Annie starts out much like L.M. Montgomery’s classic children’s story, Anne of Green Gables: a stubborn and protective red-headed girl is retrieved from an orphanage and taken by a kindly adult to her new home, where a curmudgeon declares that he/she thought they were getting a boy. The similarity ends there, however. While Anne is charming and mischievous, Annie is the girl I would have avoided at all costs as a child because she’d be all up in my space and nurturing in an officious, self-gratifying sort of way. Also, she’s a dog person.
But that’s a personality thing. What’s truly offensive about 1982’s Annie is something hardly anyone seems to have noticed: it’s embarrassingly racist. I say “racist” because of the jumble of stereotypes and mistaken impressions about Indians that led to the character of “Punjab.” No, really, that’s his name. I say “embarrassingly” because it was 1982, for God’s sake, not 1962. I thought we were better than that.
I decided to watch 1982 Annie on Thanksgiving, because I’d watched Cameron Diaz plug the new version on Jimmy Fallon. I realized that although I was familiar with Annie through cultural references, I hadn’t actually seen it on stage or film. It was with dawning horror that I watched orphan Annie meet Daddy Warbucks’ (apparently) Sikh butler, who hardly speaks but does mystical things like make animals behave and dance to Sitar music for no reason whatsoever. It was with further horror that I learned his name was Punjab, which is not really a name so much as a region. I found myself feeling sorry for the character Punjab, who I imagined must have an actual name that nobody bothered to learn. The climax of my horror occurred at the climax of the film, when Punjab rescues Annie from the top of an open drawbridge using his unraveled turban. It was at that point that I quit watching, too astonished to care whether Annie gets to stay with Daddy Warbucks forever. I assume she does.
I’d like to point out that I made all of my initial observations without doing research on the Punjab region, the Sikh religion, or India, generally. This is not to brag about my worldliness, but to point out that anyone with a high school education should have been able to say, when reviewing the script, “Hey, maybe we should make this Punjab character less offensive, and maybe we should cast an Indian actor to play an Indian character.” Half of my World Religions class was spent watching Indiana Jones and episodes of the original Little Rascals, and yet I was able to point at Warbucks’ butler and say, “Wow, that’s an incredibly shallow and ill-informed representation of a Punjabi person.” I, of course, did research to confirm my observations.
It’s really cool that the new Annie is black, and they’ve reworked the story to fit into modern notions of privilege, class, and struggle. Also, Quvenzhane Wallis is adorable, articulate, and talented. I’m passing no judgment on the 2014 Annie, except kudos for not keeping the name “Punjab” for any character, and kudos for casting Miss Wallis.
When I began writing, I meant to make a broader statement about the portrayal of Indian Americans in film, yet there are hardly enough Indian characters to form a basis for comparison, and most of them serve as comic relief or standing jokes. So, the point of this now is to draw attention to an ignorant moment in cinematic history with the hope of learning from it. I know the “List of Things to Change in American Film-Making” is long, and this is one more thing to add, but I believe we owe it to the statistically significant number of Asian American citizens to say “Um…wtf?” to past portrayals of Indian Americans in film and vow to do better in the future.