The “Grey Man” Effect: New Wings Go West

It has been four years since the late Amrish Puri played the murderous priest Moralam in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984). Set in the fictional region of colonial India, the film draws on all the stereotypes of the country in Western popular culture at the time. Puri’s antagonist, who took the hearts of victims in fanatical cult chants, is a loosely imagined complex, a product of that era. The film was banned from showing in India.

The hype surrounding actor Dhanush’s Hollywood blockbuster — “Grey Man,” directed by the Russo Brothers — reflects a different era defined by a call for inclusiveness of creative expression. The National Award-winning actor has already burst onto the international stage with the 2018 comedy Fakir’s Extraordinary Journey. But the $200 million Netflix original from the director who made two Avengers movies is on a whole new level.

Dhanush plays Avik San, an assassin also known as the Lone Wolf, in the film starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas. Despite the short runtime, the buildup and arcs make it an interesting character. Reviews for the film were mixed, but the actor did play on his understated charisma, making San instantly cold, mysterious and believable.

The late actor and filmmaker Shashi Kapoor worked prolific with Merchant-Ivory Productions, producing a string of British films between the 1960s and 1980s. Rajinikanth was one of the few major Indian stars to work in mainstream English-language films before India’s liberalization, in the very forgettable “Bloodstone” (1988). Parts of the film, directed by Dwight H. Little, also stay true to the Indian exotic script—Princess, The Damned and The Stolen Ruby.

Everything has changed. Priyanka Chopra’s role as FBI recruit Alex Parrish on the ABC series “Quantico” (2015-18) was praised for the diversity he inspired on other shows. Chopra herself told Vanity Fair that the half-Indian, half-American character could be from any country — she’s “racially ambiguous.”

In Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), Amitabh Bachchan played Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, leaving some critics curious about the casting choice. In “XXX: The Return of Xander Cage” (2017), the propaganda for Deepika Padukone’s Hollywood turn against Vin Diesel is also more in line with her star power than her role in the film or her Indian heritage.

“Why Dhanush?” may still be a question. San’s introduction from Chris Evans’ character — “My Tamil Friend” — doesn’t have any Indian features other than the killer. Accents don’t do any good either. This guy has only a few lines in the movie.

So what are the Tamil characters doing in a movie about the CIA’s Game of Thrones? Unlike Puri in Spielberg’s India or Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Anupam Kher and Om Puri in British films, their Indian sex is organic, or at least doesn’t spoil the plot, the hook here seems to be the actors race, not necessarily characteristic. It could still be a good thing, a forced but necessary start that, over time, allows these actors to decide naturally inclusive.

The greater assimilation of Indians into Western society and their increasing presence in mainstream media has combined to help debunk India’s ancient, flawed structures. Indian stars in the cast can now be natural additions, salesmen, or both.

Alia Bhatt (Netflix’s Heart of Stone) and Samantha Ruth Prabhu (Love Arrangement with Downton Abbey director Philip John) will make their international debuts. Ali Fazar starred in “Death on the Nile” this year, starring Gal Gadot and Amy Hammer. “The Foundation” (2021) is an Apple TV series based on Isaac Asimov’s novel, featuring Kubbra Sait. Hrithik Roshan’s rumored spy thriller could have the ultimate superstar crossover.

Earlier this month, ahead of the release of “Grey Man,” the filmmakers said that San could still return in future films based on the main character. Dhanush’s entry into the big leagues is largely seen as a result of the West’s new focus on diversity in the way films tell their stories. The prospects it brings to the Indian market and the talent it inspires will be told in the sequel.


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