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1 item from 2002

American Chai

15 April 2002 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Through no fault of its own, the story in American Chai, which originally premiered at Slamdance 2001, has suffered from overexposure. It deals with cultural tensions within an American immigrant family, the subject of such recent festival films or indie releases as ABCD, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Real Women Have Curves and Faces. But Chai writer-director Anurag Mehta will have to accept responsibility for making the most awkward and uninvolving of these current films.

An inexperienced director, Mehta has much to learn -- especially the rule of thumb that one never casts family relations in key roles unless the family name is Bridges or Fonda. His writing, too, has its share of problems, from characters depicted with cartoonish exaggeration to conflicts that often feel forced. The film has almost no chance to expand its theatrical audience beyond an ethnic crowd, though perhaps the film may enjoy some success on video.

Set in an East Indian community in suburban New Jersey, Mehta's story concerns an American-born Indian youth, Sureel (Aalok Mehta), who is at odds with his tradition-bound father (Bollywood veteran Paresh Rawal). Tensions occur over his choice of lifestyle and academic pursuits. Where his dad lays down such rules as no dating, drinking or R-rated movies, he indulges in one and all. Where his dad decrees he will study pre-med, he is in fact a music major.

Sureel casually lives a double life, a good Indian boy at home and a progressive American youth when he walks out the door. Oddly enough, this double life catches up with him at exactly the moment he does the one thing of which his parents would approve: Dumped by his Anglo girlfriend, the aspiring musician begins to date a woman (Sheetal Sheth) who is not only Indian but -- by his parents' standards -- from a good family.

The plot moves in highly predictable ways, with most of the complications straining credibility. Mehta's writing never ventures beyond rote characterizations.

In the lead role, Aalok Mehta, the filmmaker's songwriter-brother, is, to put it bluntly, no actor, which throws off the rhythms of nearly every scene in which he appears. Ajay Naidu, playing a fresh-off-the-boat cousin, is embarrassingly over the top. Veteran actors Aasif Mandvi and Rawal acquit themselves as best they can. Sheth does have a few movies under her belt (ABCD, Indian Cowboy), but at this stage of her career, she rises or falls to the level of her fellow actors. Which makes her scenes with Aalok Mehta particularly stiff.

Technical credits are rudimentary with few locations and a mere handful of extras in scenes that demand more people. Mehta's music, a fusion of Western rock with Indian motifs, is pleasant though unremarkable.


Magic Lamp Releasing

Magic Lamp in association with Fusion Films presents

a Dream Merchant production


Producer: Taylor MacCrae

Writer-director: Anurag Mehta

Executive producers: Kathy Perone, Sapna Shah, Ashish Shah, Victoria Dingman

Director of photography: John Matkowsky

Production designer: Cecile Thalmann

Music: Aalok Mehta, Jach Bowden Faulkner

Costume designer: Kristen Couchot

Editor: Ann E. Holbrook. Cast: Sureel: Aalok Mehta

Maya: Sheetal Sheth

Sam: Aasif Mandvi

Toby: Josh Ackerman

Hari: Ajay Naidu

Sureel's Dad: Paresh Rawal

MPAA rating: R

Running time -- 89 minutes


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