Cultural (Mis)representation of Indian Culture in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones is arguably one of the most famous film heroes of all time, with four movies total so far and a fifth one supposedly coming out next year. I am an Indiana Jones purist, so I prefer to think of the series as just including the first three films (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but that is an argument for another day. Even so, these movies are close to my heart as I grew up watching them with my dad as his passion for history was one of the main reasons I ended up also being a history nerd.

That being said, now that I have watched these films again as an adult, I have a bit of a different view of them, and Temple of Doom in particular, than I did as a kid. Thus, for my print project, I am proposing that I will delve into the Temple of Doom film to study its representation of Indian and other Asian cultures. While the movie is not exactly presenting history, I am interested in how it is rooted in themes of Western imperialism, a white savior complex, and the divide between the white American hero and the culturally stereotyped villains, who are in this case promoting child slavery and practicing human sacrifice.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Indiana Jones, the man himself is an archaeologist, professor, and adventurer of some of the world’s most famous artifacts, such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. Each of the movies follows a different one of Jones’ adventures as he searches for a new artifact, often with a different group of villains (usually Nazis) and of course a different love interest in each one.

The official movie poster

For a very brief plot summary of Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones flees Shanghai after almost being killed by a Chinese crime boss and he comes to northern India, with his young sidekick Short Round and a nightclub singer Willie Scott. Jones comes across a village that claims a sacred stone has been stolen from them, so he agrees to enter the mysterious Pankot Palace to help find it. The three main characters find themselves welcomed into a lavish palace, but later that night, Jones is captured and finds an underground temple, where the Thuggee cult is worshipping the goddess Kali (a real Hindu goddess) with human sacrifice. As Jones attempts to find the sacred stones, Willie is almost sacrificed, but they escape the temple. Not only does Indiana Jones manage to return the stone, but he also frees the slave children from the temple and they are returned to the village. What a hero.

Indiana Jones and Willie Scott entering the village of Mayapore in India

For this project, I will be using Voyant to analyze the movie script, which I easily found online, in respect to the aforementioned themes. This computational text analysis will aid my project by allowing me to more efficiently delve into the movie script as it gives a visual representation of the common themes and phrases. This will be helpful, but only part of the story. Therefore, I will also be critically analyzing the problematic representation of these cultures as they are in visuals and sounds, such as the makeup, costumes, sets, accents, and other aspects of the movie. By doing a close study of both of these components of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I will capture how the film presents colonial era India with Western heroes coming to save the day.

A look at the script in Voyant… I searched the goddess Kali’s name, which comes up with quite the description.

As I was researching for this project proposal, I thought to myself: why does this matter? Why am I studying a movie from 1984? Why am I critiquing one of the most famous film franchises of all time, and one close to my heart? While it might be easy to say that representation in media is important, we also have to consider the negative side of this same idea. This is especially the case when our most famous movies depict certain cultures in harmful ways. In the end, I will explore this issue through the case study of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the representation of Indian and other Asian cultures, along with the accompanying portrayal of the classic, handsome Western hero Indiana Jones himself.

7 Replies to “Cultural (Mis)representation of Indian Culture in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”

  1. Claudia, this sounds like such an interesting project! I especially look forward to seeing how Voyant assists with the outcome of the project (if this is the one you pursue). Last semester I read and reviewed a book titled Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture by Jerome De Groot (2nd edition, 2016). His argument is that popular culture that discusses history is important and should be considered by academic historians because of the influence on broad audiences. While the focus of his book largely discusses British popular culture, he does discuss Indiana Jones. He doesn’t discuss representation and imperialist legacy, as your pitch sounds like it may, but he does discuss Indiana Jones as a Historian figure in popular culture. It may be interesting reading if you decide to further pursue this project! (I have the physical copy and am more than willing to lend it to you, just let me know).

    1. Rosie, thanks for the comment and for the book recommendation! I would love to look more into this book and I will let you know if I do end up doing more with this project. I think it will be a relevant source to have as it is hard to underestimate the power of popular culture, especially with films, and I think this is especially the case when these examples of media have roots in heritage and history.

  2. This looks like a great use of Voyant! Movies and media in general play a huge role in peoples’ conceptions of the world, so I’m interested to see what kind of conclusions you’ll reach in this project. Although you are primarily looking at Temple of Doom, I wonder if looking at the other Indiana Jones movies through Voyant could also reveal some potential comparisons. The fourth movie could be particularly interesting, given the time gap.

    1. Shaan, thanks for the comment. I agree with you and while this project might not allow me to delve into each of the movies, I think that would be a worthwhile study for a larger project. It would be fascinating to delve into and compare each of the movies and the history/cultures they are representing, especially as each one has different villains with varying cultural stereotypes.

  3. Hey Claudia!
    I think this is so interesting, I’m looking forward to hearing more about this project! I am curious, I know our timeframe within class is limited, but are you thinking about comparing this film to a more culturally and religiously accurate piece of Indian film or the like? Perhaps were the same individuals or figures are represented, like the goddess Kali? It seems like a lot of the problematic pieces of the Indiana Jones film lie within a misrepresentation not only of people, but of the Hindu religion! Anyways, I think this analysis of the film sounds fantastic, can’t wait to hear more 🙂

  4. Hi Claudia! I love this idea. The Indiana Jones Franchise is one of my favorites – the original three anyway. I’ll be curious to see your conclusions based on this film. Shaan makes an interesting point that comparing to the most recent movie would make for an instructive comparison. I think another interesting investigation might be to look at how they portray American culture in comparison to the people in India. Perhaps a good look at how the franchise perpetuates the “civilized vs non-civilized” trope in terms of western vs non-western cultures.

  5. Claudia, really enjoyed reading this! I think you’ve done a great job coming up with a thoughtful project that would make use of the text analysis tools we have explored to parse out really key issues in this particularly significant film. My sense is that there is going to be some amount of extant scholarship on the film on this topic that you can engage with. So it will be good to do some sleuthing to see what’s been written on this so far and relate your project to that work.

    As another vector to consider, it’s worth noting that the the blockbuster nature of that film means that there are other media representations of it that might also be worth looking at in parallel. That is, there is an Arcade game for Temple of Doom https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Jones_and_the_Temple_of_Doom_(1985_video_game) and a NES game https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Jones_and_the_Temple_of_Doom_(1988_video_game) It could be interesting to look at how the themes from the film play out in an interactive form in those games. At least one of those two games is up online in the Internet Archive where you can play it https://archive.org/details/msdos_Indiana_Jones_and_the_Temple_of_Doom_1989

    One last potential related idea. At this point there are reviews of the film going back all the way to 1984 when it was launched. For example, you can see 20 years of them linked off it’s Rotten Tomatoes page https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/indiana_jones_and_the_temple_of_doom/reviews it might be interesting to consider looking at reviews of the film over the nearly four decades since it’s been out to see the extent to which the themes you’re focusing on have or haven’t been central to discussion and reaction to the film over time. Beyond rotten tomatoes, you could go back and look for reviews of it from when it came out in newspapers.

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