Punching At The Sun

USA 2006 | 82 mins | Super 16 | English
d. Tanuj Chopra

Indian Niggas ... Pakistani Niggas ... Bangladeshi Niggas ... haven't y'all heard? We're the new niggas! So starts Punching at the Sun, a film by Tanuj Chopra, that explores the lives of urban desi teens in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. In the sweltering heat of a NYC summer special, Queens homeboy Mameet (Misu Khan) is struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother, local basketball legend Sanjay ("his jumpshot was icewater"). Sanjay was shot in the cornershop owned by their parents. Reasons for his death are never made explicit - it's not clear whether it was a hate crime, although that would be the natural guess, or something else entirely. Furthering Mameet's problems, his sister Dia is starting to run wild, his basketball coach refuses to let him start on court during actual games and his brother's legend follows him wherever he goes. His main source of relief is his girlfriend Shawni (Nora Edmonds) - if only he would let her in through his rage and frustration. His homies Parnav and Ritesh alternately calm him and drive him to distraction through their bickering. And finally, the ongoing rap fest at the local club, particularly the MCing of Uncle Sonny, punctuates the film with staccato musings on desis and politics in the Bush era.

Shot in Super 16 with a cast primarily consisting of amateurs, Punching At The Sun's scope far outweigh its budget, which, by the director's own admission, is "lower than you think" and which, as he joked in the QA, he financed by "selling samosas in the street." That it falls short is more a testament to the muddled narrative than heart or passion, which Punching has in spades. Nonetheless, there's much to savor here. The rapport between Mameet and his sidekicks is effortless. Their variation on the "ya mama" jokes ("Ya mama uses ketchup for her bindi", "ya mama wears a snakeskin sari and fedora" and "ya mama gives elephant rides around the Taj Mahal", amongst others) had the festival crowd in stitches. Their escapades could well have been expanded into a standalone comedy in its own right. Nora Edmonds is a natural presence and the film truly shines when she's onscreen. Finally, Uncle Sonny is electric on the mic - his enunciations are on point. I want to see the man in concert!

Choosing to set this film in a culture of NYC basketball and hip-hop was a brave decision. While it's wonderful to see a South Asian film avoiding the usual identity crisis cliches, I can't see such thematic material being palatable to first generation desis. But by inviting comparisons against urban classics like Do The Right Thing, He Got Game and Boys N The Hood, the film once again suffers as there isn't enough here to differentiate it from others in that genre. Excerpting a Bollywood film and mentioning Amitabh Bachchan don't quite count. Nonetheless, director Tanuj Chopra has clearly marked himself out as someone to watch and his next project, set in the Bay Area during the dot com boon and featuring an army of "super-desis", sounds intriguing.

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- March 21, 2006 6:40 PM // Diaspora , Film , Review