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Movie Review

Good-Natured Charms Spice 'American Chai'


Anurag Mehta's "American Chai" is the latest serious comedy to explore the cultural gap between immigrant Indian parents and their American-born offspring. Taking its title from a spiced milky Indian tea, it is a perceptive, good-natured movie starring the writer-director's brother Aalok, a gifted musician with a winning personality. Second-generation Americans of any ethnic background are likely to recognize something of their own experiences in varying degrees in those of Aalok Mehta's Sureel.

Sureel is nearing graduation from a university not so far from his parents' handsome split-level home in an upscale northern New Jersey neighborhood, clearly a bedroom community for Manhattan and an enclave for Indian emigres. From a very early age, Sureel learned how to circumvent the dictates of his bossy, ultraconservative father (Paresh Rawal). In the father's view, Sureel and his younger brother are Indians, not Americans, and are to be raised as if they were growing up in India.

So skilled is Sureel in the art of dissembling that he has managed to deceive his father into believing he is majoring in premed instead of music. As far as his father is concerned, music is fine as a hobby but an impractical professional goal. Nevertheless, Sureel follows his dream with a rap group whose members are everything but African American.

Still, a moment of truth looms for Sureel, who has to resist an arranged marriage. The strain of pursuing one goal while pretending to pursue another is beginning to tell on him and his relationships when he crosses paths with Maya (Sheetal Sheth), an beautiful dancer whose fusion of traditional Indian and modern dance inspires him to pursue a similar course in music. Maya's parents have similarly insisted that she regard dance as a sideline, but she so impresses Sureel that he gives her the confidence to apply for a prestigious two-year scholarship in London. Naturally, attraction between Sureel and Maya grows, but they proceed slowly in the direction of romance; this is one aspect of their cultural conditioning they are willing to respect.

Sureel comes to believe that his father will respect his goals if he demonstrates some success as a musician, and as he begins to experiment in fusing Indian and American music as Maya has in her dance, he also becomes convinced that while Indian Americans are well represented in the classic professions, they need to be much more involved in the arts.

Mehta and Sheth are surrounded by solid presences, including Josh Ackerman as Sureel's best friend and fellow musician and Reena Shah as his fiancee. Aasif Mandvi is their husky, crudely comical pal who fancies himself an expert on women. "American Chai" pulls together nicely at its ending, but not before Sureel's father has a chance to see himself in his son.


MPAA rating: R, for some sexual dialogue. Times guidelines: Some dialogue is indeed blunt and not suitable for children.

'American Chai'

Aalok Mehta...Sureel

Sheetal Sheth...Maya

Assif Mandvi...Engineering Sam

Josh Ackerman...Toby

Paresh Rawal...Sureel's father

A Magic Lamp Releasing presentation of a Dream Merchant production. Writer-director Anurag Mehta. Producer Taylor MacCrae. Executive producers Kathy Perone, Sapna Shah, Ashish Shah, Victoria Dingman. Cinematographer John Matkowsky. Editor Ann E. Holbrook. Music Aalok Mehta and Jack Bowden Faulkner for Melody Vision. Costumes Kristen Couchot. Production designer Cecile Thalmann. Art director Luca Novelli. Set decorator Bea Holst. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

At the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; the Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and the Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710.

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