BY AMANDEEP...By Amandeep Loomba
Written and Directed by Piyush D. Pandya
Starring Purva Bedi, Anil Kumar, Ronobir Lahiri, Rizwan Manji, and Sunita Param.
Playing at Allston Cinema, 214 Harvard Ave., Allston, MA 02134, (617) 232-0948
It is a widely understood fact that most Indians (known as Desis to other Desis) come from New Jersey, not India. All of the Indians in American Desi do. Viewers struggling through the film with Indian-American protagonist Kris (MIT alum Deep Katdare, who produced and starred in the film) in an effort to reach for their deteriorating Indian roots will have a hard time avoiding laughter in the face of countless inside Indian jokes.
Ultimately, American Desi is about these in-jokes. Ideally, writer/director Piyush Dinker Pandya’s audience will be comprised of teenage and Gen-X Indian-Americans who have done their time in the Sabzee-Mundis of Oak Tree Road, Edison, Jackson Heights, and Cerritos.
I happen to be one of these typical ABCD’s (American-born confused Desi), and a wishful thinker at that. In my wishful thinking for American Desi I saw a poignant, subtle portrayal of the conflicts and confusions that surround growing up brown in a white land.
Pandya’s directorial technique doesn’t exactly include subtlety. A few moments of the film will have you stop thinking Satyajit Ray and start thinking after school special. Specifically, this after-school special takes place after a day of classes at a nameless Rutgers University-like environment (the backdrop for which is actually Middlesex County College).
Nevertheless, the film’s charismatic acting tends to offset its sappiness, due in no small part to Kal Penn’s Ajay, the trash-talking Indian “brotha” who is overtly infatuated with black culture. The film shines when Penn and others mercilessly point out each and every foible and faux pas of Indians in America. No Indian teaching assistant, immigrant, or Bollywood actress is left unscathed.
When the dialogue doesn’t concern itself with inside Desi humor, it certainly isn’t sparkling. Moments like “So how’s college so far? It’s a lot different from high school, huh?” certainly carry a high cringe factor.
Yet, there is a startling reality about the characters in the film and the way they carry themselves. Undoubtedly, the film resorts to stereotypes in its construction of the Indian-American experience; but these are well-informed caricatures of Desi kids in the United States. The viewer (at least, the Indian viewer) will get the sense that the actors and the writer really know what life is like as an Indian kid in America. The extremes and the stereotypes that the film portrays carry more than just a grain of truth -- you feel like these absurd personas could actually exist; they could actually be living down the hall from you.
While the Indian kids themselves are stereotypes, extreme personas constructed from observed behavior the other characters in the film are nothing but stock. There are virtually no sympathetic or realistic portrayals of adults. Every parent and professor in the film is nothing more than a mechanism for telling the story of the students. Meanwhile, white characters in the film seem only to be obnoxious examples of prime American buffoonery.
This leads to the film’s fatal problem. A light-hearted romantically comedic romp is acceptable (barely) in place of a thoughtful examination of conflicting cultures. However, how is the viewer to stomach the fact that the film’s protagonist, Kris Reddy, is a real jerk? It is widely understood that every romantic comedy requires a bit of deceit and deception to take place as foreplay for the inevitable, honesty-filled romance. Kris, however, manages to cross the line as he lumbers through the film, being a jerk to his friends, parents and love-interest. Somehow, the viewer is expected to sympathize with a hero who is callous enough to do all of the unforgivable things Kris does in a scant hundred minutes.
If you are from New Jersey, you’ll likely notice at least a few faces in the garba and bhangra crowds that you recognize, these are all “real” Indian extras from New Jersey. At the very least, you’ll notice shots of New Jersey local party-favor DJ Rekha attempting some sort of turntablism spliced into bhangra montages. Additionally, anyone involved in the college Indian scene will recognize the golden voices of Penn Masala, the Indian a cappella outfit. Their outstanding musical contributions serve to spice up several dull moments in the film.