The Tiger Hunter, the opening night film for the Center for Asian American Media’s annual film festival (CAAMFest), could not arrive at a more pertinent and fragile moment.

Coming to San Francisco on the heels of President Trump’s most recent travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries, the feature film debut from writer and director Lena Khan tells the story of Sami (Danny Pudi of Community fame), a Muslim-Indian who immigrates to America in the 1970s in search of a better life. In this context, the romantic comedy can feel like an inadvertent rebuttal within the ongoing national debate surrounding Muslim immigration.

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But Khan, herself Muslim-American, never imagined the current political circumstances that have propelled her film into an unavoidably symbolic work.

“I was among the people who thought that Donald Trump was never going to become president,” says the 31-year-old filmmaker. “And I didn’t think actually think that Muslim bans or Muslim registries or anything like that would be serious conversation.”

Having always seen film as a vehicle for social activism, Khan understands the importance of media representation in combating misguided perceptions, especially in such a fraught time. And because Muslim characters are often absent, or flatly stereotyped on screen, Khan worried that a story featuring multi-dimensional Muslims at its center would be unwanted. It took film festival screenings, such as one in Austin where “Southern dudes” filled theater seats, for Khan to expel these internalized doubts.

The Tiger Hunter doesn’t exploit or sensationalize Sami’s Muslim identity — in fact, the detail is barely implied. “I always wanted to make a story having a Muslim character in which that wasn’t the defining part of his story,” Khan says. “I wanted to humanize, and have a real portrayal of a Muslim character.”

What takes the fore instead is the rare depiction of a generation of immigrants’ untold struggles. Sami first touches down in the States with the promise of an engineering position at a Chicago manufacturing firm, only to quickly realize the offer has expired. He moves in with a jovial Pakistani immigrant, Babu (Rizwan Manji), and his dozen or so other roommates in a cramped apartment as he plots his way to become a “professional American.”

Still from 'The Tiger Hunter.'
Still from ‘The Tiger Hunter.’ (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

Sami’s story is indicative of countless Asian and South-Asian immigrant journeys of the 1970s and beyond — coming to America with the promise and potential for prosperity, only to hustle at the bottom within self-created communities in order to survive. But if these stories are tragically ignored in the cultural consciousness, Khan does not lament it, instead crafting her film as a rom-com with heart.

While addressing the veracity of the American Dream, Khan peppers the film with hijinks, as Sami attempts to woo his childhood crush and live up to his tiger-hunting father’s legacy. The lighthearted nature is a deliberate strategy.

“It’s so much harder to break down people’s prejudices by putting them on the defensive,” Khan says. “I did not want to do a story on all the racism he encounters because your intended audience is automatically turned away and they feel defensive. I wanted to make it something that felt approachable to people so they could have those conversations.”

Still from 'The Tiger Hunter.'
Still from ‘The Tiger Hunter.’ (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

The nature of those conversations could be varied — if some audiences simply enjoy a love story between two leads who are people of color, Khan would be happy. But other post-viewing dialogue will come from Khan’s insertion, beneath the colorful lighting and laughs, of real-life accounts of experiences from immigrants.

“A lot of the things that Babu says were just taken from things that people said,” Khan says. “It just really struck me when somebody said, ‘You go to places like In-N-Out and nobody steals your food when they call your number.’ And he was just enamored by that, for him it was like, this is what America means.”

In the present moment, optimism for America is in limbo, Khan says. The very existence of a film like The Tiger Hunter is a sign of progress for the medium and for gains in sociocultural understanding. But the reasons for the film’s currently heightened significance is equally disheartening.

Lena Khan
Lena Khan. (Photo by Lara Solanki)

In industry circles, Muslim-Americans are still far and few between, and Khan can still sense the assumptions from those who see a woman in a hijab and think, she says, “You’re foreign, and that you might not know the same movies or have the same working knowledge of things.”

But in the vein of the immigrants in The Tiger Hunter, Khan focuses less on the obstructions and more on the work that needs to be done.

And ever slowly, the needle is moving in the right direction.

“I’m so excited to see so many who are trying to push toward diversity or trying to use film for the same goals I am,” Khan says. “They’re not necessarily the majority, but they’re there, and that base of people is increasing. I think that’s going to lead to changes as well in bridging some of the divides we have now in this country.”

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The Tiger Hunter opens CAAMFest at 7pm on Thursday, March 9, at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and more information visit caamfest.com.

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