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Immigrant Characters Rare, but Themes Are Universal

'ABCD,' about an East Indian American family, is one of several ethnic films hoping for a wider appeal.


When Krutin Patel co-wrote the script to his film "ABCD" in 1993, the most prominent East Indian in American pop culture was probably Apu from the television series "The Simpsons." Eight years later, that animated convenience store clerk is still the most recognizably East Indian character in American television and film.

The paucity of East Indian American representation in the popular arts in this country is a primary reason why Patel feels so passionately about his independently made drama, which captures the intriguing dynamics of an East Indian American family.

"ABCD," which opens Friday at selected theaters, is one of a handful of new films involving rarely seen immigrant American characters and scenarios. "The Debut," which is currently in theaters, and "American Adobo," which is slated to open in Los Angeles on Jan. 23, are both small movies reflecting Philippine American life.

A coming-of-age film about a Philippine American teenager, "The Debut" opened in Los Angeles in early October and has grossed more than $1 million. Home to large Philippine American populations, the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas have accounted for 90% of the film's box-office success, according to its distributor, 5 Card Productions.

All three of these films deal in some way with ethnic minority immigrants and their children trying to reconcile traditional cultural values with very different American attitudes.

In "ABCD," two grown children react differently to the expectations of their loving but very traditional Indian-born mother (Madhur Jaffrey). Older brother Raj (Faran Tahir) tries to conform to her wishes. He has a very respectable job as a Manhattan accountant and is engaged to a traditional Indian woman he does not entirely love. His younger sister Nina (Sheetal Sheth) rebels against conservative Indian mores by dating non-Indian men and by embracing a sexually promiscuous lifestyle.

Having emigrated from India to the U.S. at age 8, Patel is familiar with the difficulty of trying to straddle the line between two cultures. Like many men with Indian immigrant parents, he felt the pressure to land a white-collar job. To appease his parents' concerns about his desire to enter the uncertain field of filmmaking, he majored in both film and finance at New York University. While he hopes to transition into filmmaking full time, Patel currently works in the marketing department at the Food Network in New York.

Ironically, previous screenings of the film have indicated that "ABCD" is unlikely to be fully embraced by the Indian American community, particularly by that segment which espouses conservative cultural values.

"The strongest reaction to the film has come, believe it or not, from non-Indian Americans," remarks Patel, who also directed and co-produced "ABCD." "There are those in the Indian American community who don't want to see its dirty laundry hung in public. The portrayal of characters like Nina [makes them uncomfortable]. They want to keep their heads in the sand. In the Indian community the film will raise a few eyebrows. That's a good thing because there will be debate about it. We tend to be a community that doesn't communicate in regard to some of these harder issues."

Nina is the film's most complex character. She rebels against the sexual conservatism of her ethnic culture. Yet her contrary ways also keep her from finding the emotional intimacy in her romantic relationships that will lead to happiness. When she finds herself falling in love with an Indian man she reluctantly meets on a date arranged by her mother, she is disinclined to commit to the relationship.

Patel says the Nina character has sparked much debate during question-and-answer sessions following screenings of the film. Some Indian Americans have found her to be an inaccurate representation of their people. Others have found her to be very real.

Patel recalls, "One of my memories of showing this at a film festival was a British Indian girl telling me, 'That's my life up there on screen.' I was like, 'Wow, thank you.' Nina really translated to her experience."

"ABCD," whose relatively polished look belies its modest $200,000 budget, couldn't have been made without the financial help of Patel's friends and relatives.

"After my parents came to America, they helped other Indian immigrants who subsequently came to this country," explains Patel, who spent about five years raising money to make his film. "Some 30 years later I needed financial backing and they turned around and gave me that help." Only a few of the Indian American investors asked to read the script.

Moviegoing is hugely popular in India. But Patel believes there would be little interest there in a serious-minded film about an Indian American family. Bollywood, as the Indian film industry is known, generally produces escapist melodramas.

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