Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Kali Ma

I've dreaded returning to Indy's second outing since seeing it probably a decade ago. For context, I'm South Asian and White and I was raised Hindu. Growing up in a community of predominantly Christian and Jewish kids, it was constantly awkward to have to explain to friends what an idol of a half-elephant, half-human God was doing on my bedside table or that the container of white powder beside the Ganesha statue was not cocaine (haha, I totally haven't heard that joke a million times), it was vibhuti - holy ash, or that no, the rudraksha I wear is not a shrunken body part (yes, I have actually had someone ask me if a sacred seed many Hindus wear as a sign of devotion or for spiritual protection was a shrunken body part) but a sacred nut.

So, when I watched Temple of Doom for the first time about twelve years ago - after falling in love with Indy's first outing - I found myself frustrated with the same surface-level, patently absurd assumptions about Hinduism and South Asian culture. As a result, I haven't returned to the film in years. Until today.

I adore Spielberg. CEOT3K is one of my favorite films of all time. I re-watch Jurassic Park regularly. And the original Indiana Jones is one of the films that really got me into film in general. But this movie takes all of the utterly impeccable craft, the breathless prologue - a patchwork of increasingly insane stunts that call back to the madcap antics of Chaplin and Keaton, the meticulously crafted sets, and the eminently charming central performance of Harrison Ford and occludes it with some of the most mind-numbingly absurd contortions of Hindu ritual and South Asian culture I've ever seen.

Let's start with the crash landing in a rural North Indian village. The sequence follows a mind-numbingly adrenaline-fueled series of action sequences that hold up brilliantly today. A car-chase through Shanghai streets slips into the terror of realizing our central cast is aboard a plane with no pilots headed straight into the tallest mountain range on the planet followed by a parachute-less jump that sees Indy go from air to land to water in an inflatable raft. It's remarkable stuff. But it is bookended by Indy landing in a ransacked village where, when offered what looks like rice and curry, Willie whines and complains at the horridness of the cuisine. I know Indian food wasn't easy to find in America in the eighties and that, as a result, it may have seemed intimidating, but there's something revolting about the blanket rejection our heroes show for South Asian culture, time and time again, through cuisine. Later, there's a dinner that consists of monkey brains, serpents, and various grotesqueries and, for some reason, the heroes' reactions to this food isn't all that more extreme than their reaction to creamed spinach, rice, and cottage cheese.

When it comes to the treatment of Kali, the film takes the Thuggees' worship of Kali and transforms the entire image of the Goddess - a Goddess, mind you, who is worshipped widely by Hindus as a figure of renewal, death, and the destroyer of vices - into the image of a demon, complete with severed body parts, blood, and skulls. Now, it's not uncommon to see Kali, a Goddess who to an outsider must look positively demonic, depicted holding severed human heads, blood-saturated swords, and skulls. But, this illustration has to be understood - as with almost all depiction of the Divine (regardless of religion) in metaphorical terms. Warfare and violence in Hindu myth plays a symbolic role. Gods wage war against demons or rakshasas. And, these violent conflicts are understood by Hindus as symbolic images and stories of moral conflicts in humans. Positive impulses fighting against negative impulses. Good decisions winning over bad ones. These wars also serve as a backdrop for Gods to tell their human counterparts what is moral and what is immoral. But, divorced from this incredibly important contextualizing material, the image of Kali in ToD becomes that of a spooky demon with large fangs, dark skin, and coated in blood and severed limbs. Spielberg only makes matters worse by equating the worship of an ancient Hindu Goddess to voodoo, complete with our tiny maharaja furiously stabbing and burning an Indy doll. This is essentially the equivalent of having a person who knows nothing of Christianity walk into a church to see churchgoers drinking a cup filled with red liquid being instructed to drink the blood of Christ while flanked by an icon of a man, bloodied, nailed to a cross with a crown of thorns propped up on his head. Horrific and terrifying images divorced from context. But charged with symbolic, compassionate, ages-old meaning when properly understood.

Temple of Doom is pulp fiction. It's silly, swashbuckling fun against the backdrop of a place - especially at its time of release - few in America had experience with. It contorts and twists religious iconography charged with metaphorical meaning and turns it into an analogy for devil worship - complete with an underground cavern, torchlight meetings, and bloodied idols. It depicts South Asian cuisine as somehow gross and vile whether its typical food like saag paneer and rice or monkey brains and snakes. I hoped returning to this would alleviate some of the deep problems I had with this a decade ago, but all it's done is bring these problems into starker relief. I admire the craft and the breathless first act, but maybe next time I'll just turn it off after Indy and crew reach India.

I wouldn't know how to rate this even if I tried, so...

Block or Report

Aaron liked these reviews