Growing up in California, Lena Khan would hear stories about her grandfather Qasim, who she said became a local legend in rural India after killing a tiger that was terrorizing the community in the 1950s.
She returned to those family tales when it was time to write what would become her debut film “The Tiger Hunter,” which is scheduled to be released in theaters on Sept. 22. The story centers on the 20-something Indian immigrant Sami Malik (Danny Pudi) as he tries to live up to his tiger-hunting father’s legacy while also navigating life and employment struggles in '70s Chicago.
“The idea for ‘The Tiger Hunter’ started with all of the stories I used to tell all of the time to my coworkers about my dad in the 1970s,” Khan, 31, told NBC News.
The stories, Khan noted, comedically described her father’s struggles to get his immigration and vaccination paperwork in order and were generally a big hit with her audiences.
“A lot of immigration stories are just sob stories, and that’s not my thing,” she said.
Instead, Khan said she wanted to create a lighthearted, fish-out-of-water style comedy about a young man navigating a new culture.
“I started interviewing immigrants, and they’d tell stories about how they would sleep on the floor like sardines, and there were similar stories everywhere,” Khan recalled, adding that she knew she wanted to set her film in the 1970s because it was a decade that many South Asian immigrants came to the United States.
“Also, you watch things like ‘Three’s Company’ and even the way my dad talks, it seems like there was more of a sense of community in the '70s,” Khan added.
Working on a story about an eccentric set of friends also appealed to her, and she tried to recreate the kind of buddy comedies she grew up watching by directors like Wes Anderson.
“I’m one of those people who is not in college anymore, but I still have sleepovers with my friends,” she said.
While Khan did not intend for “The Tiger Hunter” to be a political film, she realizes that many viewers will think about issues in the news today as they watch a film about an Indian immigrant that was directed by a an Indian Muslim woman who wears a hijab.
“Sami is a Muslim guy, but that’s not what the movie is about,” she said. “This is a father and son story.”
Khan does realize the impact that positive, well-rounded Muslim and South Asian characters can have.
The director recalls attending a protest on the 20th Century Fox production studio lot as a child with her mother ahead of the release of the 1998 film “The Siege,” which was criticized for its portrayal of Muslims in the United States.
“My mom was always always a community activist of sorts,” she said. “We knew what it was like to get hurt by the representation in a movie.”
But as a film student at UCLA, Khan unintentionally avoided writing scripts that reflected her own experiences.
“When you are lighthearted and not accusing anyone of anything, the conversation moves much more easily.”
“It was this world that I had grown up in, but I had no idea that it would be interesting to other people,” she said. "Finally I started writing what I knew, and it took off. I was excited because there were not a lot of stories like this with South Asians behind and in front of the camera.”
In addition to Pudi, the film also features Iqbal Theba ("Glee"), former "Outsourced" stars Rizwan Manji and Parvesh Cheena, and "Galavant" actress Karen David as Sami’s love interest Ruby Iqbal.
While she is aware of the cultural issues and the importance of representation, Khan said she never wanted to make a serious-issue movie that was meant to educate audiences about South Asian Muslim culture. She thinks comedies that portray ordinary people are often the best conversation starters.
“When you are lighthearted and not accusing anyone of anything, the conversation moves much more easily,” she said.