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.

Spread the dishum:  digg it del.icio.us reddit furl My Web

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