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April 26, 2010

Chaat Baat

When I was forwarded yet another link on Vik's Chaat House in Berkeley, I have to admit rolling my eyes. Over the years, I've read enough gushing pieces about the glorious aloo tiki, the wondrous pav bhaji, the pioneering nature of the place etc etc to feel I could crank out a copycat piece while whistling RD Burman classics, picking lint out of Virj's hair and dunking a Noni's biscotti in ginger tea, all at the same time. It would go something like this:

It is an early morning Sunday in Berkeley, California and Declan McManus is late. "Gotta get there soon," he mutters to himself while circling for parking in the warehouse area of this laid back college city. You would think he is trying to make a protest on time. Or perhaps attend a nondenominational service in the local Buddhist temple. In fact he is not doing either. By the time Declan arrives panting outside the doors of Trader Vik's, the line has spilled out into the parking lot.

Vik Patel first set out his stall outside the University of California college campus in 1985. He remembers the initial reaction as one of bemusement. "At first, the students would look at the stuff I'd piled up for them," he says. "They would ask, 'how am I supposed to eat this?' I told them it was an Indian delicacy. That they would offend Shiva if they didn't partake," he guffaws.

Now, there is no such problem. Chaat, the Indian version of small plates, has swept the Bay Area. In upscale places like Haldi, you can find small shrimp, fried in butter and turmeric, nestling on a bed of coconut flakes and sev, made of grated, fried potatoes.

Then I actually read the piece and it was nothing I had envisioned. Encomiums to chaat aside, two lines really rang loud and true:

When Vinod Chopra moved to California in the early ’80s, chaat was virtually unheard of in America. There was what Americans call Indian food and Indians call Punjabi food — gooey sauces and garlic naan.

Thank you.

An argument can be made that what passes for Indian culture in the rest of the world is derived in great part from Punjabi culture but that's a post for another day. For now, here's some chaat porn. Yum!

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- April 26, 2010 10:56 PM // Bay Area , Food

April 25, 2010

East Indians in American Media

Cross posted on sharidelic.

Over the past few years we certainly have seen more South Asians in the American media though the term “South Asian” is becoming obsolete. I see more ads looking for “East Indians” than anything else. Not quite sure why but my guess is because India is becoming more prominent amongst the South Asian countries and hence taking over the identity. Anyway, though the numbers have risen, the roles in Hollywood still fall prey to stereotypes. As filmmakers, Soam and I have watched this evolution closely and have had long discussions on what the requirements might be for Indian actors in Hollywood. About 10 years ago, it would definitely be the short, dark, simple looking Indian guy who was non-threatening and could be a cab driver or, if he got lucky, a doctor. 9/11 opened up the floodgates for Indian actors to play terrorists. However, the cabbie, the doctor and the New York street vendor continue to appear.

The few actors who have been able to make a breakthrough in recent times are Naveen Andrews (Lost), Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes), Mindy Kaling (Office), Rekha Sharma (Battlestar Galactica) and Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation). Though Andrews was typecast as an Iraqi soldier (falling into the “terrorist category”), it was good to see Kumar’s character break away from the stereotype. That being said, Kal Penn played a doctor and a terrorist subsequently in House and 24….poor guy has to make his living after all! Ramamurthy plays a nerdy scientist in Heroes who drones on with profound insights….oh come on, can there be no normal Indian guy ever? I know his character has evolved from the first few episodes I saw but I haven’t re-visited Heroes since then, so pardon me if I’m blatantly wrong. As for Kaling, she created her role herself being the co-executive producer and writer of Office! The role of Sharma in Battlestar Galactica is probably the most experimental out of the lot, though she doesn’t quite play an East Indian. I haven’t seen Parks and Recreation yet but from what I’ve read Ansari’s character is pretty interesting. He is called Tom Haverford, again not an East Indian name. Color blind casting at work?

Apart from these few successes there seems to be very few opportunities for the majority of East Indian actors in Hollywood. I’d say it’s worse for the desi sistas – they have to make do with the occasional demand for a brown face in a “diverse” crowd or a bit role as an exotic girl friend/coworker.

Being an actor/model myself, I’ve been noticing the trend over the last few years. Though I’ve been cast as a doctor and as part of an East Indian family, most of my gigs were for ethnically ambiguous roles where they needed a non-Caucasian. For example, for one of my auditions from a few weeks ago, I was supposed to play an East Indian doctor for a well-known Pharmaceutical company. My agent hadn’t briefed me on the details but the moment I arrived at the casting, I was quite certain that I would not make a good fit. I was a little too glamorously dressed for the occasion. And here I was thinking in terms of Scrubs and House while choosing my wardrobe. Go figure! I guess the same rules don’t quite apply to East Indian actors! You would think all the talk of Bollywood and seeing Bollywood actresses like Aishwarya Rai and Freida Pinto in the media would change perspectives a bit? I guess it will take longer for the casting directors here to realize that East Indian actors/models can be “versatile” too! However, my experience is limited to San Francisco and doing this as a side profession, which means I don’t go to that many auditions. So, I welcome my desi brothers and sisters to fill me in on this, if I’m wrong.

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Shari Acharya - April 25, 2010 5:49 PM // Diaspora , Film , India , TV

New Blood

I am excited to welcome Amar Parikh and Biraj Lala into the dishumdishum fold. After endless exchanges between us bemoaning the Indian American experience by way of pop culture and the ensuing buffoonery, I am psyched we will finally see the two share more of their thoughts publicly. In addition, Shari has also vowed to cross post more often and this forum will be all the better for it.

Here's to more dishum in our lives!

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- April 25, 2010 5:09 PM // DishumDishum

April 22, 2010

Buddha Casting Call

From the author of this posting on Deadline Hollywood:

"dunno. I’m sure these projects sound great on the celebrity Buddhist circuit, when you’re saying “namaste” to Richard Gere or Uma Thurman, but I just don’t know how much appeal they have in Des Moines."

What do you think? While Buddha won't play like Passion of the Christ in Des Moines, isn't it still worthwhile to get these kinds of projects off the ground and into the western media mainstream?

Here's the link.

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Biraj Lala - April 22, 2010 8:24 AM // Bollywood , Diaspora , DishumDishum , Film , India

April 11, 2010

Loins Of Punjab Presents

Manish Acharya's debut film is finally out on DVD in the USA and not a moment too soon. I remember it taking the 2007 Third I San Francisco South Asian Film Fest by storm. I recall hearing the audience not letting him go until he had obliged them with a vocal rendition of a song in the film (Manish appears in the film himself in a small role). I remember being introduced to Manish at the reception over there and coming away impressed by the two minutes we spent together (for the record, we were also both featured in a Sandip Roy article, interestingly enough). I also remember apologizing for not being able to see the film myself - Virj was due to be born in three days. Last night, with the fruit of our labors knocked out after a day's worth of mall mayhem, we finally had a chance to sit down and view Loins in all its digital glory. So, how was it?

Loins of Punjab Presents is a sweet, mostly gentle film with many moments of laugh out loud hilarity that nonetheless conceals great craftsmanship. There are no deaths in the course of this film. No change-the-game plot twists. Characters don't stumble into massive insights. Relationships mostly remain intact. About halfway through, someone (it turns out to be co-writer Anubhav Pal in a bit role) actually gives away the ending. It doesn't make a whit of difference. The fun here is the ride, not the destination.

The setup is simple enough - over a weekend in New Jersey, a number of contestants gather for a "Desi Idol" type contest complete with auditions, judges, audience selections and a $25000 first prize. Of the contestants, we have your garden variety honors student Preeti Patel (Ishitta Sharma) and her driven Patel clan, scheming socialite Rrita Kapoor (Shabana Azmi), aspiring Bollywood actress Sania Rahman (Seema Rahmani) sadly hampered by not knowing a line of Hindi, an original Sikh OG, Turbanotorious BDG (Ajay Naidu), a white-on-the-outside-brown-on-the-inside fellow (Michael Raimondi) and his supportive desi girlfriend (Ayesha Dharkar) and the director himself as a suddenly unemployed financial analyst Vikram Tejwani, a fellow living in the land of logs and probabilities. Shepherding the proceedings are the Loins of Punjab representative Mr. White (Kunal Roy Kapoor) and event organizer Mr. Bokhade (Jameel Khan). This is not counting the numerous other contestants, bit parts, MCs, irate hotel managers, judges (of which, musician Trance Sen played by Samrat Chakraborti and fashionista Chris G, played by Sanijv Jhaveri, are standouts), wise cracking bystanders and audience members that pepper the proceedings. My knees buckle when I think of the sheer number of speaking parts and the shooting challenges - the exterior shots were filmed in NYC but the bulk of the interiors, set in a New Jersey hotel, were shot on specially constructed sets in Mumbai's Film City. The latter was ostensibly for cost savings, yet, as Manish acknowledges in the commentary, shooting for the USA in India posed its own set of difficulties such as finding appropriate light switches, and caused the film to actually come in over budget. As a first time feature director and producer, Manish certainly did not make things easy for himself!

As you can imagine, with the huge cast of characters it would have been very easy to reduce each to cliched stereotypes. That everyone has their moments in the spotlight is a tribute to the strength of the script and the actors. Once again, it was enlightening to hear in the commentaries that Manish genuinely feels casting is 50% of directing and the pre-production involved a grueling series of auditions. It works. Not a bum note in the entire lot and, as I mentioned before, many, many bright moments. Consider the opening monologue from Mr. White who strolls into view holding a cup of coffee:

Mr PK Singhal. He came into this country with nothing. Zero. And then ... he got into loins.

Pork loins.

In 1960, Mr Singhal started a wholesale meat company, "Loins Of Punjab." Today, we are the largest supplier of pork loins on the East Coast. In the biz, he was known as ... "The Loin King."

Loins of Punjab are proud to present "Desi Idol."

He then takes a sip from his coffee cup, revealing the bottom of the cup shaped as a pig snout.

Puns, visual humor, deadpan delivery and the American Dream. Left unsaid is the subversion of the general imagery of Punjabis as the lions of India into a generally lubricious lot, something illustrated with great gusto by Mr. Bokade throughout the film:

All of this achieved by a brilliant title that appears to be a typo but is far more.

Similarly, the Patel clan could have easily degenerated into a mess of badly accented, kanjoos (stingy) cliches. Consider the haggling at a strip club: "$20 for topless? I’ll give you $10, show me one breast." Here though, it works since their primary motivation is a sweet one. They are helping a family member win.

Finally, Turbanotorious BDG - the film is careful to show that beneath the bluster, there lies a deeply vulnerable man. It doesn't hurt that Ajay Naidu is an accomplished rapper and B-Boy. Consequently, not only is the dancing excellent, but his lyrics actually makes sense. "The Goonda Philosophy" indeed!

All in all, well worth 88 minutes of your time. Can't wait for the followup.

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- April 11, 2010 9:37 AM // Bollywood , Diaspora , Film

April 3, 2010

Kal Penn goes back to his roots (and buds)

Ref: Kal Penn upgrades from the White House to the White Castle

The election of Obama to the Presidency was for many people an experience akin to that of a first-time raver. A tsunami of dopamine floods your skull, lighting ablaze every last neuron. And in that cresting wave of impossibly good feelings you have ideas. Some wicked cool ideas. Like, you know, what the world really needs is a Ministry of Cuddling and maybe a Treasury of Stolen Kisses. And if only, somehow, you could just talk to Osama Bin Laden and give him a hug. He would renounce terrorism, move to the Bay Area, open up a hookah bar (called 'Arabian Nights', natch) and become a DJ of some repute, known for throwing down chill Islamo-Arabic beats.

But now it's morning. This isn't Reagan's "Morning in America". It's morning in an abandoned warehouse along the industrial edge of Oakland. You are slouched in one corner on the cold, hard concrete. And in the stark light of day you see that the cool Jamaican Rastafarian with whom you had a brilliant conversation last night is decidedly neither Jamaican nor a Rastafarian. He is Ben, a middle-aged Jewish guy with fake dreadlocks, who works in the back room of the local herbal therapy store and lives in Mrs. Chao's basement in Chinatown. The slinky rave goddess who lit up the dance floor with you and with whom you had this really, really amazing connection is a pink-haired, slightly chubby 19-year old named Amber from Contra Costa county who is slumped over your shoulder crying because her baby daddy Hector just texted, promising her an ass-whooping because he came home from a night of gang banging to find their infant son alone with her preteen brother.

From the corner of your eye you see the DJ packing up his gear, throwing you an occasional disinterested look. Your eyes are crusty. Your throat is dry. You really need to take a whizz. Ben's drooling on your legs. You gently kick him off. Amber's now sobbing uncontrollably. You twist away slowly and let her slide off. You feel for the car keys in your pocket. Still there. You breathe a sigh of relief. You get up, stretch, look at your watch. It's 11:45 am. And you think, "I best get out of here. Gotta make a living."

And that's what happened to Kal Penn.

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Amar Parikh - April 3, 2010 11:00 AM // Humour , Politics