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With: Aalok Mehta, Sheetal Sheth, Aasif Mandvi, Josh Ackerman, Ajay Naidu, Jamie Hurley, Reena Shah, Paresh Rawal, Bharti Desai
Written by: Anurag Mehta
Directed by: Anurag Mehta
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual dialogue
Running Time: 92
Date: 01/25/2001

American Chai (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sweet, Stale 'Chai'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Right on the heels of My Big Fat Greek Wedding comes another cultural comedy about a youngster who longs to live his life against the wishes of his traditional parents -- a fairly old story. I'm pretty sure D.W. Griffith made a film like this back in the 1910s. This time the film is called American Chai, following in the footsteps of the 12 other recent movies called American- something. Our hero, Sureel (Aalok Mehta), is Indian. He's away at college and ostensibly studying medicine, at least as far as his stuffy parents are concerned. But in reality, he's studying music, has a nifty little band with a catchy little hit tune, and dates a white groupie chick. The good news is that Mehta is a pop musician in real life, and his music is quite good. He even has something of a stage presence with his huge, bony nose and frizzy hair. As an actor, he's shy and awkward, but occasionally his natural presence comes through and saves the day. Sureel has two roommates, one Indian and one white, and they're constantly debating the merits of Indian girls vs. all other girls. The Indian, called "Engineering Sam," is played by a professional actor named Aasif Mandvi, who brings a genuine affectionate rudeness to his character, and personally rescues a good chunk of the film. (Mandvi also appears in The Mystic Masseur, opening today.) To everyone's surprise Sureel ends up dating an unbelievably beautiful Indian girl named Maya (Sheetal Sheth), a dancer with astonishingly expressive eyes and lips. His family is pleased, and of course, immediately begins setting up their arranged wedding.

Written and directed by Aalok Mehta's brother, Anurag Mehta, American Chai tries to wedge some embarrassingly old chestnuts into its plot, such as the scene in which Sureel confesses to his father that he's been studying music. The father smacks him, followed by a stunned silence in which both parties stare at each other in disbelief. The retribution comes later, when the father clandestinely attends Sureel's performance -- a "Battle of the Bands" no less -- and stands alone at the back, secretly grooving on the music. Not surprisingly, the strongest point of the whole film is Mehta's music, from the catchy little pop ditty to the sitar-inspired dramatic number at the film's climax. Occasionally (very occasionally) something seemingly spontaneous will happen -- a little joke here, a moment there -- causing us to perk up. But then the film drops right back into its overscripted routine. Nevertheless, American Chai plays like a toddler running along a lumpy field, stumbling every few feet but always getting back up and eventually reaching his destination, unharmed and happy. As spectators, we wince during the falls, but we eventually start to cheer the picture on for its naïve, enthusiastic spirit.

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