recover. The movie, which is Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay, is a mix of witty humor and tender romances.
10. “Chutney Popcorn” (1999)
Starring: Nisha Ganatra, Jill Hennessey, Sakina Jaffrey, Madhur Jaffrey
Director: Nisha Ganatra
This wonderful movie tells the story of two sisters, Reena and Sarita, who live in New York City. Reena is a lesbian who offers to be the surrogate for her happily married sibling when Sarita realizes she is infertile. One of the biggest reasons Reena agrees is to get in the good graces of her mother, who hasn’t come to terms with her sexual orientation. However, this leads to difficulties in Reena’s relationship with her girlfriend, Lisa. Released in the late 90s, this movie set quite a benchmark because it broke several boundaries and for that reason alone, its worth a watch. It was nominated for a GLAAD award for Outstanding TV Movie and won various film festival awards.
11. “Cosmopolitan” (2003)
Starring: Roshan Sheth, Carol Kane, Madhur Jaffrey, Purva Bedi
Director: Nisha Ganatra
This movie’s winning point is its unique storyline. Even though it came out in the early 2000s, when quite a few of these South Asian-American romances were coming into the limelight, “Cosmopolitan” stood out with its concept. Gopal, a telephone company engineer living in New Jersey, finds that his life is turned upside down when his wife leaves him to return to India and live in an ashram. His daughter leaves to teach English in Mongolia. Gopal has never lived alone and finds it daunting and passes time watching several Bollywood romantic movies. He also bonds with his neighbor, Helen, and upon finding his daughter’s Cosmopolitan magazines, begins using the advice in there to strengthen their relationship.
12. “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” (2008)
Starring: Kal Penn, John Cho, Neil Patrick Harris, Daneel Harris
Director: Jay Hurwitz
Who doesn’t love the “Harold and Kumar” movie series? A set of blockbuster comedies whose lead duo are Korean-American and Indian-American created quite the stir and in a good way. This sequel continues with the story of the first movie. The two stoner best friends decide to travel to Amsterdam to surprise Harold’s girlfriend Maria but at the airport, they bump into Kumar’s ex-girlfriend Vanessa, who is now engaged. The two get in several hilarious but silly situations that include escaping a KKK rally, hanging out with Neil Patrick Harris, and more. Amidst this, Kumar and Vanessa get a chance to reconnect and find their romance. It’s all kinds of nutty but its also all kinds of sweet.
13. “The Other End of the Line” (2008)
Starring: Shriya Saran, Jesse Metcalfe, Anupam Kher, Larry Miller
Director: James Dodson
The cliched story of long-distance relationships gets a little bit of a twist in this movie. Priya works at a Citi Bank call center in Mumbai with hopes of moving to the U.S., much against her parents wishes. One day, posing as Jennifer, she helps out Granger with fraudulent charges on his card and over the phone, the two of them develop a strong connection, with him believing she’s an American. They decide to meet in San Francisco and Priya leaves without telling her family. Incidentally, Granger meets Priya and doesn’t realize it’s the same person he spoke to on the phone and instead, the two roam around the city and she introduces him to her Indian culture and roots. Eventually, her family comes to find her and that’s when all hell breaks lose. The story might be predictable but it does add to the list of South Asian interracial couples we root for.
Starring: Jimi Mistry, Heather Graham, Marisa Tomei, Michael McKean
Director: Daisy von Scherler Meyer
When it comes to interracial romances, this one may be an unconventional pick because the movie comes off as a little crude and loud. It centers on a dance teacher from Delhi, Ramu, who under the misguidance of his cousin, moves to New York City to try his luck in the industry. It all starts going downhill for him from this point. He even gets a part in a porno without realizing what it really is. While attending a birthday party, Ramu is mistaken for an Indian guru. Not knowing what to speak, he starts spewing off things he heard from his co-star Sharonna. He is an instant hit and the birthday girl, Lexi, spreads the word about him and refers to him as a new age Sex guru. To continue on this unexpected and bizarre journey, Ramu seeks help from Sharonna. It’s an unconventional way to meet your true love and the movie itself comes across as somewhat unconventional but it manages to strike a chord. The movie even did some Bollywood-meets-Hollywood style songs, combining Hindi and English music and dance on various occasions.
Starring: Ayesha Dharkar, Josh Hamilton, Asif Basra, Arjun Mathur
Director: John Jeffcoat
You might be familiar with the short-lived 2010 NBC television comedy of the same name but did you know it was inspired by this movie? Outsourcing to India isn’t a new concept at all but on-screen, it hadn’t been done a lot before, which is why it also won awards at several film festivals. In the movie, Todd is sent to India to train call center employees, specifically his replacement there, a man named Puro. At first, he is frustrated with the lack of progress but as he opens his mind, his culture shock starts wearing off. He meets another employee with potential, Asha, and offers her an assistant job. While they fall for each other, she knows her family will never agree to their relationship and tells him it won’t last. The movie’s ending is left slightly ambiguous even if the rest of it is pretty generic. However, “Outsourced” remains one of the few successful movies to navigate this subject.