March 13, 2001
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An American Desi's Dream
An American Desi's Dream

Piyush Dinker Pandya grew up in an Indian household on Long Island in the 1970s, at a time when there were hardly any South Asian faces in the neighborhood.

A high point for the family was the occasional jaunt to Jackson Heights (a predominantly Indian locality) in Queens, New York, to stock up on Indian groceries.

"I remember the trips to Jackson Heights for Indian groceries were a huge event," recalls Pandya, who now lives in New Jersey. "I mean it was a big deal just to do grocery shopping and it was so far away. Jackson Heights had a few grocery stores and there was nothing anywhere else."

On one such trip to Jackson Heights the Pandya family saw Raj Kapoor's movie Bobby. "I didn't understand the film, I just saw the images," Pandya says.

But the 32-year-old film-maker, whose first feature film American Desi will be released on March 16, did not care for Bollywood films as a child and a teenager.

Much like Krishna Reddy -- the lead character in American Desi (played by Deep Katdare), Pandya did not have the patience to sit through a three hour-long Bollywood film, though he loved films.

American Desi -- the original title, American Born Confused Desi was shortened at the suggestion of the distributor, Eros -- is a lighthearted and autobiographical look at a young Indian-American coming to terms with his roots, when he is forced to relate to other South Asian students at a college campus in New Jersey.

In addition to Katdare, the film stars a host of young South Asian actors, including Purva Bedi, Ronobir Lahiri, Rizwan Manji, Kal Penn, Anil Kumar, Sunita Param and Aladdin.

"I was very much like the character (Reddy) in my first two years at Rutgers (University)," Pandya says. "I did not associate with any Indians there. My parents wanted me to go there (Rutgers), because they had a lot of friends who went there and I did not want go there for precisely that reason. But I did not have much choice then."

Falling in with his parents' wishes, Pandya attended the computer science program at the New Jersey school in the late 1980s. "You are bound run into a few Indians in that program," he says. As he began to meet other Indians, Pandya woke up to Indian culture.

"I found myself picking up a cassette by Lata Mangeshkar or Pankaj Uddhas and putting it in a tape player and it wasn't bad," he says. "Before that you would never catch me eating Indian food, unless there was no other food available."

Pandya says he was bitten by a movie bug at an early age. While he preferred watching Hollywood blockbusters, he would hear stories from his father about Bollywood films. "My father would talk to me about when he was in college in India and the new Dev Anand or Raj Kapoor movie would open on a Friday. He would be like, 'Do we go to the lecture or do we see the movie?' And of course he would see the movie! To me that was a big thing, to skip school to see a movie!"

In college, Pandya began to re-examine the Hollywood films he saw. Serious questions arose. Such as what would happen in a movie if one of the lead characters was Indian? Would s/he bring something different to the table?

The script for American Desi started with Pandya's personal stories while he was at Rutgers. After graduating he worked as a computer programmer with a pharmaceutical company and still continues to pursue that line of career as a consultant.

In between, he took time to attend the graduate film program at New York University. "Whatever people's passions are, you can't keep them away from it," he says. "Eventually they have to go for it. I have worked for 10 years as a programmer and consultant. That piece of me (the desire to make movies) never went away."

Pandya, and his two co-producers -- younger brother Gitesh (editor of, and lead actor Katdare, raised approximately $ 250,000, from friends and investors, to make the film.

The search for distribution, finally led them to the Secaucus, NJ-based Eros Entertainment -- until now known for distributing hit Bollywood films like Taal, Hum Saath Saath Hain, Josh and Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani.

The film opens on 40 screens across United States and Canada. In addition, to Eros' connection with the South Asian theaters, Pandya and his team is also releasing American Desi in two "art" theaters -- Cinema Village in New York City and Laemmle's Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Last fall another young Indian-American film-maker, Nisha Ganatra released her film, Chutney Popcorn at Cinema Village.

Pandya's next project will be based on a script that he wrote with Katdare. He describes it as an Indian Lethal Weapon -- a two cop genre film where they are forced to work together on a major case.

His two lead characters would be Indian policemen -- one from the US and the other from India. But financing the next project would still be a challenge. "We have our next film ready to go," he says. "We are hoping that if it (American Desi) is successful, it will be less of a job for us to convince people to finance the next movie."

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