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Flavors elicits and deserves smiles

By Raja Sen
October 21, 2004 15:16 IST
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A still from FlavorsI can't remember the last time I watched a film populated entirely by likeable characters. That, by itself, makes for a sorely difficult premise. It is far easier to throw in a couple of antagonists, and we all know the camera loves a villain. Casting exclusively the good guys always teeters precariously on the boundary of being dismally dull, and it's hard to understand why a band of indie filmmakers would take up such a task.

Flavors rises gallantly to the challenge, and hardly struggles in its quest, despite the handicap of being strikingly nice.

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'The film opens with a wedding.' These are ominous words for Indian cinema being made for/in the West, since we have been constantly bombarding world cinema with shaadis, be it beginning, culmination, or entire plot of a seemingly camcorder-held film.

Conversely, this is no ghodi-and-lehenga affair, but a simple, minimal Christian ceremony. The groom, name shortened to a conveniently typical Rad from a typically inconvenient long South Indian moniker, is played by Anupam Mittal, the film's producer, complete with half-smile, an air of concern, and 'cool' 1970s rockstar curls. His life is idyllic, smitten by sunny American fiancé Jenni (model Jicky Schnee), but now ruffled by the arrival of his parents from India to meet and 'accept' his wife-to-be.

The parents are ones we know well. We are very used to the bickering of Anjan Srivastava and Bharati Achrekar, and the Wagle family's laudable transition to the big screen, albeit with a different name, is effortless and wonderfully warm. It brings to mind the concept of a possibly delightful it not box office friendly franchise.

Reeling with the culture shock of first-time visitors to the US, Mom and Dad are extremely understanding, trying hard to accommodate all of their son and prospective daughter-in-law's wishes, while not visibly scandalised. They fail, completely and endearingly, at this attempted subtlety.

The characters are frighteningly credible, and these are people we know and meet on a daily basis, or at least constantly see popping up in our email inboxes. It's all too numerous a bunch of people to go on about, and I'll try to avoid giving anything away.

A still from FlavorsThere are long-distance 'friends', Kartik and Rachna, incessantly in touch via cell phone, and hinting at love through webcams and constant denial; there's Sangeeta, lonely enough to endure Jehovah's Witnesses for company, married to 'not fired but let go' coder Nikhil; and Candy, running a home for unemployed Indians, with 'the bench gang' occupying her house.

This 'bench gang' is a stroke of genius. Three vacant Indian software professionals, all with evidently demarcated roles in the gang: Ashok, the Leader, a dismissive humbug with a receding hairline; Jas, the accepting Sidekick with a perpetually blank expression; and Vivek, the Loser, not confident, and pining wistfully for a girl he used to stare at back in India.

For the target audience in their mid-twenties, this film hits so close to home, it's unbelievable. We empathise instantly and entirely with these characters, even if some of their accents somewhat jar for the first few minutes, simply because we do encounter them.

Flavors, unlike most films in this genre, works on a rather inspired non-linear, non-chronological multiple thread narrative. Like Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, the first and last scenes of the film are the same. However, unlike anything remotely associated with Quentin, this film is smoothly feel-good, and the quirky editing makes it a charming piece of storytelling.

Multiple narratives are almost always brought together with a 'tragic accident' plot device, and there are times in the film when we fear this might happen. Our doubts, while not ungrounded, are not realised, and the movie continues its journey into being astonishingly real.

One laughs throughout the film, but this is not because it has wonderfully sparkling wit and joke-filled dialogues, but because it's realism triggers off our own personal memories, bringing uncannily relatable life onto celluloid.

Snapshots include very real moments: the son defending his long hair; the 'urgent' parcel from India with a big jar of Chavanprash; modern women considering 'arranged marriage' a viable option; debunking the 'I love you' myth. There are many more instances, and every viewing of the film will doubtless trigger off a wave of nostalgia.

The film is an admirable effort, shattering a lot of Indian stereotypes, and one of the best in the Diaspora genre, especially regarding the portrayal of India to the rest of the world. It is a compelling, honest attempt, and while not a 'film of the year' or one which might want to inspire DVD or T-shirt sales, you will, in all likelihood, enjoy it thoroughly, even begrudgingly. For the twenty-somethings, this is their film, the kind of film they'll claim they could even make themselves. 

Flavors elicits and deserves smiles.

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Raja Sen