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'American Chai'

'American Chai' seems unsure of its message

Saturday, May 11, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

In a sense, "American Chai" (), now at the Squirrel Hill Theater, preaches to the converted.


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Sureel (Aalok Mehta) is a first-generation Indian-American college student. His humorless father (Paresh Rawal) demands his son follow the normal path of assimilation -- become a doctor or engineer.

But Sureel only pretends to be in pre-med. In fact, he is majoring in music, which his father has deemed frivolous. He also has been lying about his social life -- Dad would not approve of him dating, much less an American girl -- and lesser matters.

That a father this controlling wouldn't see through the lies is just one problem with the movie. Like gay films or other pictures about a specific minority, "American Chai" presents situations that members of the group will recognize and identify with. The film's light, comic tone will help them cope with their own similar experiences through humor and understanding.

For those outside the group, though, these movies can feel like a sociology class, showing the problems of the subculture and explaining how they are dealt with. Our surrogate in the movie is Sureel's roommate, Toby (Josh Ackerman), an American who hangs out mostly with Sureel and his friends and even dates an Indian girl.

At one point, Sureel begins explaining to him the specific conventions of Bollywood movies. By this time, it's obvious writer-director Anurag Mehta hasn't figured out how to make his film both specific enough for his target audience and universal enough for everyone else. It doesn't help that the acting is a bit stiff, too. "American Chai" is pleasant enough to watch but not as enlightening as it wants to be.

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