Asian Americans have a rooting interest in the Oscar race: Anupam Kher, Dr. Patel in Silver Linings Playbook


As we go into Oscar weekend, the favorite for Best Picture seems to have cheering agents in everyone’s medicine cabinet.

They have scary medicinal names like amoxapine and ariprazole, but are better known by their patented brands like Asendin and Abilify–names that, like the drugs, are intended to lift us up to normalcy. In a “pillified” America, they are the real-life co-stars in Silver Linings Playbook, the movie that brings America face to face with its functional craziness.

Oh, and it’s a love story, too.

My first hint that maybe things were going SLP‘s way was when Roger Ebert, the best damn movie critic in the land, blogged this week, switching his Oscar “guess” from Argo to SLP: “People tell me, ‘I have a brother-in-law exactly like that.’ I sense a groundswell.”

Never mind that one of the other favorites, Zero Dark Thirty, may require drugs just to get through the torture scenes. Compared to all that, Silver Linings Playbook is practically Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

It has all the pills and eye-candy you want. Bradley Cooper in a garbage bag? Jennifer Lawrence in a jogging suit?

I say it’s Sunday’s big winner.

But I’m also rooting for it mostly because were it not for a great performance by Robert DeNiro, one of the other stars might have received a nomination for best supporting actor.

That actor is Anupam Kher, a Bollywood icon with hundreds of film appearances, but who is probably most familiar to American audiences for his role in Bend it Like Beckham.

In Silver Linings Playbook Kher is Dr. Cliff Patel, the enabling psychiatrist. What? Another Patel escapes the hotel business to become an Indian doctor or engineer? It’s the new Asian immigrant stereotype replicated throughout America.

But it was anything but a stereotypical portrayal.

As he prepared for the role, Kher told that he emailed the novelist Matthew Quick:

“I wanted to ask him, has he seen somebody like Dr. Patel, Cliff Patel. So I wanted to know the details…I wanted to sound intelligent, that I’m actually working on the script and characterization and go a little deeper. He said he has never met anybody like Dr. Patel. It’s a complete…work of his imagination. But when they showed him my pictures, he said, “It matched what I had imagined.” And after he saw the film, he wrote an email to me and he said, “Wow, thanks a lot for being the way that I had imagined.”

Of course, how many lesser movie moguls might have taken the liberty of changing Dr. Patel to, say, a Dr. Welby, or Kildare? It’s amazing that director David O. Russell stayed true to the novel, but Russell is reported to have said he was merely looking for a “calming presence.”

Still, Kher’s audition was anything but calming. He was traveling in Toronto and scheduled to Skype his audition to Russell. But when the Skype connection failed, Kher was lifted up by his hotel room attendant, who happened to be Bangladeshi and a big Bollywood fan.

Kher told

“He saw me depressed and he said (“Dada” means “elder brother”) ‘Dada, what happened?’ So I told him the whole story (Indians have this habit of telling stories to everybody. That’s why we don’t need therapists, because we share so much.) And he said, ‘No problem. I have an iPhone and I will tape your audition.’ I said, ‘You will tape my audition?’ He said, ‘Yeah. And I’ll send you the link within one hour after I tape it.’ So he brought his iPhone and there my DOP and my cameraman and my director was the room service guy from Bangladesh. And to have his own local flavor to it he said, ‘Action, Dada!’ So I performed, etcetera and he said, ‘Cut, Dada!’ And then within one hour he sent me the link! And then that link decided my fate in this film.

So that’s why I do a play based on my life. It’s an autobiographical play. It’s called, ‘Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai,’ which means, ‘Anything is Possible.’ So I live by that philosophy. And that’s how I got this role.”

How he got the role is incredible, but once you see the movie, it’s clear why there absolutely had to be a Dr.Cliff Patel.

We’re the New America. The film is set in Philadelphia, where across the creek in Millbourne County, Indian Americans make up over 30 percent of the population. It’s Desi-town, PA.

That’s the engaging thing about the novel and the movie. We aren’t bit players or extras. The film normalizes our place in society. We are a part of life, and the movie shows us in all our full assimilative glory.

Indeed, we are all on the same team.

In the movie, where an undying love for the Philadelphia Eagles is a major theme, a significant bonding moment occurs when the Bradley Cooper character and Dr. Patel discover they share the same irrational over-the-top craziness for the home team, face paint and all.

Hey, we’re just as crazy as everyone else (maybe because of our crazy immigration experience that takes us from Third World to Two-and-a Half).

Oh, and now we have the keys to the pill cabinet, too.

But the movie also depicts the ugliness that happens when some in society don’t get the diversity memo. It results in the kind of melee you might see in a football stadium parking lot. It was Kher’s first football game ever, and as he is quick to point out, it sure ain’t cricket.

Usually you have to wait for the Asian American Film Festival to roll out such real images of us.

But the “Asian Invasion” scene in Silver Linings Playbook will be forever remembered as a landmark moment in Hollywood’s depiction of immigrant communities–especially if it is fortunate enough to win for Best Picture.

Compared to other Hollywood films, Silver Linings Playbook is so crazy in its diversity, it should win an Oscar just for that.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
read Emil's bio