“With this magic title of Paris, a play or review or book is always assured of success,” noted Théophile Gautier of 19th-century entertainments. Today, with the simple adjective American, even the least inspired movie can cloak itself in way-we-live-now significance. American Chai is a war cry for artistically inclined second-generation Indian Americans to shake off parental career advice (doctor, engineer) and become the fusion multi-instrumentalist/singer or dancer of their dreams.
Raised in the milds of New Jersey, Sureel (Aalok Mehta) encounters the usual assimilation confusion, compounded by a strict father who forbids the gamut of tiny American decadences. (Is young Sureel’s verboten Daisy Duke T-shirt a pun on desi?) Come college, he navigates a double life—majoring in music, jamming with a rock band, and consorting with a white girlfriend, all the while telling his folks he’s pre-med. Will the truth shake this family to the core?
Mehta has an appealingly lackadaisical air, but this also works against the story; despite his sitar chops, he conveys little of the passion needed for this portrait of the artist. As the desi dancer he falls for, schwing factor Sheetal Sheth embarks on a similarly uninteresting vision quest. (Sheth appeared in last year’s ABCD, which shares with this film an unresolved, perhaps unwitting, misogyny.) They barely connect on any emotional level, only seeming to enjoy themselves in a loopy Bollywood dream sequence. As earnest as a community-college advertisement, American Chai is enough to make you put away the guitar, sell the amp, and apply to medical school.
The men enter the agora.
Let us speak of directorial debuts. Suppose, Socrates, one were to set a film in the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, where there is a park named after you.
So far, so good. Is there a shot of my statue?
Yes. The film is called Astoria. Now suppose the protagonist is a surly young second-generation Greek American named Alex (Rick Stear) who works in his father’s souvlaki shack despite having gone to college, and who wants to find the lost tomb of his namesake, Alexander the Great. Now suppose he meets a fresco restorationist with a bad Greek accent (Paige Turco), with whom he begins a relationship.
Is there “chemistry” in the relationship?
No. And suppose his father’s gambling gets so out of control that a lowlife whacks away at his car with a hammer. Suppose that the budget is not so large, so that when the audience gets a glimpse of said car, it just looks like a bit of the racing stripe has fallen off. And now let us suppose that Alex challenges the thug to a game of blackjack, in order to pay off his father’s debt. Suppose young Alex has an annoying friend who helps him cheat using a mirror stuck to his wristwatch. They get caught, but it doesn’t matter. Then some more stuff happens. Alex finally works up the courage to leave Astoria. He gets on a plane for Greece.
Pretty much. It’s about following your dreams, no matter what your parents think.
Socrates motions for hemlock.