Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 92 minutes
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All any kid wants to do is fit in. Yet, when you’re a first-generation Indian-American like Sureel (Aalok Mehta), whose strict and traditional parents won’t allow you to date, see decent (i.e., “R-rated”) movies, or essentially have any fun whatsoever, it’s kinda hard to be one of the gang.
Unless you lie, which is what Sureel has done for nearly as long as he can remember. From smuggling a copy of “Bikini Drive-In” inside a cartoon’s video sleeve past his parents as a kid, to secretly rendezvousing down the street with his girlfriend in high school, Sureel has the fine art of deception down to a science.
Now in college, Sureel’s covering up so many things that he resembles one of those circus performers who spins plates on top of poles. As if studying music when his hard-core dad (Paresh Rawal) thinks his son is a pre-med major isn’t tricky enough, Sureel must also keep Jen (Jamie Hurley), his American girlfriend who possibly only loves him for his music, under wraps and weather the growing resentment of his Phathead bandmates.
Eventually, a plate has to crash. When Sureel almost misses a gig because of his parents’ insistence that he stay for dinner, his furious bandmates kick him out of the group. Crash! This, in turn, leads to Jen dumping him. Turns out, she only loved the music after all. Crash! Crash!
This would all be devastating, except for Maya (Sheetal Sheth), a stunning Indian-American dancer whose enchanting performance mesmerizes him mere moments after he’s been fired. As Sureel and Maya inevitably begin dating, it finally forces him to acknowledge his heritage. Soon, his new band adopts an Indian/rock fusion sound and he’s passionately imploring Indian-Americans to artistically interject themselves into the American quilt.
Yet, even though Sureel’s parents are so delighted he’s dating an Indian woman that they’re already trying to arrange the marriage, they still don’t know about his hidden life. And until he breaks free of their suffocating constraints, he’ll always be struggling to fit in anywhere.
“American Chai” is the funniest, most unabashadly goofy indie film to come out in quite some time. Indeed, Aalok Mehta’s Sureel grins his way through most of the film. Then again, you’d grin too if you could write music like him — much of which finds its way into the must-have soundtrack — and had the effervescent Sheth as your leading lady.
Pretty photography from DP John Matkowski aids this well-written film as does a strong supporting cast of memorable characters and subplots that reinforce, without overwhelming, the main story. Director Anurag Mehta, Aalok’s brother, even manages to weave a couple of hilarious spoofs of a typical Indian “Bali-wood” film into his narrative.
Mehta uses the formulaic and rather lightweight backdrop of an upcoming Best Band contest to drive home his film’s heartfelt message…and gets away with it. That’s because this well made, slightly cornball and riotously comical romantic comedy not only extols the old fashioned American dream, but charmingly celebrates the virtues of the great American melting pot as well.
Posted on July 3, 2001 in Reviews by Merle Bertrand
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