‘The Tiger Hunter’: LAAPFF Review

Courtesy of The Tiger Hunter LLC
Chasing the American Dream with both humor and heart.

Lena Khan’s debut feature co-stars Jon Heder and ‘Community’ regular Dani Pudi in a 1970s-set comedy.

Immigrant narratives typically follow a familiar arc as new arrivals struggle with assimilation before eventually achieving a balance between their cultural traditions and the often unruly diversity of American society. Although Lena Khan’s warmhearted period tribute to a generation of South Asian immigrants who sacrificed successful careers and endured separation from their families to resettle in the U.S. doesn’t depart significantly from that template, The Tiger Hunter consistently resonates with genuine affection and abundant authenticity.

Winner of multiple awards, including best director and best ensemble cast when it recently world-premiered at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Khan’s fish-out-of-water comedy is sufficiently relatable to achieve broad exposure in home-entertainment formats and could easily sustain a limited theatrical run in receptive markets.

Khan begins by evocatively establishing the foundations of young engineer Sami Malik’s (Danny Pudi) conflicted decision to emigrate to the U.S. in 1979 from a rural Indian village where he grew up under the watchful eyes of his caring mother and his now-deceased father, a renowned tiger hunter. Sami arrives in Chicago to accept a position with a large manufacturing firm, but there’s been some downsizing since he was recruited and the best the company can offer him is a temporary draftsman position in a cramped, collective basement office, preparing technical drawings for the imperious staff engineers.

With the clock ticking on his 30-day visa, Sami reluctantly moves into a one-room apartment on the wrong side of town that’s shared by a dozen men who have immigrated from South Asia, and although most are professionally trained, almost all are working menial jobs. Their ringleader is a Pakistani named Babu (Outsourced's Rizwan Manji), a former engineer and now a parking valet who still hasn’t obtained his residency status. Babu masterfully orchestrates the communal eating and sleeping arrangements in the cramped flat and serves as Sami’s principal cheerleader, urging him to rapidly make his way up the corporate ladder so that he can remain in the U.S. and become a “professional American.”

Of course, he’ll have to compete with every other draftsman seeking a permanent position, but he finds support from Alex (Jon Heder), the slacker son of the company CEO, who lacks any professional motivation himself. Sami will need all the help he can get to avoid disappointing his mother, dishonoring the villagers who bought his plane ticket to America and losing the trust of Ruby (Karen David), the unrequited object of his affection, who expects him to accomplish big things abroad.

After launching her filmmaking career with a series of shorts and some well-received music videos, Khan adeptly achieves a sometimes tricky balancing act, establishing a sympathetic protagonist while largely skirting the pitfalls of overt sentimentality often associated with immigrant stories. Together with co-writer Sameer Gardezi, Khan succinctly summarizes Sami’s aggrandized memories of his father, which set the bar for his career ambitions. The tone overall is one of gentle humor rather than full-on farce, as Sami develops the perspective to chase his own dreams, rather than living up to imagined parental expectations.

With his ready grin, Pudi strikes an amusing balance between bewildered newbie and determined Everyman, always optimistic that the latest setback represents the prelude to an imminent breakthrough for Sami. Heder’s hangdog underachiever Alex uncomfortably bears his mantle of corporate succession until Sami’s indomitable quest inspires him to seize at his own personal aspirations. Manji comes close to stealing more than a few scenes, with Babu's outsized personality and unquestioning embrace of American cultural values. Relegated to somewhat stereotypical sweetheart status, Ruby could have benefited from additional range and complexity, but David good-naturedly fills the bill regardless.

Khan captivatingly steeps the production in evocative period details, from cinematographer Patrice Cochet’s Polaroid-saturated lensing to production designer Michael Fitzgerald’s '70s-obsessed sets and Justine Seymour’s polyester-proud costumes.

Venue: Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
Production company: Sneaky Sneaky Films
Cast: Danny Pudi, Jon Heder, Rizwan Manji, Karen David, Kevin Pollak, Sam Page, Iqbal Theba, Parvesh Cheena
Director: Lena Khan
Screenwriters: Sameer Gardezi, Lena Khan
Producers: Megha Kadakia, Lena Khan, Nazia Khan
Executive producers: Alan Pao, Danny Pudi, Nadeem Siddiqi
Director of photography: Patrice Cochet
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Costume designer:  Justine Seymour
Editors: Jon Berry, Dan Bush
Music: Amy Correia, Paul Masvidal
Casting director: Emily Schweber

Not rated, 94 minutes