One scene during “The Tiger Hunter” features a dozen men sleeping on the floor of one room.
Although the circumstances are extreme, writer and director Lena Khan tried to make the scene more funny than tragic, a tonal shift she said characterizes the film as a whole.
“The Tiger Hunter,” which has been showing in theaters nationwide since Sept. 22, follows the journey of a young Indian man who immigrates to Chicago in the 1970s in search of the American dream. The film relies on an optimistic take of the immigrant narrative, rather than portraying an immigrant’s journey as an exclusively oppressed one, Khan said.
Khan was first inspired to write the film after recounting a story to her co-workers about how her own father moved in with European roommates in order to steal a stool sample. He then turned in the stool sample as his own for testing and was able to get a visa within two weeks.
As a form of research for the film, she began interviewing other immigrants who came to the United States in the 1970s, using the details from their stories to capture a diverse and authentic narrative about immigration, she said.
“When I talk to (immigrants), they look back with nostalgia about the funny, crazy, weird things they did to make it in this country and the really creative things they did to achieve their goals,” Khan said. “The creative license came in figuring out what was really genuine and really funny or really heartfelt about things that were actually real and just maximizing them.”
When Khan finished the script in 2013, she began the process of seeking investors and was able to find funding for the project after nearly nine months of meetings. Around the same time, she met fellow UCLA alumna Megha Kadakia. Within weeks of meeting, Kadakia joined the project as the producer, and the film entered preproduction.
Kadakia said she loved the sense of community within the story. She also felt that the diverse group of people working on the film helped tell the story in a more authentic way because most of them had experiences with immigration, in either their own lives or the lives of their parents and families, she said.
“I was really excited to see that we could bring more diversity behind the camera and in front of the camera to the screen,” Kadakia said. “I think it’s very important in today’s world to have that type of storytelling told by those who have lived and experienced those lives.”
The heart and humor of the project also attracted production designer and UCLA alumnus Michael Fitzgerald. When reading the script, he said he could envision the world in which the characters lived in. Fitzgerald worked to add his own level of detail to the project, using visuals – such as a fire escape that doubles as a comedic set piece – to complement the narrative. He also sought to avoid the colder visuals that characterize many films about immigrants.
“I knew that I wanted 1970s Chicago to be as colorful and as enticing as India was, but I wanted there to be equality,” Fitzgerald said. “I didn’t want it to be completely fish-out-of-water in a sense that one place was better than the other.”
When approaching the film, Khan said she tried to make sure that the main character’s immigration was just one aspect of his character, rather than his defining trait.
“Yeah, it’s an immigrant story, but really, more than that, it’s a father-son story, it’s a love story, and it’s just a really funny buddy comedy about a bunch of dudes who are trying to make it in America when it’s really hard,” Khan said.
Although the film began production nearly five years ago, Khan and Kadakia hope that it can take on a new meaning in the current discussion on immigration.
“The more that we can bring these stories to life, the more that we all talk about our experiences and show people that we’re all the same,” Kadakia said. “We all have the same aspirations, we all have the same desires to be successful, to do good things, to raise a family and to provide for our family – hopefully we start to break down those barriers.”