Good-natured to the point of being inane, writer-director Anurag Mehta’s American Chai is another story of culture clash and familial distress. Here’s a first-generation hyphenate trying to reconcile his American-bred ambitions with the traditional values and goals of his parents; more specifically, his father, that pivotal figure to whom all the benefits of cultural repression seem to accrue. This is essentially a serious, though by no means grim, subject and while one can appreciate Mehta’s determination to put a positive spin on things, his optimism and glossing over of the more lacerating aspects of generational strife give the movie a kind of cozy neo-Andy Hardy vibe. The dramatic impetus is uplift rather than catharsis and the message is that if you only “follow your heart,” everything will work out OK. Uh-huh.
Things start out promisingly enough. Our hero and narrator, Sureel (Aalok Mehta, the director’s brother), talks a bit about the strangeness of being the child of Indian immigrants in New Jersey, of being part of a minority that his fellow kids haven’t yet figured out how to stereotype. But Sureel assimilates into his surroundings with ease, his main concern being to hide his youthful interests — music, girls, R-rated movies — from his father (Paresh Rawal). Dad’s a hidebound sort who’s determined that his son’s future will involve an arranged marriage with a yet-undetermined Indian girl and a career in medicine.
As the story proper begins, Sureel is a senior in college; he’s a member of a rock band and has a white girlfriend — two things he’s managed to conceal from Dad, along with the fact that he’s been majoring in music rather than studying premed. This is quite a deception, given Dad’s determination to micromanage his son’s life, but it’s a major part of the film’s premise, so you just have to buy into it.
All is cool until Sureel is kicked out of his band (it’s suggested that chronic lateness is some sort of Indian-American trait, which would go against the stereotype of chronic industriousness) which leads to his white girlfriend, a definite band appendage-type, dropping him. Before this lesson in white perfidy can sink into his amiable brain, he’s already hooked up with Maya (Sheetal Sheth), a young beauty he first sees performing a sort of multicultural dance number, a parallel to the kind of music he dreams of making and to the movie’s eventual endorsement of cultural synthesis.
But on the way to that soothing denouement, Sureel and Maya must have a falling-out and Sureel and his father must have a confrontation. The falling-out will be based on a sitcom-style misunderstanding and the confrontation will entail one of the characters’ psychological makeup turning on a dime, a hot epiphany causing the kind of transformation only found in trifles like this. It may seem churlish to fault a modest, feel-good flick like this for lack of verisimilitude, but there are just too many moments here where the film seems on the verge of being funny or insightful and then lets the moment slide by.
A subplot involving Sureel’s best white friend being rejected by his Indian girlfriend’s family gets pushed aside in the general rush toward a triumphant ending. Sureel’s nonassimilated cousin, Raju (Anand Chulani), is played as a cartoon character and a late-in-movie bid for sympathy on his behalf doesn’t wash. His loutish male-chauvinist-pig friend, Sam (Aasif Mandvi, playing a character very different from his recent star turn in The Mystic Masseur), is annoying and his comeuppance lamely staged. Of the ancillary characters, only Ajay Naidu, memorable in Office Space and playing a liquor-store owner here, suggests somebody complicated as he offers Sureel his surly friendship, but it’s an awfully small part.
And it’s an awfully small movie, which is fine but its hokey machinations, combined with Aalok Mehta’s undeniable but ultimately underexpressive charm, eventually become exasperating. Even when Sureel’s dad gives the kid a good smack, you don’t really feel the sting, because you know it’s just a little detour on the way to happiness. —Richard C. Walls
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].