reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, March 20, 2001
When I would tell people I was going to see the new movie "American Desi," they'd typically say, "So, is it about Desi Arnaz Sr. or Desi Arnaz Jr.?"
I'd reply, "No, it's a low-budget comedy about Indian-American college students."
They'd say, "Great! I always loved movies about American Indians. It's good to see that somebody's finally making Westerns again."
South Asia Indians are the highest income ethnic group in America. Yet, Americans pay so little attention to Indian immigrants - "The Simpsons" Kwik-E-Mart manager Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is the only recurrent Indian character on TV - that the Census Bureau managed to flat out miss what race Indians belong to. The Federal government lumps Indians with Chinese and Japanese. Yet, they are primarily Caucasians. And as a key plot twist in "American Desi" shows, some are barely distinguishable in looks from Mediterranean Europeans. ("Desi," by the way, simply means somebody from South Asia.)
Eros Entertainment is rolling out their first English-language movie beneath the mainstream media's radar. Here in L.A., "American Desi" is not even being advertised in the fine print movie listings. To find one of the 38 theatres where it's playing, you have to check www.AmericanDesiMovie.com. (It's not rated, but would be about PG-13 for foul language and lots of off-color jokes. There's zero sex or bloodshed.)
If it weren't aimed at Indian-Americans, this movie would be your basic dumb college sex farce. Since it's made for Indians, however, however, there's no sex. In fact, this New Jersey-made movie follows Bombay's Bollywood tradition of having practically no kissing. And because the target audience competes with Jews for the title of best-educated ethnic group in America, it's not so dumb, either. So, despite a budget of only $250,000, "American Desi" turns out to be a silly, but appealingly romantic comedy.
It tells the story of six college freshmen taking an intro class together. Now, almost every Hollywood movie about college or high school centers on English class (with History running a distant second). That's because movies are written by English majors who can't imagine anything could be more interesting than English.
Since these kids are Indians, however, they are all taking Engineering 101. The professor launches the semester by announcing, "Engineering is extremely difficult. Look at the person to your left and to your right. One of the three of you will fail!" The camera focuses in on a fat and dim-looking white boy. He glances at the lean and hungry Indian on his right, then at the equally intense Chinese guy on his left. The mostly Indian audience at my screening erupted in laughter as the doomed Euro-American realizes his inevitable fate.
Not being aimed at a mainstream audience, "American Desi" is free to revel in these kind of crude but informative racial and cultural stereotypes. Any Hollywood movie that made as many jokes about Indian culture's traditionally carefree attitude toward sanitation would be crucified for multicultural insensitivity. (About 25% of the jokes were so Indian-specific they whizzed right over my white guy head, but overall the movie was still quite amusing.)
Because America has been brain-draining the intellectual cream from the billion people of India, the level of talent among Indian-Americans is extraordinary. Recall, for example, twelve-year-old George Abraham Thampy, who won last year's National Spelling Bee the week after he finished second in the National Geography Bee. Further, Indians tend to have a leg up over their East Asian immigrant rivals for technology jobs because most speak some English upon arrival.
The main thing that seems to hold them back from rising all the way to the top of the corporate ladder is the often-parodied Indian accent. Indian culture trains men to show respect by giggling slightly while they talk. This helps an Indian make friends, but giggling is not exactly what Americans expect from a potential leader of men. Realizing this, an Indian-born friend of mine trained himself to talk like Jack Nicholson. Not surprisingly, he made executive vice president before he was 30.
"American Desi" centers on a handsome, all-American college freshman named Kris (Deep Katdare), who giggles as seldom as Robert Downey Jr. He is the anti-Apu - arrogant, aggressive, and studly - the perfect future bond trader for Goldman Sachs or agent for Mike Ovitz.
Kris' only problem, as he sees it, is that his real name is Krishna. Going off to college should provide the perfect escape from his parents' all-encompassing Hinduism. But his college turns out to be full of Indians, including his three roommates: a turbaned Sikh, a devout Muslim, and a hip-hop Hindu.
At a freshman mixer, Kris approaches lovely Nina (the delightful Purva Bedi), a brunette of no evident ethnicity other than Adorable-American. They're obviously perfect for each other. Except that she doesn't appreciate his insulting all things Indian. She reveals that she also is an Indian, but proud of it.
So, to win over Nina, Kris has to ask his previously despised roommates to give him a crash course in India's infinitely complex culture.
(Most of the actors in "American Desi," like all the stars of Bollywood, are big, fair-skinned northern Indians. In America, though, the small, dark southerners are coming to dominate the software industry. Here, interestingly enough, caste differences among Indians generally fade in importance, but the ancient racial-linguistic division between north and south seems to remain.)
In the subplot, Kris' Muslim roommate Salim smugly tells his friends that his parents back home are picking out the perfect wife for him. The young chauvinist finds these American-born girls too forward, especially Farah, who keeps chasing him.
Most of the characters appear to be virgins, which enhances the romantic tension. In the movie's most memorable and romantic scene, Salim is praying at the mosque. But he can't help glancing over at the mosque's women's section, where a girl with exquisite eyes is kneeling in prayer. The beauty of her eyes is so evident precisely because the rest of her is completely covered in black. For an American, it's a brief window into a wholly novel world of erotic longing.
Of course, Salim is amazed to discover the pious girl is Forward Farah.
Predictably, a happy ending ensues, complete with dancing. (This is an Indian movie, after all.) Farah shows Salim that they can successfully blend Muslim and American culture. And Nina teaches Kris to appreciate Indian culture. Since this is an Indian-American movie, however, at the freeze-frame ending, Kris and Nina finally do kiss.