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"American Chai"

LIKE A cup of milky, sweet tea Shringar Films release, ``American Chai" is immensely likeable. Identity, displacement and cultural gaps are strong stuff for films to build over, despite them being explored often by filmmakers.

There is always a fresh story or experience or insight that makes such crossover films a pleasure to watch. ``American Chai," like its name, explores the cultural gap between homegrown parents and their American born off spring. Good natured, somewhat perceptive, the film is the first directorial venture of Anurag Mehta, himself a first generation American Indian in his twenties.

While studying at Rutgers University, he spent his summer working for James Cameron. ``American Chai" is the name of the fusion band formed by Sureel (Aalok Mehta) a fertile middle ground between his two worlds — a cultural fusion symbolised by the combination of eastern and western sounds, the band is trying to achieve. Sureel is nearing graduation from a university not very far from his parents' house in an upscale New Jersey neighbourhood. And from as far as he can remember, Sureel has wanted to fit in. But when you have strict parents who won't let you date, keep out late, watch R rated films and generally have fun, what does one do? Sureel learns to circumvent the dictates of his ultra conservative father (Paresh Rawal) who believes Sureel and his younger brother are Indians, not Americans! And will be raised as if they were growing up in India.

Perpetually lying to get what he wants, including practising with a band Fatheads and cozying up with an American girl, deception is the only way he knows. He studies music when his father thinks he is doing pre-med. Sureel can hardly dare to think what his father would say if he ever got to know. And the threat of an arranged marriage looms ahead just as he is dating Jen (Jamie Hurley), who anyway dumps him when he is thrown out of the band for being late yet again for rehearsals. Sureel must eventually face up to the truth just as his parents would have to. He meets the beautiful dancer Maya (Sheetal Sheth) whose performance just after he is fired from the band inspires him to take a look at his roots as well as his environment. Sureel is soon passionately imploring Indian Americans to blend themselves in the American melting pot! Sureel's parents are delighted to learn about him dating Maya. However they still are not aware of his hidden life. The story relies quite a bit on the follow your dreams clichés and also from the nature of conflict between Sureel's youthful desires and the parents' traditional expectations but all done with humour. Much of the film's gentle charm comes from Aalok, the director's younger brother who plays Sureel. Aalok, has had music in his soul. This is his acting debut and he hopes to continue music along with this. The chemistry between him and Sheetal is palpable and realistic. Her's is a natural performance. The two are supported by a cast which is solid. Paresh Rawal as the father gives a heartwarming performance. Josh Ackerman, Sureel's friend and fellow musician, and Asif Mandvi as the crude, comical pal who thinks he knows all there is to women, stand out.

The film pulls along nicely aided by a background score that is unobtrusive in parts, but plays appropriately on the sentiments without being cloying. Finally the film has plenty to say about the desi predicament — which is what we would remember about it — that Indian Americans need to explore their rich cultural heritage and consider becoming artistes instead of engineers, doctors, and computer programmers! Apart from providing a chance for parents to see themselves in their children. All said with such good humour that the sting is taken away.


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