When Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, Indian publications rushed to establish her connection to the country. That Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, is from Chennai is well known. There exists, however, a slightly more dubious link between Harris and India — actress Mallika Sherawat played a Democratic campaign worker based on her in the 2011 film Politics of Love.
Directed by William Dear, the film was reportedly inspired by real-life romances that bloomed during the 2008 US Presidential campaigns. Sherawat plays Aretha Gupta, a down-on-her-luck marketing agent who moves to Florida and begins campaigning for Barack Obama, a job she gets based on her experience as head of her high-school prom committee. While out jogging, she runs into Republican Kyle Franklin (Brian J White) who hits on her with the line, “If you marry me, you’ll be Aretha Franklin.” What follows is a Romeo and Juliet style romantic-drama-slash-(unintentional)-comedy about falling in love with the enemy as Gupta stages rallies in support of Obama and Franklin pledges to vote for John McCain.
A 2009 Wired.com report quotes Sherawat as saying, “I play a half-Indian half-African American woman (like ‘the female Obama’ Kamala Harris) who falls in love with a black Republican! With a lil hard work, combined with some gospel churchin’, hip-hop dance classes and slanguage lessons: I’ll be a swaggalicious suga mama in no time at all!” Thankfully no slang is harmed in the making of this movie, with Sherawat only throwing in a “holla” at the beginning to remind everyone that she’s half Black.
The rest of her character’s arc plays out like an SNL parody of Harris’ life. In an inversion of Harris’ parents’ racial identities, Gupta’s mom is African-American, while her dad is Indian and, of course, owns a restaurant called Hello Delhi. To drive home her mixed heritage, she brings up childhood memories of culinary abominations like “fried chicken tikka” and “samosas stuffed with black-eyed peas”. Sherawat doesn’t attempt an American accent, but inexplicably pronounces Gupta as Goopta. Despite being inspired by Harris, the character has little of her political acumen or prosecutorial skills. The only time Gupta gives her biracial identity more than a fleeting thought is when she says her minority status meant she felt the pressure to work twice as hard in college. To which Franklin responds, “Is that why you feel a connection to Obama?”
While attempting to meld two cultures, the film insults both, even comparing curry to a baby’s poop at one point. Gupta’s father gets the short end of the stick, having to yell out distinctly un-Indian insults like, ‘horny hoochie mama’. The Americans in the film don’t escape untarnished either, they’re portrayed as either perverts or creeps.
Harris is the first African American and the first Asian American to be picked as a running mate, a choice designed to unite Democrat centrists and progressives. This movie will put off both demographics, and then some. It’s a part of Harris’ Indian connection best left unexplored.