"You are unique in the world as a bad guy."
South Asian performances always dazzle in films centring around their own countries and languages.
However, there are several South Asian actors who sparkle in roles across the water.
They swap their lights at home for the chandeliers of Hollywood.
Thereby, proving their onscreen versatility to wider audiences who may not see them regularly.
These actors shine and shimmer in amazing performances that have firmly made their places in the annals of Hollywood.
Delving into these performances, we showcase the 10 best South Asian performances that have blessed Hollywood.
Amrish Puri – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Bollywood’s ‘Mogambo’, Amrish Puri, is renowned for his villainous characters on the Indian screen.
However, he also brought his antagonism to Hollywood in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
In the movie, Amrish Ji stands out as the terrifying Mola Ram. Mola Ram is a Thuggee priest who performs human sacrifices.
In a sardonic scene, Mola Ram burns a victim alive, letting out a piercing laugh. Amrish Ji nails the pitch that is required for such an evil character.
Reviewing the film, Kevin Lyon comments on the wonderful creation of Mola Ram, brought to life by Amrish Ji:
“He’s a wonderfully monstrous creation, a terrific and properly unnerving performance from Amrish Puri.”
Kevin’s words aptly describe Amrish Ji’s sadistic portrayal that makes the film a tremendously dark watch.
Steven, the director, also praises Amrish Ji. He told the actor that he is his favourite villain:
“You are unique in the world as a bad guy. You are my best villain.”
Steven’s kind words for Amrish Ji draw on the latter’s individuality, which is indicative of his performance in the film.
Nitin Ganatra – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
In 2005, blue-chip filmmaker Tim Burton took up the exciting challenge of adapting Roald Dahl’s classic 1964 book.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tells the unique tale of Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore). The film also stars Johnny Depp as the eccentric Willy Wonka.
The movie also features South Asian actor Nitin Ganatra as Prince Pondicherry. In the film, he asks Wonka to build him a colossal palace out of chocolate.
When Wonka warns the prince to quickly begin eating the palace, Pondicherry scoffs and declares:
“Nonsense! I will not eat my palace. I intend to live in it.”
Nitin conveys the prince’s smarmy attitude hilariously. Yet, when the palace eventually does collapse, the viewers feel pity for the arrogant Pondicherry.
Nitin’s role in the film is far from a pivotal character. Paradoxically, however, the performance remains in the psyche of the audience long after the final credits have rolled.
A ‘Guardian’ review of the movie counts the film among Tim Burton’s best works:
“It is director Tim Burton’s best film for years, miles better than the woeful Big Fish.”
A film of such a grand scale certainly is a risky move. It needs excellent performances and contributions from all involved.
Nitin undoubtedly made a mark on the film with his comedic performance.
Irrfan Khan – The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Irrfan Khan rose to prominence in Bollywood in the 90s. He delivered many hits in his domestic industry.
He also created an indelible stamp in Hollywood. One of the films he features in is The Amazing Spider-Man, helmed by Marc Webb.
Irrfan plays Rajit Ratha, a scientist executive, and superior to Dr Curt Connors/Lizard (Rhys Ifans).
Rajit is a straight-talking, no-nonsense man. In a particular scene, he tells Curt to start human trials. When Curt refuses, Rajit bluntly says:
“I’m shutting you down. Have your office cleared out by the morning.”
This imperative is filled with authority and command. It is delivered chillingly by Irrfan. Onscreen, the line makes Curt squirm.
Gautam Bhaskaran reviews the film in ‘FirstPost.’ He heaps praise on Irrfan’s ease in his witty celluloid depiction:
“Irrfan infuses a delightful touch of wit.
“Only Irrfan can do that and with such natural ease, and with a deadpan look that is yet so telling.”
Irrfan positively delivers one of the greatest South Asian performances in a Hollywood film. He creates a character rich with conflict and a strict demeanour.
When Irrfan died on April 29, 2020, he left behind an incredible legacy that stretches through America as well as India.
Anupam Kher – Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Anupam Kher has appeared in over 400 Indian films since his debut in Mahesh Bhatt’s Saraansh (1984).
The prolific actor’s work repertoire also extends to the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills.
In 2012, he starred as therapist Cliff Patel, who treats Patrizio “Pat” Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper). A scene presents Cliff’s office, in which Pat vents about discovering his wife Nikki Salitano’s (Brea Bee) infidelity.
As a result, Pat becomes more prone to regular violent outbursts.
Cliff intently listens to the dejected Pat spill out his emotions. Then, he proceeds to suggest he may have a mental health condition.
Anupam is intense and empathetic in the film. He distinguishes himself in the role among a cast of Hollywood legends.
These include Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany Maxwell) and Robert De Niro (Patrizio “Pat” Solitano Sr).
David J. Fowlie, from ‘Keeping It Reel’ describes Anupam in the film, as “enjoyable”. This emphasises the positive factor Anupam brought to this famous Hollywood flick.
Anupam delivers one of the most identifiable South Asian performances.
His portrayal of Cliff accurately encapsulates the importance of closeness and understanding in mental health discussions.
Tabu – Life of Pi (2012)
Based on Yann Martel’s best-selling 2001 novel of the same name, Life of Pi is a cinematic masterpiece.
It hosts many great South Asian performances. One of them belongs to Tabu. The actress began her film career as a child artist in Dev Anand’s Hum Naujawan (1985).
In Life of Pi, Tabu plays Gita Patel. She is the mother of the main protagonist Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel (Suraj Sharma / Irrfan Khan / Gautam Belur).
Tabu showcases motherly affection in a loving manner. This is underlined when she compassionately supports her son’s decisions and beliefs.
When her older son Ravi Patel (Mohamed Abbas Khaleeli), mocks his brother, she firmly tells him:
“You stay out of this, Ravi. Just as you like cricket, Pi has his own interests.”
Tabu discusses the importance of directors in cinema, as well as the pride she felt in Life of Pi:
“It is an honour to be a part of a project like this.
“The real heroes are the story and the director.”
Although Tabu’s role as Gita is small, the film would be duller without her.
Amitabh Bachchan – The Great Gatsby (2013)
Amitabh Bachchan is a Bollywood giant. He has been enthralling fans for over 50 years.
In 2013, Big B made his debut on the American screen.
The Sholay (1975) icon featured as gambler Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
His co-actors in the film include Hollywood heavyweights Leonardo DiCaprio (James Gatz/Jay Gatsby) and Toby Maguire (Nick Carraway).
Meyer is admittedly a minor character in the film. However, Amitabh stands out.
He brings joviality and charisma to the opulent movie.
Scott Foundas, of Variety magazine, remarks on Amitabh’s lively performance, despite only having a single scene in the film:
“By far the liveliest work in the film comes from two actors with only a few minutes of screen time between them:
“The lithe, long-limbed newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as gabby golf pro Jordan Baker, and, in a single scene that marks his belated Hollywood debut, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan as the flamboyant Jewish gambler, Meyer Wolfsheim.”
Leonardo also states that it was an honour for him to work with Amitabh:
“He’s a magnificent actor and I was honoured to work with him.”
The Titanic (1997) star adds that Big B filled his dialogues with presence:
“Everything that comes out of his mouth is filled with so much more and so much presence.”
Amitabh is undeniably a stand-out feature in The Great Gatsby.
Deepika Padukone – XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017)
This thrilling action film presents a sexy Deepika Padukone as Serena Unger. Serena is a teammate of XXX field agent Xander Cage (Vin Diesel).
Deepika is tough, gritty, and fearless in the movie. After making her mark in Bollywood, she unabashedly shows that she has steely acting chops in other film industries too.
Her chemistry with Vin is also electric. When playing ‘grenade roulette’ in a scene, the looks they give each other bubble with energy and naughtiness.
At another point in the film, she alluringly tells him:
“I don’t believe in good guys.”
Deepika is charming and strong in the movie. She sets the screen ablaze every time she is in the frame.
Reviewing the film for ‘Hindustan Times,’ Rohan Nahaar is positive about Deepika’s screen time. He also praises her chemistry with Vin:
Deepika Padukone’s character is given a surprisingly decent amount of screen time. Surprising because we’ve often been misled in the past.
“Deepika has excellent chemistry with Vin Diesel.”
If one wants to see the Pathaan (2023) star bring her talent and gorgeous looks to Hollywood, XXX is a must-watch.
She is certainly a ‘wow’ factor in the movie.
Randeep Hooda – Extraction (2020)
Extraction tells the story of a mission to save an Indian criminal’s kidnapped son in Bangladesh.
The picture features Randeep Hooda in his international film debut. He portrays security officer Saju Rav.
Saju is blackmailed into completing the dangerous rescue mission. He goes head-to-head with Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) in pulse-racing action scenes.
In one such thrilling event, Saju brutally shoots all his enemies. The action is performed masterfully by Randeep.
A viewer comment from YouTube gushes over the excitement of seeing an Indian man perform Hollywood action:
“It’s the first time I’ve seen an Indian male in an action role in an international movie.
“Randeep Hooda’s character is so cool.”
A somewhat critical New York Times review of the film highlights how Randeep saves it from becoming too dull:
“Hooda, as well as Priyanshu Painyuli as a swaggering mob boss — lift the dull proceedings, delivering their lines with a hint of melodrama.”
Regardless of the critiques, Extraction has proven to be a hit with fans. It began streaming on Netflix on April 24, 2020.
Within its first four weeks, the movie became the most-watched original film of that time. It achieved 99 million views.
Randeep definitely contributed to that in a humongous way.
Himesh Patel – Don’t Look Up (2021)
Himesh Patel began his acting career in the role of Tamwar Masood in the BBC soap, EastEnders.
He portrayed the geeky character initially between 2007 and 2016.
After new horizons beckoned, Himesh made his film debut in Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (2019).
However, in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, Himesh features in a Hollywood extravaganza among superstars.
In the film, he plays Phillip Kaj, a journalist who dates Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence). The film is headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy.
It is a moment of pride for people who hunger for prolific South Asian performances in high-profile Hollywood cinema.
Himesh brings a layer of humour to Phillip. Somewhat hapless, Phillip is hilarious as tries to navigate his relationship with Kate.
Delving into the awe he felt upon working with generous Oscar winners Jennifer and Leonardo, Himesh quips:
“I am still pinching myself thinking that I worked with them. They are generous.”
Himesh further explains the lack of ego that comes with the two superstars:
“Leonardo and Jennifer never brought any sort of ego to the sets in that way.”
One needs a light-hearted atmosphere to deliver a great performance. In Don’t Look Up, Himesh does that very well.
The film is available to view on Netflix.
Alia Bhatt – Heart of Stone (2023)
Since her Bollywood debut in 2012, Alia Bhatt has championed fresh talent in Indian cinema.
She has delivered hits including 2 States (2014), Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) and Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023).
In 2023, Alia turned her attention to Hollywood, starring in Heart of Stone as Keya Dhawan. The movie had its Netflix premiere on August 11, 2023.
Gal Gadot leads the cast as Rachel Stone/Nine of Hearts. Rachel comes across Keya and investigates her. She later learns that Keya’s biometric data is key to unlocking The Heart.
In return, Keya allies herself with Stone and discloses the location of Rachel’s enemy, Parker (Jamie Dornan).
In her first scene in the film, Alia imbues Keya with freshness, vivacity and sarcasm. She utters the line:
“You guys really need to work on your subtlety.”
Alia’s intonations and diction suggest Keya is not to be messed with, setting an entertaining track straight away.
Throughout the film, Keya follows an arc of bravery and audacity.
This was an amazing debut for Alia in Hollywood.
It could be the start of something really special for her, parallel to her feats in her home industry.
South Asian performances in Hollywood always spark interest and eyeballs around the world. They garner attention and applause from proud demographics.
These actors have, in no uncertain terms, shown what they are capable of overseas.
They stand out in their Hollywood roles, bringing brightness and boldness to characters.
Movies in which they star just would not be the same without them.
Therefore, they deserve to be applauded and appreciated for their talent and uniqueness.