Screenplay : Piyush Dinker Pandya
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Deep Katdare (Krishna Reddy), Ronobir Lahiri (Jagjit Singh), Rizwan Manji (Salim Ali Khan), Kal Penn (Ajay Pandya), Purva Bedi (Nina Shah), Sunita Param (Farah Saaed), Anil Kumar (Rakesh Patel), Aladdin (Gautam Rao), Eric Axen (Eric Berger)
American Desi might best be best described as a comedy of cultural conflict. It takes a well-worn Hollywood genre--the teen/college movie--and inflects it with a new twist to explore the experiences of second-generation American teens. The title is short for "American Born Confused Desi," usually referred to by the acronym "ABCD" to describe the troubled cultural identities of these second-generation Americans.
First-time writer/director Piyush Dinker Pandya knows about this firsthand: Having grown up as a second-generation Indian in Long Island, New York, during the 1970s, he understands the pressures involved in figuratively straddling two continents, especially for teenagers who are busy trying to develop their own identity in the world. He understands how the need to embrace the newfound, sometimes intoxicating Americanness often runs counter to familial urgings to hold on to the traditional culture of their homeland. The balancing of the two is difficult, as embracing one often implies rejecting the other.
Pandya embodies this conflict in the main character Krishna Reddy (Deep Katdare), a 19-year-old second-generation Indian who is about to start his freshman year of college. Krishna demands that he be referred to by the more American-sounding name "Kris," and he openly rejects everything about Indian heritage. He looks, sounds, and acts like any American teenager, and it is a constructed identity he wears with pride (you can almost picture him sitting in front of the television, soaking in the images of backwards baseball caps and baggy jeans). When his mother wishes to perform a traditional Indian ritual when he leaves for college, he can only roll his eyes and sigh at her "backwardness."
However, once at college, Kris finds himself (much to his dismay) placed in a dorm room with three other Indian students, all of whom, in their own ways, embrace their cultural roots. Salim (Rizwan Manji) is the most fervent in holding onto to his Indianness, and his vehement denunciations of everything American (which includes women having the freedom to work outside the home and express themselves openly) are an inverted mirror image of Kris' American-biased xenophobia. Jagjit (Ronobir Lahiri), a boisterous would-be artist who studies engineering to please his father, maintains the most outwardly Indian appearance, as he still wears a traditional turban. And, finally, there is Ajay (Kal Penn), who has embraced African-American hip-hop culture as a way of paying tribute to the fact that Africa and India were once a united continent ("We were once all one people," he says).
Kris does everything he can to distance himself from Salim, Jagjit, and Ajay, as they remind him of the cultural heritage he has spent his entire life trying to denounce. He just wants to be a plain old American, and anything associated with Indian culture irritates him. That is, until he meets Nina (Purva Bedi), an Indian girl with whom he falls in love. Of course, because the American-raised Nina still maintains her heritage, Kris is forced to re-evaluate his priorities and perhaps find a way to bridge the gap between his American identity and the cultural past to which is in inevitably connected.
Pandya, who studied film at New York University and has worked for almost a decade to bring American Desi to the screen, is good at mixing rowdy comedy with meaningful messages about the difficulties of multiculturalism in an increasingly diverse world. Much of his screenplay grew out of stories and personal experiences from his undergraduate years at Rutgers University, and many of the sequences in American Desi ring with the kind of pained, but funny truthfulness that only emerges from first-hand experience. Pandya obviously doesn't want to be preachy, which is why he chose to tell his story as a lively teen comedy complete with beer-soaked parties and a bungled panty raid on a girl's dorm. The soundtrack is awash with Indian-inflected rock music, and the narrative has the quick, jaunty rhythm of a John Hughes movie from the early '80s.
Some of his jokes and screwball situations come off as a bit amateurish, but the overall effect is one of lighthearted understanding; the characters border on stereotypes, but their unique personalities eventually transcend their exterior characteristics. The development of the relationship between Kris and Nina is the conventional romantic core of the film, but Kris's growing understanding and appreciation of his three roommates is much more emotionally effective. Their dynamic interplay of clashing personalities is always interesting and results in some truly funny moments.
It is when Pandya is playing fast and loose with the story that American Desi works best. When he adheres more rigorously to the formal plot points, the movie takes on a feeling of contrivance, especially in Kris' rivalry with another of Nina's suitors, a xenophobic Indian named Rakesh (Anil Kumar), which ends all too simply and predictably in that most American of male movie tradition: a fist fight.
Still, even when the plot doesn't always satisfy, the movie's general demeanor and tone is humorously rewarding. Pandya doesn't mind poking fun at his own cultural background, but he is just as adept at finding laughs at American self-centeredness. They are two sides of the same coin, he seems to be saying, and understanding can only be found somewhere in the middle.
©2001 James Kendrick