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Refreshing look at the immigrant experience

WHY HASN'T the most accomplished Indian English film — "ABCD" by Krutin Patel — come to India yet? Made in 2001, it has been doing the festival rounds and was recently released in America to acclaim. Rumour has it that the film found an Indian distributor in Eros — why then hasn't it shown up in our theatres?

Lesser movies like "American Desi" and "Leela" seem to have made the rounds here while the most interesting American-Indian film still goes unseen.

What is refreshing about "ABCD" (that's `American Born Confused Desi' as opposed to IBCD, `the Indian Born Confused Desi') is that it isn't another lame Indian Diaspora culture-clash comedy. It doesn't make light of its characters, and looks at something more intriguing — the conflict between second generation and first generation Indians in America. What is it really like to be a first generation Indian American today? (Another film that does this well is "American Chai" by Anurag Mehta).

Raj (Faran Tahir) and Nina (Sheetal Sheth) are first generation Indian immigrant children who have grown up in America with their mother, Anju (Madhur Jaffrey) who is desperately trying in her old age to reconcile to her decision to come to America long ago.

Nina, bright and beautiful, strong-headed and promiscuous, is still rebelling against the conservative Hindu values of her mother. Her mother wants her to marry an Indian from India and she once again feels the old world oppressively closing in on her. Raj, her polar opposite who has long ago agreed to an arranged marriage has now begun to feel trapped and wants out. But that would break his mother's heart.

"ABCD" is superbly acted and directed. This is the first film that deals sensitively, deeply and imaginatively about first generation American Indians — in other words — the "ABCD". But, asks the film, are American Born Indians really confused? Is there a real identity crisis here and if so what is it? The film raises these questions and answers them interestingly and honestly, without resorting to cliches.

The only easily recognisable character here is the widowed New Jersey Indian mother but the children — especially Nina — is a character you admire even if it is hard to figure her out. One suspects that there are Ninas right here in India waiting to come out of their closets and declare their independence.

Says Patel: "Once, after a screening at the London film festival, this 13-year-old Indian girl comes up to me and says: `that's my life up there'."

What we learn from this American desi movie is that this new community is slowly forging its own identity there, making its own choices, taking risks, and willing to face the consequence.

Patel co-wrote this terrific script with James Ambrose and the characterisation of the brother and sister and their relationship is so full of nuances and convincing that I found myself caring for what would happen to them as though these were real people I knew and loved. It's the accurate, moving and insightful way "ABCD" deals with this sibling relationship that lifts the movie from being just about the Indian Diaspora experience to something more universal and truthful.

Patel studied filmmaking at the prestigious Tisch School of Arts at New York University and decided that for his first film it had to be a story he knew well — the story of the ABCD's. He doesn't really consider himself as an actor's director (he has plans to make a David Lean like sweeping epic) but he is, among other things, certainly that: he coaxes superb performances from his actors, particularly Sheetal Sheth.

Sheetal is a find, an Indian beauty who can act — she's star material. Krutin is an insider to the whole "ABCD" experience. He was born in India and went to live in the States when he was eight. And so, he isn't as confused as the genuine ABCD, whom he has lived with, observed and now finally put on film.

"The confusion, the crisis", he says, "hits those who have never grown up in India, those who have never experienced community, those who have never been embraced by the circle of family and friends in India."

It was about time, he felt, that someone made a film that would stop demonising the ABCD community as a lost, rootless bunch and narrate the immigrant experience from their point of view.


( Visuals by Netra Shyam

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