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Open-ended, feel-good film

"AMERICAN CHAI" shouldn't be confused with trash like "American Desi." Along with Krutin Patel's "ABCD," Anurag Mehta's film is the only other crossover film to look at the aspirations and struggles of first generation Indian Americans with depth, honesty and insightful humour.

And it doesn't pander to the audience the way so many crossover films have. The characters don't make lame, unfunny culture-clash jokes and neither is the script interested in looking at the immigrant experience. Instead, the film turns its gaze on what growing up in America is like for first generation Indian Americans whose parents are third generation. It explores the clash of values between the old world and the new. As the hero of the film tells us at one point: "Sometimes it seemed like my parents and I were from two different worlds."

Sureel (Aalok Mehta) has been lying to his father (Paresh Rawal) about what he really studies at the University (in New Jersey) he goes to. His father thinks he is a pre-med student; but Sureel is a music major. All his life, he's had to sneak around: from watching R rated videos to dating White girls. He isn't even like the other Indians at the University who he has nicknamed variously as Engineering Sam, Pre-Med Bob, Software Sam, Pharmacy Bob. Because every Indian he knows seems to be studying the same courses. He has been trying to tell his conservative Gujarati parents that music is his passion — not a hobby. They, of course, want him to be a doctor.

He plays with a band called Fathead. His one inspiration is Maya (Sheetal Seth), the bright, pretty and interesting Indian girl he stumbles on. Like him, she's first generation and has artistic aspirations. She hopes to be a dancer. Crisis escalates when the band throws him out, his white girlfriend leaves him and his father finds out he hasn't exactly been a pre-med student all these years. He forms his own band — a fusion of guitar, tabla and sitar — and calls it American Chai.

The basic plot of the film might sound clichéd but as the story progresses, you are pleasantly surprised to find it isn't predictable or pat. Two instances: Sureel does not win the top prize at the big music contest at the end, and Maya decides she has to go off to London to do her own thing. Most other movies would have opted for a more upbeat, false ending. And though the ending of American Chai is open-ended, it doesn't take away from how feel-good it actually is.

Mehta, who also wrote the script, constantly delights us with such small, unexpected story flourishes that seem rooted in real life. The acting is cool and there's depth to the characters. Except perhaps the Indian parents who seem a little stereotyped — but this seems deliberate. The parents stand in for caricatures of other predictable parents.

Aalok, Anurag's brother, makes a fine debut here as singer and actor. As an actor, he is unselfconscious, subtle, and very likeable. As singer-songwriter, he is impressive — the few songs we hear him do in the film stay with you long after the movie is over. (His debut music album, Technicolor, will soon hit the stores and anyone who cares for good contemporary folk-rock should pick it up).

Unlike so many Crossover/Indian English films (I still insist on calling them that and NOT Hinglish) the acting/ dialogue isn't awkward and stilted. There's some really nice ensemble acting from veteran crossover film actors such as Sheetal Seth (terrific in ABCD and very convincing and sweetly intelligent here) Aasif Mandvi and Ajay Naidu. It's nice to see this small community of gifted South Asian actors in action.

What Anurag Mehta had done in "American Chai" is to also send out a message to other first generation Indian American kids with artistic aspirations to take that bold step of breaking away from engineering and medicine and software, and explore other unconventional, risky careers. Sureel and Maya attend a South Asian conference where first-gen American kids speak their mind. On an impulse, Sureel goes up and wonders why, when India has such a rich tradition of the arts, should Indian American children zero in only on the sciences? Because of the pressure to conform, he says, most of us repress our talents. The Mehtas have repeatedly said that their own parents were liberal and encouraging but that still doesn't mean it was — or is — easy for them to pursue filmmaking and music.

And not surprisingly, "American Chai" remains just as relevant here — there must be hundreds of young people struggling with the same thing in India.

Do they stick to professional courses or should they breakout and follow their passion? "American Chai" is an accomplished little film with nice details and a genuinely likeable sensibility.



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