American Chai

With many cultures to choose from, filmmakers often document the tension between immigrant parents and their Americanized children. Recent examples include the Filipino culture (American Adobo and The Debut), Latino culture (Tortilla Soup), Eastern Europe (An American Rhapsody), and Persian culture (Maryam). East is East was a comedy about Pakistani immigrants in Britain, and now American Chai by Anurag Mehta is about Indian culture in America. In terms of these movies, American Chai does not bring anything especially unique to this sub genre. Every movie of this ilk by definition has rebellious children and strict parents. After a falling out, there is a reconciliation, and everybody recognizes the virtues of freedom. Usually the only unique element of the movie deals with culturally specific values, jokes, dress, and language.

In American Chai, the rebellious youth is Sureel (Aalok Mehta). He is a music major in college, but his parents do not know this. They think he is pre-med, and he is doing everything he can to hide his life from them. He has a white girlfriend, likes to party, and has dreams that do not mesh with those of his parents. They want him to marry a nice Indian girl. Unfortunately for Sureel, the band he was in kicked him out, and his parents are preparing to arrange a marriage for him. Things look better when he meets Maya (Sheetal Sheth, A Pocketful of Dreams, ABCD), a fellow Indian student. Like him, she loves to dance, but because of her parents, she is pursing other studies. They inspire each other. Plus, Sureel's roommate Toby (Josh Ackerman, Pearl Harbor, Evolution) wants to start a new band with him.

American Chai works best when dealing with Sureel and his parents' expectations. Mehta scripts some tense moments between Sureel's father (Paresh Rawal, Deewane, Hera Pheri) about their conflicts. There is real emotion in these moments, but unfortunately, Mehta prefers typical movie fare. American Chai turns into more of a conventional relationship story, with issues about identity lurking under the surface. Since Sureel and Maya seem perfect for each other, movie rules dictate that something must come between them, and it's here that the movie becomes depressingly conventional. Cultural movies like this are sharpest when they acknowledge and celebrate their heritage, and the only time American Chai approaches this is when Mehta skillfully skewers Bollywood movies in a funny dream sequence.

This is the first movie for many of its participants, and its roughness shows. There is a wonderful awkwardness in Sureel and Maya's relationship, the type that two people have when they really don't know each other. However, this is not because of good scripting, it is because Mehta (Aalok) is never too comfortable on screen. In real life, he does make music, and composed many of the songs used in the film, but as an actor, he has a way to go. Production value is decent, but the film has an amateur feel to it, as if a bunch of friends got together and decided to make a film. Most of it comes from the script. Mehta (Anurag) has some interesting things to say about the meshing of Indian and American culture, and especially about art, but this message struggles for attention amidst more typical, almost romantic comedy-like fare.

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 32 minutes, Rated R for some sexual dialogue.

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