American Desi (2001) Movie Review

Ethnic-minded films like “American Desi” have a built-in advantage — even if the film fails miserably in every other respects, it can still rely on its little-known ethnicity — in this case, Indian — to save the day. This is a good thing, because had “American Desi” been just another movie about freshmen trying to adjust to life in college, it would fail miserably. As it stands, the film just barely manages to stay afloat, and that, as previously mentioned, is thanks to its Indian angle.

Deep Katdare stars as Krishna Reddy, an Americanized Indian who is so out of touch with his roots that he refuses to be acknowledged by anything other than Kris. Born and bred in America, Kris’ best buddy is Caucasian Eric (Eric Axen), who he has known since they were kids. When the two leave home for college, Kris gets a rude awakening when he’s put in the same dorm with 3 other Indians, each one vastly different. There’s the happy-go-lucky Jagjit, who is a new arrival to American soil; Salim, an ultra-conservative Muslim and, as it turns out, a total hypocrite; and Ajay, an Indian with illusions of being a black ghetto youth.

The bulk of the film’s comedy comes from Kris’ reluctance to embrace his cultural heritage and his dismay at his 3 roommates’ odd (at least in his eyes) behavior. Actually, I feel Kris’ pain, because Jagjit, Salim, and Ajay are obviously meant to be exaggerated caricatures of real-life Desi (a slang word for Indians, I believe). Writer/director Piyush Pandya offers us a brief glimpse into Indian culture, but it’s much too brief and as a result, we’re forced to sit through the film’s supremely predictable, generic, and oh-so-clich’-it-hurts-to-watch storyline.

At his first class, Kris spots and becomes infatuated with the pretty Nina (Purva Bedi). Although she’s also Indian, Kris doesn’t realize it, and ends up insulting Indian and Indian culture in front of her. Apparently feeling similarly attracted to Kris, Nina makes it her goal to try to get him to come to terms with his heritage. Of course this is supposed to be the plot, but besides forcing Kris to watch some lame Indian movies and do a traditional Indian dance, she actually does quite a poor job of introducing Kris, and us, the non-Indian audience, to what it means to “be Indian.”

“American Desi” as a whole does a poor job of explaining a lot of Indian terms, behavior, and why certain things are the way they are. If Pandya had intended his movie to be just viewed by Indians or knowledgeable non-Indians, then this is no problem. That means, of course, that the rest of us need not bother. I wanted to know more about Indian culture and why they do the things they do; wear the things they wear; and feel the way they feel. Instead, the characters are so grossly exaggerated and the clich’ plotting so uninspired, whenever the film wanders away from the 3 roommates the film loses its charm. What’s the point of making a movie with an unexplored angle as your foundation if you won’t exploit that angle to its fullest potential?

As the love interest, Purva Bedi is very easy on the eyes, and it’s a good thing she’s around, although not nearly often enough. But it doesn’t help that Pandya expects me to buy lead Deep Katdare as a 19-year-old freshman. For God’s sake, the man looks like he has to shave before each take. The same goes for the rest of the cast. Eighteen and nineteen year olds these people ain’t. Maybe if the screenplay had made them graduate students, or at least older characters, they might be more believable. But as supposedly wide-eyed freshmen? There’s not enough curry in this movie to convince us.

It’s interesting to note that Western Indians have begun to assert themselves in the film industry. Besides “American Desi”, there’s the British import “Bend It Like Beckham” and, recently, the failure that was “The Guru”. While that last movie wasn’t done by Indians, it did touch on Indian culture, if just slightly. There are other recent additions to the Indian film scene set in the U.S. that I haven’t seen, but have heard about. The point is, there seems to be a surge in Indian-made films, which is always a good thing in an industry stale by cookie cutter products.

Of course, all of the good news above doesn’t mean Indian-made films can get away with being just as cookie cutter or generic as their Caucasian brethrens. A bad film with a bad screenplay is still a bad film with a bad screenplay, even if there are Indian names attached.

Piyush Dinker Pandya (director) / Piyush Dinker Pandya (screenplay)
CAST: Deep Katdare …. Krishna Reddy
Ronobir Lahiri …. Jagjit Singh
Rizwan Manji …. Salim Ali Khan
Kal Penn …. Ajay Pandya

Buy American Desi on DVD