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American Chai (2002)

From Breezy Bollywood, Films Anything but Vérité (A. O. SCOTT, 4/16/04, NY Times)
With just six films in its program, "Cinema India!" is clearly not trying to be comprehensive or even representative. Given the scale and variety of movie production in India, such a thing would hardly be possible, even in a much bigger series. Instead, it offers glimpses into a parallel cinematic universe, one that is complex and sometimes puzzling but at the same time accessible and welcoming.

It is hard, for example, to resist the charms of "The Braveheart Will Take the Bride," a lavish romance (with weddings, mothers and musical numbers) that few people in India have resisted since its release in 1995. "Come, fall in love," was the movie's advertising tag line, which seems to have been unusually effective. Not only was "Braveheart" (better known as "D.D.L.J.," short for its Hindi title, "Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge") the top box-office attraction of that year, but it has played continuously in Mumbai ever since and has sold untold millions of videos and DVD's, both authorized and pirated.

The film critic Anupama Chopra, in her excellent monograph on the movie (part of the British Film Institute's Modern Classics series), estimates that the soundtrack recording can be found in one third of all Indian households.

Ms. Chopra said that "D.D.L.J.," the first film written and directed by Aditya Chopra, scion of a Bollywood dynasty (and no relation to the critic), "bent Hindi convention out of shape and gave it a modern sensibility." Its major innovation was bringing the experiences of nonresident Indians into the purview of Bollywood's musical soap opera traditions. Raj and Simram are the young lovers whose long road to bliss furnishes the film's plot. (Long at least by impatient American standards; in India a three-hour film is no big deal.) They meet in London, where their families have lived for many years.

Raj's father is a wealthy, dandified widower who has passed some of his playboy philosophy down to his son, while Simram's is a conservative shopkeeper who has promised his daughter to the son of his best friend back in Punjab. "D.D.L.J." both acknowledges the global Indian diaspora and revels in its globe-trotting freedom. Many of the far-flung musical numbers occur while Simram, Raj and their pals are on a Eurail holiday that takes them through Paris and the Alps, where the hills are alive with the sound of Hindustani love songs.

But Mr. Chopra also suggests that Indian tradition provides a counterweight to such footloose freedom. Raj, though he stages an elaborate Molièrian ruse to disrupt Simram's wedding, also refuses to elope with her, insisting on gaining her intransigent father's permission. At several moments Raj asserts that in spite of growing up overseas, he is "Hindustani through and through."

The film's deft combination of adventurousness and conservatism — of youthful rebellion and filial duty, which are brought into harmony at the end — may be one source of its appeal. It suggests that India, which in the 90's was rushing headlong toward participation in the global economy after decades of semi-isolation, could embrace the wider world without sacrificing its history or its identity. Or, as the "Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema" rather more dogmatically puts it, the movie envisions "an unproblematic subsumption of feudal patriarchy into `postmodern' globalization and the selling of `authentic' identity as something that can only be achieved via consumerism."

Which is much more fun than it sounds like, since it is precisely the headlong, happy-go-lucky inauthenticity of "D.D.L.J." that makes it so lovable. Mr. Chopra's gorgeous wide-screen compositions, his cinematographer Manmohan Singh's brilliant sense of color and the movie's sure-footed blend of comedy and melodrama recall the great MGM Technicolor musicals of the 1950's.

Bollywood, indeed, has kept alive the tradition of vibrant, sumptuous spectacle that Hollywood has all but abandoned. The movie musical has not so much died as migrated, taking with it the genre's characteristic mixture of sophistication and wholesomeness. In "D.D.L.J.," adhering to Bollywood norms is at once fastidiously chaste — not so much as a kiss on the mouth — and stupefyingly sensuous. It is a reminder that when sex was finally allowed into American movies, a great deal of eroticism went out.

Folks who are looking for a gentle introduction to Bollywood might want to rent American Chai (2002) this weekend--an Indian-American version of Bend it Like Beckham or My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Sureel is a college senior (apparently at Rutgers) and son of Indian immigrants (a desi). While he's led his strict Father to believe that he's a monastic pre-med grind just waiting for an arranged marriage, Sureel is instead a music major, playing guitar in a rock band (the Fatheads), and dating an American girl. When his deceptions cause him to be late for one too many Fathead functions he gets the heave-ho and it turns out that his girlfriend was just a groupie, so she ditches him also.

With the help of his American roommate--who's dating a desi girl--and several desi friends--especially the very funny Engineering Sam--he takes this as an opportunity to explore new music that blends traditional Indian influences with American rock, and to check out the desi subculture on campus. There he meets and falls in love with Maya, who his overjoyed parents promptly inform him they're arranging to have him marry.

The rest of the plot is fairly predictable but the glimpse into this immigrant world is eye-opening. Engineering Sam has a couple of soliloquies that provide hilarious explanations of Indian culture and the tensions it creates for the younger generation. Though the older generation is distrustful of the effects of American culture on their children, everyone is openly and unabashedly appreciative of the unique opportunities that their new home has offered them. We get to see ourselves through their eyes and if it's occasionally a little uncomfortable-making, it ends up being quite heartening. Their struggles remind us that we too have to seek to conserve what is best about our culture even as we afford ourselves freedom to innovate and develop. The film will appall far Left and far Right as it leaves you feeling good both about immigrants and America. Everyone else will enjoy it immensely.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

-INFO: American Chai (2002) (
-FILMOGRAPHY: Anurag Mehta
-NAATA : Community : Filmmaker's Corner : Archive : Anurag Mehta
-Aaolk Music
-INTERVIEW: The American Chaiwala: An Interview with Anurag Mehta (Asia Source, April 1, 2002)
-INTERVIEW: An Interview with Anurag and Aalok Mehta (Anup Sugunan, Filmmaker Interviews)
-In the Spotlight: American Chai (Sunday Tribune of India, July 20, 2003)
-PROFILE: Making the crossover: Anurag Mehta's debut feature `American Chai' which is coming soon to a theatre near you, is a romantic comedy dealing with the hassles of a cross-cultural generation gap. Indian directors should look beyond the coming of age film to break through into the mainstream (MINI ANTHIKAD-CHHIBBER, 6/26/03, The Hindu)

-REVIEW ARCHIVE: American Chai (MetaCritic)
-REVIEW: of American Chai (Lawrence Van Gelder, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of American Chai (The Village Voice, Ed Park)
-REVIEW: of American Chai (PRIYA MALHOTRA, News India)
-REVIEW: of American Chai (CHITRA MAHESH , The Hindu)
-REVIEW: of American Chai (Deepa Gumaste, Rediff)
-REVIEW: of American Chai (Pam Singleton, Reel Movie Critic)
-REVIEW: of American Chai (Haro Online)