American Chai

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 04/13/02 20:49:48

"Please to not feed peanuts to my god"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I love Banghra, the southeast-asian techno fusion music with its blend of traditional Sitar, tabla and distinct vocal style with techno and house beats. American Chai is a fusion story about traditional Indian values clashing with modern American values. It’s also about anyone who’s star is leading them away from the sure thing and into the unknown where their spirit can play freely. And it’s also a love story. But not just love of another, but love of music, love of tradition, love of culture and love of home.

Sureel (Aalok Mehta) grew up in New Jersey with an identity crisis. Nobody knew if he was Christian or Jew, Black or Hispanic. Because he was “none of the above” he felt very out of place and like most Indians, his family stuck close to the Indian community. But he learned to fit in with his American friends and he also learned how to live a double life so his parents would think he was growing up the way they want him to while he was really growing up the way he wanted to.

The extensive voice over narration by Sureel explains all this to us throughout the film. For a film made by Indians about Indians you wouldn’t expect to see much racial humor, but there is a character, Raju (Anand Chulani) that is freely called an F.O.B. That stands for Fresh Off The Boat and when I was in high school it applied to the waves of immigrants from Laos and Vietnam with their particular “trying to be american” subculture and it was not a compliment. During a lunchtime discussion, somewhere around the tenth grade, when talking to some of my FOB friends, we decided that they should really be called FOPs, Fresh Off The Plane.

Raju is the awkward, funny, foreign exchange student character, like Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles. I’m not sure why these Bo Jangles type characters are still funny, but at least it wasn’t a white guy making it up. The film was trying to play it straight and Raju as a plot device works, but he’s overacted and clownish rather than believable. I think the film would have been better served if Raju was kept as a dramatic foil, rather than comedy relief. Raju gets his moment though, to explain how much he lost when he moved to America and my sympathy shifted towards him.

Kids engage in their own cultural education process and come up with their own knowledge about the world. Changing FOB to FOP completely changed the perspective because planes seem more civilized and connected to the modern world. And many immigrants were so provincial and lost in this wide world called America that thinking they came over on a boat, like freight, just helped to diminish their stature. Until they all figured out how to get business loans and open up Donut Shops. And sold our icons back at us.

I remember in the 80’s how nervous immigration made my largely white suburban world in a depressed economy. And I remember how difficult communication was at the parent level while the kids seemed to have no problem mixing and blending.

I had some female Indian friends in High School and since I was a boy, I wasn’t allowed to come over or call. And even though Rita had modern sensibilities, she was bound by the tradition of her parents and found all kinds of ways around their expectations.

Sureel hangs out mostly with white people because he sees so much more freedom there. His real life is exactly the opposite of what his dad wants. Somehow Sureel has to find a way to maintain his ties to his family and to his heart. It’s evident that Indian culture is important to him but he wants to adapt it to fit life in America – the land you come to because “anything is possible”. He rebels against the idea of playing it safe, arranged marriages, tradition for traditions sake.

In one scene, all the parents are at a party talking about how well their kids are doing in school, obeying their commands, avoiding sex and music and parties, while cutting to their kids who are doing all those things at that very moment.

The film doesn’t try to question what happens to a culture that is left to evolve, especially a displaced or dislocated culture. It’s a world stage now. So fusion is an appropriate theme. The plot is pretty much of the tried and true variety but it’s a decent vehicle for these particular characters. I especially appreciated the effort of the story to privelege art and artists as an important part of any society.

It’s good to make money, but it’s also good to inspire, and to kindle passion.

The film also stars Ajay Naidu from Office Space in the role of a liqour store owner who likes to say “never worry, Chicken Curry.” The role of Indian Cinema in the imagination of modern Indian culture is played out in dream sequences filmed to look like a Bollywood film and in one scene, the subtleties of Indian films are explained to a white American friend and to us, the audience. “The country that gave us the Kama Sutra now gives us films where you can’t show kissing.”, explains Engineering Sam played by Aasif Mandvi

Mandvi also stars in the upcoming Anglo-Indian fantasy based on the novel by V.S. Naipul, The Mystic Masseur about a country peasant who aspires to be a writer during the Ghandi era (the struggle for independence from English rule) and ends up as a politician where he has to interface directly with the mannered and erudite officers of “The Empire”.

The best moments of the film are the studied attempts at a graceful blend between traditional dance and music and modern rock and hip hop. The film has an amateur sheen and the actors are sometimes trying to do too much for their reputation with their limited screen time, which affects the character, but the story is mature enough to forgive the lapses in performance.

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