An ethnic comedy made with such dire earnestness as to suggest the entire subgenre was conceived just five minutes ago (and that Indian-Americans have never been given their fair shake in a movie), tyro helmer Piyush Dinker Pandya’s “American Desi” has so much noble intent cluttering up its sociological plate that it has no time to acknowledge its own embarrassingly pejorative characterizations and stereotyping. But surely, after “Mississippi Masala” (to name just one), Indian-American filmmakers and audiences alike have moved beyond such bold-faced condescension. English-lingo pic has performed modestly well in limited release since March 16, largely thanks to the built-in auds of niche distrib Eros, which is the largest U.S. handler of Hindi-language cinema.
“American Desi” interestingly compares with this year’s Slamdance Film Festival prize winner “American Chai,” which it resembles to an uncanny extent, not least in its eagerness to indulge all manner of tiresome culture-clash cliches.Taken together, the two movies could effectively convince a naive audience that all young Indian-Americans strenuously reject their own cultural traditions to be more “mainstream,” while all Indian parents insist on dictating the courses of their children’s lives. But whereas “Chai” paused to form relatively lively, full-bodied characters before putting them through its rigid, formulaic machinations, “American Desi” is all superficial posturing by an awkward cast that looks about a decade too old to be playing college freshmen.”American Desi” is the story of Krishna (Deep Katdare, who also produced), who insists on being called Kris and who inexplicably knows almost nothing about Indian cultural traditions, despite having been raised by traditional Indian parents.
At the East Coast school, Kris reacts strongly when he discovers that he was given three Indian-American roommates (including an avowed chauvinist and a cartoonish, jive-talking hip-hopper) rather than his blond-haired, blue-eyed buddy (Eric Axen). In a particularly outrageous bit, Kris, having been offered homemade chicken tika masala by one of his roommates, violently bats away the offering, shouting “Get that shit out of my face!”
Nearly every character (or, rather, caricature) and action is similarly and offensively rendered, right down to Kris’ on-again/off-again romance with fellow student Nina (Purva Bedi), who fully celebrates her heritage, though she also happens to be the least-ethnic looking Indian in the picture. The resulting strangeness of Kris’ attraction to her, which is one of the film’s few authentic sensations, is never seriously addressed.
It’s not a great stretch to say that there’s not an even-keeled Indian character in a film (save, perhaps, for Kris’ parents, who get about 60 seconds of screen time). The fact that Kris genuinely does seem confused about who he is supposed to be is also glossed over by Pandya’s script — it’s content to remedy Kris’ identity crisis by having him fall for Nina and learn a couple of traditional dances.
In the end, it is puzzling that “American Desi” is being promoted almost exclusively within Indian-American communities across the country; they should be among the first to sniff out how phony this thing is.