Why’s a Huge Bollywood Star Playing an Ugly Stereotypical Jewish Gangster in ‘Gatsby’?

More importantly, will Indian newspapers and websites pick up on Fitzgerald’s genteel anti-Semitism of the period?

Overseas, and in India in particular, the big movie gossip these days involving the 2012 Warner Bros. remake of ''The Great Gatsby'' has nothing to do with Leonardo DiCaprio or Tobey Maguire.

Rather, it involves Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan and what will amount to the actor’s first-ever Hollywood film appearance playing a crooked Jewish associate of the novel's Jay Gatsby.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald-created character named Meyer Wolfsheim was modeled after a real-life Jewish mobster of the period — and his portrayal in the novel was far from friendly. In fact, it was downright anti-Semitic, some scholars claim.

A huge huge star of India’s film industry, Bachchan has agreed to play the one-scene role of the stereotyped Jewish gangster — and for free. That's right — he told Australian film director pal Baz Luhrmann that he'll do the role for free.

So, will Indian newspapers and websites pick up on Fitzgerald's genteel anti-Semitism of the period?

Here's Bachchan's take on his own personal blog: "Baz … called last month and wondered if I would do [a] small role in his ['Gatsby'] film and I agreed. It is a gesture. I have refused any remuneration on this, too."

"As to why Baz chose to ask me, is something that perhaps he would be better placed to answer," Bachman added. "I have gone down to Sydney and had a preliminary reading of the script with the entire cast and done hair makeup costume rehearsals. It has been a wonderful experience to be a part of [the Hollywood] system and to observe with what detail and diligence they work."

But playing the crooked Jewish Gatsby associate Meyer Wolfsheim, a Fitzgerald stereotype?

Fitzgerald used the real-life Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein as the inspiration for Jay Gatsby's crooked associate Wolfsheim. At one point, Gatsby says to narrator Nick Carraway, "He's the man who fixed the 1919 World Series."

Fitzgerald also used parts of Rothstein's life to mold Gatsby into the suave gangster he is known to be.

Rothstein (1882-1928) was a New York character nicknamed "The Brain," who "worked" as a New York ''businessman'' and gambler and who became a famous kingpin of the Jewish mafia in those days. 

He was also widely reputed to have been behind baseball's Black Sox scandal, in which the 1919 World Series was fixed. 

According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Rothstein "transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top." According to Rich Cohen, Rothstein was the person who first saw in Prohibition a business opportunity, a means to enormous wealth, who "understood the truths of early century capitalism and came to dominate them."

Rothstein was the Moses of the Jewish gangsters, according to Cohen,  a rich man's son who showed the young hoodlums of the Bowery how to have style; indeed, the man who, the Sicilian-American gangster Lucky Luciano later said, "taught me how to dress."

So it has come to this? Hiring an Indian superstar to play an ugly Jewish stereotype in a major Hollywood production?

According to some scholars, the Wolfsheim character betrays Fitzgerald's blatant anti-Semitism of that period in American life.

Here we have Wolfsheim, identified in the most stereotypical ways, as a Jew, who is the sleaziest and most nefarious character in the novel.

He does his dirty business deals through a cover company named the the Swastika Holding Company. Really. 

I think Fitzgerald's intentions are obvious. And I am not alone. Here's an excerpt from an essay by Martin Hindus at the College of the University of Chicago titled "Fitzgerald and Literary Anti-Semitism: A Footnote on the Mind of the 1920s" — written in June 1947. OK, so it's 2011 now. Read on:

''I recently read 'The Great Gatsby' for the first time, and it struck me that in all the praise of the book I had heard from both Jews and non-Jews, something important had been omitted — that viewed in a certain light the novel reads very much like an anti-Semitic document,"

Hindus wrote. "It is an excellent novel, no doubt of that, and part of its appeal is that the reader knows (though he may be unable to define his knowledge) that the story and the characters are general and representative rather than particular and confined. Fitzgerald has written a tragic satire on American civilization, with the implicit invitation to disentangle the idea of which the personages and events are outward symbols. The individuals portrayed stand for the classes (but not in the Marxian sense) to which they belong. That is nothing new: the same is true of every serious literary work of art."

"The Jew who appears in 'The Great Gatsby' is not the villain of the piece, but he is easily its most obnoxious character. His name is Meyer Wolfsheim. He is a gambler by profession. [The way Fitzgerald writes the story, Wolfsheim's nose is flat and out of both nostrils two fine growths of hair “luxuriate.” His eyes are “tiny.” When he talks he “covers” Gatsby with his “expressive nose.” We first glimpse him in a mysterious conversation with Gatsby about a man named Katspaugh. When, at this point, the narrator, Nick, comes in and meets him, Wolfsheim mistakes him for somebody else whom Gatsby has mentioned and he immediately begins to talk of a business “gonnegtion.” That “gonnegtion” runs like a theme through the whole book whenever Nick thinks of Wolfsheim."

Of course, you are free to draw your own conclusions. But one wonders what the Indian media in the Asian subcontinent — and Bachchan himself — will make of a Bollywood star playing an ugly Jewish stereotype from an anti-Semitic novel of past Americana.