When I was a kid, movies used to be more memorable. Not because they were better, but because we used to consume less media. And, naturally, fictional stories used to stick with us for longer. Indiana Jones was one of those notable characters that helped shape my fantasies during childhood. I still remember when my cousin, who used to sleep walk, was staying over at our house. He slept in the top bunker and, after we watched one of Indiana Jones’ movies that evening, he woke up and just launched himself from the top bed. So, yeah, I thought of Indiana Jones for years to come.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, I was already married to Ashray. I had the sudden realization that we should definitely watch Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom together, because the story takes place in India! Of course, as a child from small-town Portugal, I had not realized how racist (not to mention sexist) Doctor Jones’ story is!
Let’s look into what India is all about, according to Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom:
I know no movie has the duty to represent the people of an entire country. But, let’s get real here, from the first scene an Indian person is shown in Temple of Doom, Indians are portrayed as some sort of rare creatures from the back of beyond.
After a rather bizarre opening scene, Indy & Co. escape Shanghai – yeah, there’s prejudice towards Chinese people in there too! Doctor Jones takes off from China on a plane, crashes it and ends up descending a river with his two side-kicks. While they’re floating on a raft somewhere in India, we see the first Indian person shown in this movie. The scary mysterious music played in the background is meant to make you fear the Indian villager who, turns out, is actually pretty sweet.
The sweet Indian man turns out to be the leader of a village nearby. And, if his portrayal might not have been stellar, the rest of his people are along the same lines. Not only are Indians seen as helpless starving villagers, Indiana Jones shows up from seemingly nowhere, as the white hero who’s in town to save the day. Of course all the British in India back in those days (the movie is set around 1930) were not enough to bring some light into the lives of such desperate folks.
Turns out the kids of the village have been disappearing and when the useless Indian people come across a random white man, they realize he’s the key to bringing them back. Indy is not the type to turn down a good adventure, so off he goes to resolve the missing children mystery…
Hands down, my favorite part of the movie! When Indy is invited to a Maharaja’s Palace and feasts with the residents and guests. The menu? Live snakes and fat-ass beetles.
Indy’s girlfriend-to-be doesn’t care about those dishes and asks for something simple. In India, there’s a saying that translates into “guest is God”. As such, they do present her with a different menu option:
What’s for dessert? Chilled monkey brains – YAY, just like our family serves on special occasions when we visit Delhi!
If Indians aren’t portrayed as barbaric enough by their food choices, one of the men at the table burps like an animal. While in contrast, the British guests present, seem to be quite reasonable, soft spoken and even understanding of these quirks (as if that was daily life in India back in the day).
Religion in India
Following the banquet scenes, the other most memorable parts of The Temple of Doom has got to be the sequence of the Kali Ma cult that takes place inside a cave:
And, once again, things get pretty insensitive around here. One could debate that the food scene does not represent the way all Indians eat. After all, there are weirdos everywhere in the world. But here, we see a dark cult led by the man who made it hard for me to fall asleep during years: Mola Ram! Legendary Bollywood villain Amrish Puri plays the high priest of the Thugees and, oh boy, does he do it well!
At this point, it would have been wiser if the movie had picked up 100% fictional deities and people, because taking existing communities and transforming them into obscure characters for the sake of the story seems rather demeaning.
Long story short, Mola Ram and his brainwashed people worship Kali, and they do so by drinking blood and taking people’s lives. Putting things into perspective, Kali is an actual Hindu deity that people do worship now-a-days. Kali (literally meaning “black”) is the Goddess of Time (Creation, Change, Preservation, Destruction) and Empowerment. As one of the forms of the Goddess Durga, very important in places like West Bengal and Assam (where Ashray comes from), she is indeed praised, but not by shedding blood…
And it gets better than heart-ripping action and blood shots in The Temple of Doom! When Indiana Jones finally has a face off with Mola Ram and is about to defeat him and let him fall in a river full of starving crocodiles, he releases this gem of a line:
Prepare to meet Kali…IN HELL!
This is the same as implying that Jesus lives in Hell, or Mohammed lives in Hell! I don’t even care about religion – but this just sounds IGNORANT!
I wonder if non Hindu people watching this movie would have ever heard of Kali before. I suppose most wouldn’t have. For that, I would have found it wiser to create a fictional deity and make the cult around it as colorful as one would wish. Because, this way, it doesn’t turns out to be disrespectful for Hindus and the rest of the audience, wouldn’t even understand the difference.
No surprise India refused to let the movie be shot inside the country back in 1984, and the production had to move to neighboring Sri Lanka!
It’s incredible how silly movies have the power to influence the way we think about certain places and people. Most people may not actually think that Indians eat snake for lunch and monkey brains for dessert. But I am sure there are individuals who may consider Indian culture to be further away from their own, because of the influence that these types of scenes might have had on their subconscious. After all, I did meet a Colombian manicure lady in Chile, who said she had an Indian guy hitting on her on an online dating website, but for her it was definitely a no-go. Why?!, I asked playfully. Is he not handsome enough for you?
He is a very handsome Indian man. But I have heard that Indians eat rats. Yuck! I wouldn’t be able to put up with that!…
Thanks, Steven Spielberg! If you do travel to India, I hope you get Delhi belly!
Subscribe to the Backpack ME Newsletter
Tips, fun stuff, and TONS of inspiration! Straight to your inbox!
Oh God I still remember this scene – grossed me out as a child. And I went on to live in India!!
Probably my favorite post thus far of yours.
Although the racist stereotypes of non-Whites in Hollywood has been almost eradicated, the current issue is still Hollywood whitewashing characters, with the latest furor over Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese character in a live-action adaptation of hit anime “Ghost in the Shell.”
So only white people are supposed to play villains, or characters who eat strange or disgusting foods? Does it occur to you that a person of Indian ancestry eating chilled monkey brains doesn’t mean everyone from India does the same?
Dude.. NO one in India eats monkey brains. Have you even read the article ?! Exactly what is wrong with you people :-/
Im watching temple of doom and just watched the dinner scene at the palace where they bring out the monkey brains and i thought to myself, theres no way that there aren’t any “ Indiana jones controversy threads” and to my delighg I’ve found it. Thank-you. I died laughing reading this article 10/10
Temple of doom on acid hits the spot
a BIG thank you. :) Appreciate this.