An overly earnest, wholly familiar ethnic family drama, Anurag Mehta’s “American Chai” treats the most hackneyed of culture-clash cliches as though they were somehow novel. Preferring syrupy melodrama to real emotional exploration, pic has little to say on the subject of preserving ethnic identity in a multiethnic society (and, specifically, within the conservative world of Indian emigrants) that hasn’t been said before (and better) in films as disparate as “Mississippi Masala” and “East Is East.” Pic, which nevertheless connected strongly with Slamdance auds (and copped the Audience Award for best film), could show some niche theatrical life, though cable and vid prospects appear much stronger.
Sureel (Aalok Mehta, writer-director Anurag’s brother) is a senior majoring in music at a New Jersey university, with a Caucasian girlfriend and a gig as the lead singer in a campus alterna-rock band called Fathead — all of which seems to make Sureel content, except that his predictably domineering father (Paresh Rawal) predictably knows nothing about any of this, thinking instead that Sureel is a pre-med student with no girlfriend.
In pic’s first-person voiceover, Sureel explains that, as the first American-born son in an Indian-American family, he has had to deceive his parents almost since birth in order to participate in the activities of mainstream American society.When Sureel breaks up with his girlfriend and begins dating Maya (the beautiful Sheetal Sheth), a girl both he and his parents approve of, things unexpectedly go from bad to worse. Unbeknownst to him, Sureel’s parents begin arranging for his marriage to Maya before he and Maya have barely gone out on their second date. Then, once Sureel reveals to his parents the true nature of his college studies, the simmering tension between father and son runneth over.
“American Chai” is one of those films in which all of the conflicts between characters, as well as said conflicts’ ultimate, tidy resolutions, can be anticipated from such an early point in the narrative that actually watching the film becomes an entirely passive experience.
And Mehta further drags pic into oft-traveled waters with an utterly banal subplot about Sureel getting kicked out of Fathead and starting a new band that, just coincidentally, will compete against Fathead in a climactic battle-of-the-bands.
But despite the thorough lack of surprise, “American Chai” is imbued with a certain wide-eyed appreciation for the American dream, which probably accounts for its connection with auds. Further, pic is given an undeniable weight by the imposing presence of Bollywood star Rawal, who makes the most of an exceedingly one-dimensional character in his American screen debut.
The real problem with “American Chai” is its own lack of clarity about the various cultural edicts it is so quick to espouse. Mehta seems to be arguing throughout pic for a multicultural tolerance within the Indian-American community, but ends up strongly advocating his own protagonist’s decision to choose an Indian-American girlfriend and to spend more time socializing in exclusively Indian-American circles. What’s more, pic depicts most of its non-Indian characters (particularly the other members of Fathead) as shallow, opportunistic and buffoonish, in what amounts to an easy way of justifying Sureel’s actions and never really digging too deeply beneath the surface of the Indian/non-Indian divide.
Technically competent pic is enlivened by a score of accomplished, mostly original songs written and performed by star Mehta.