The desi in India
Piyush Pandya and Deep Katdare bring American Desi to home ground
"Me desi aahe (I am a desi)," exclaims Deep Katdare, lead actor of American Desi, in Marathi.
A soft chuckle is heard in the audience as the speaker bursts into a wide grin. He has passed the test. He knows his mother tongue despite having stayed in the US all his life.
We are at a press meet at Mumbai's Hotel Orchid. Director Piyush Dinkar Pandya is also present.
American Desi, which released in the US in March 2001, opens in India September 27. The film is about Krishna Reddy (Katdare), a young man born in America and out of touch with his Indian heritage. When he meets the captivating Nina Shah (Purva Bedi), his world turns upside down. He struggles to come to terms with his culture in order to win the girl who is deeply connected to her roots. Along the way, Reddy discovers the colourful Indian-American lifestyle full of wild parties and funky music.
The story is based on the personal experiences of the writer-director, Pandya. "I was the character of Kris [as he is better known in the film] in my younger days. I had no Indian friends then because I couldn't relate to them. But my college had a very large Indian population. I also had to share my dormitory with Indians. That's when I started hanging out with them. After four years, I was a completely different person," says the computer science graduate.
Clad in track pants and leather shoes, Katdare adds, "What really inspired this film was the lives of NRIs in the US and UK. There are a lot of people like us, like the characters in American Desi. They experience an identity crisis between their Eastern traditional roots and their Western progressive environment. People like Kris Reddy find it difficult to tag themselves to any one of the groups and so live in a world where they are both."
The small budget film ($200,000) took over a year to come to India as the makers could not find any distributors. "The film is an independent film in US made by NRIs," explains Katdare. "Since there are not many films made by Indians, it was very difficult to get distributors. Besides, this is a film that must be marketed properly and painted in proper light." After a long search, Pandya got hold of distributors Channel Nine, who shared the "same passion in distribution as I had in making the film".
American Desi was featured at the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) festival held last year in Mumbai. Now, with the success of films like Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham, the trade has become more susceptible to them.
Essentially a light romantic comedy the film has a few scenes which may prove controversial with the Indian population. Like the scene in which a boy trips over someone offering namaz. Pandya is quick to the defense. "The film has four people of different religious living together. I think tripping is is possible, given the situation. It isn't disrespectful of any religion; it is a physicality that I thought could happen to anyone."
The Censor Board has passed this scene and has muted abusive language in Hindi.
Katdare remains optimistic. "With the exposure of television and Internet, I think the audiences here are quite broadminded." This is Katdare's first real visit to India, where he has been able to see the different sights of Mumbai and New Delhi. "I used to come to India when I was younger to visit my grandmother in Pen [a small town in Maharashtra]."
This is the first time that the actors of American Desi --- Deep Katdare, Ranobir Lahiri, Rizwan Manji, Purva Bedi, Kal Penn --- are playing leading roles in a film. Most of them have worked in small roles in mainstream films. The crew, with the sole exception of the debutant director, is American. "This is what I have always wanted to do," claims Pandya. "Write and direct my own film! This film is an expression of passion. My crew was very excited with the script, though they couldn't really relate to some social issues. The garba and the Bhangra fascinated them. They used to ask, 'Does this stuff really happen?' There was a lot of chemistry between the cast and the crew."
"I experienced a true desi film for the first time in my life," says Katdare. "Several parents of the cast members, including Pandya's, would come to the sets and bring us healthy, Indian dinner virtually every night.
"But the time I really realised how desi the film set was when we were shooting the garba scene. There were around 100 dancers for that sequence. After the shooting, I used to drive the actors home in a van. One night, a lady knocked on my window and asked me what I was doing. When I explained, she was shocked. She felt that me, the hero, should not drive the van in case there was an accident. 'Where's the bad guy? Let him drive! If there's an accident, let him get into trouble!'"
During the six weeks of shooting, Katdare admits that he learnt a lot. "I was exposed to Bollywood for the first time in my life. By the end of the film, I felt like Kris Reddy!"
Katdare claims that he now has agents and casting directors contacting him directly from Hollywood. Besides, he no longer has to pay at Indian restaurants or for cabs.
"Unfortunately, that doesn't hold for me," sighs Pandya. "I lose out on that as they don't know me. Now you know why directors also act in their films!"
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