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American Chai is a pleasant concoction

Deepa Gumaste | June 20, 2003 21:04 IST

Anurag Mehta's American Chai is a notable addition to the brood of American-Indian films.

A still from American ChaiIt isn't flaky like the two desi flicks that came out of the US last year, American Desi and Leela. Instead, it explores the universal problems and dilemmas of the youth, with a peculiar twist that comes from the ideological gap between immigrant Indians and their first-generation children residing in America.

Sureel (Aalok Mehta) is the son of an autocratic immigrant (Paresh Rawal), who nurses the ambition of making it big as a musician. His father wants him to become a doctor and believes his son is studying for his pre-meds in Jersey University, while Sureel has actually taken a music major.

Sureel has mastered the art of deception long ago. He has defied his father's orders since childhood -- from smuggling R-rated movies inside cartoon video covers to secretly romancing his white high school girlfriend and even playing for an ambitious band called Fathead, who are preparing for a music competition that promises a record deal in Los Angeles to the winners.

After a point, Sureel begins to feel bogged down. Juggling his time between his domineering father's regular dinner sessions at home -- which include familiar lectures on the virtues of a good medical education, staying away from American girls and opting for a good solid Indian arranged marriage with a girl from the same caste -- and rushing back to the band's practice sessions becomes increasingly difficult.

Finally, his erratic ways prompt the band to throw him out and his girlfriend Jenny (Jamie Hurley) -- who loves his music more than him -- to desert him.

A chance meeting with American-Indian dancer Maya (Sheetal Sheth) changes his life and propels him towards the realm of fusion music and starting a band of his own along with his friend, Toby (Josh Ackerman). Sureel decides to participate in the competition with some encouragement from Maya.

Even as Sureel and Maya become close (with Sureel's father approving his son's love for once, 'because she's from the same caste'), the choices Life throws their way threaten to rip them apart.

American Chai, despite its small-budget look and lack of visual panache, is endearing. Whether it is Sureel's shy existence between two dramatically different cultures, his loudmouth friend Sam's (Aasif Mandvi) oftentimes spot-on observations about American-Indian boys and girls or Toby's passionate but rocky relationship with Maya's Indian friend, Sejal, all the characters look and feel genuine.

A still from American ChaiSureel's simplicity is evident not just in Aalok Mehta's likeable personality, but also in his straight-from-the-heart music (most of the compositions in the film are his own).

Sheetal Sheth, who made an impressive screen debut in Krutin Patel's ABCD six years ago, is already a known actress in American-Indian cinema and executes Maya's delicate character with ease.

Josh Ackerman's Toby is another noteworthy act, as is Aasif Mandvi's Sam. Paresh Rawal is completely in control of his conservative Gujarati persona and romps home with a perfectly balanced performance.

All in all, American Chai is a pleasant concoction that is worth a look.

Now that we have seen every possible shade of desi dilemmas, could we move on to other American-Indian stories please?

Cast: Sheetal Sheth, Aalok Mehta, Aasif Mandvi, Paresh Rawal, Ajay Naidu, Josh Ackerman

Producer: Taylor MacCrae

Director: Anurag Mehta

Cinematographer: John Matkowsky
Music: Aalok Mehta, Jack Bowden Faulkner

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