FOB Story

Sunil Thakkar's a plenty cool Indian-American. But he wants his socially pathetic Fresh-Off-the-Boat past to work mainstream cinema magic.

Cue the music: modern, sitar-heavy funk over the opening credits.

That guy in the ridiculous '70s-style attire -- horrendous even by that decade's unfortunate fashion standards -- is our hero, Hari. His thick black hair lies limp on his scalp with all the life of a cheap wig.

He nearly breaks his neck in his first encounter with an airport escalator. Baggage claim becomes another potential death trap in an alien world of mechanized convenience. He retrieves his suitcase, a gigantic cardboard box crisscrossed with duct tape, barely able to contain its cargo.

Malhotra: "I think things are starting to open."
Rick Mapes
Malhotra: "I think things are starting to open."
Penn: "You don't think that you're just going to be an Indian actor."
Rick Mapes
Penn: "You don't think that you're just going to be an Indian actor."

Hari is a FOB, a Fresh-Off-the-Boat immigrant from a tiny Indian village. He'll soon meet his flip side, cousin Mohan, an assimilated Indian-American with no use for Hari's Apu accent and blindingly white sneakers. Hari has come to Houston for an education, but he's also searching for his future wife -- the village shaman had told Hari he'd find her at a big party.

Hari's struggle to fit in with Mohan and to find his mate provides the catalyst for a fish-out-of-water, soul-searching comedy that somehow transcends the bounds of its formulaic approach.

Audiences will be able to meet Hari next month, when Where's the Party, Yaar? opens in Houston and six other cities with large Indian populations. The makers of the low-budget film believe Hari has the potential to make Yaar a breakout ethnic success on the order of Bend It Like Beckham.

Regardless, they are sure he can connect with Indian-Americans, because many first-generation Indian-Americans know a Hari. Or maybe they've been Hari and have overcome it. Hari is theirs. He's theirs to laugh at, but in this movie he's also theirs to cheer on and even cherish.

Hari, in fact, is far more than a mere FOB. He's the ultimate outsider. And in that sense, he belongs to all of us.

They traveled in packs, and they always found the parties. By 1995, Sunil Thakkar, a co-founder of the Music Masala radio show, had been throwing the best Indian dance parties in the hottest Houston clubs for months. But now he had a problem: the FOBs. With their white sneakers, epileptic dance moves and body odor, they drove away the women and killed business.

The tall, enterprising Thakkar thought he had found a way to keep them at bay. He scaled back the party promotions on his radio show and told his assistants not to drop leaflets in areas where the FOBs were likely to congregate. But then they'd assault his radio show with their thick-accented plea: "Where's the party, yaar?" Where's the party, buddy?

Thakkar would play dumb, but the FOBs would activate their spider-sense and inevitably find the club. And when Thakkar implemented an anti-sneaker dress code to thwart them, the crafty FOBs took a Sharpie to leather and colored their shoes black. It wasn't personal -- hell, Thakkar was the self-proclaimed King of the FOBs. Borrowing a page from Groucho Marx, Thakkar says he'd turn himself away from one of his own parties.

But the FOB king was also a businessman, and his business depended on catering to the cool, not the dorky.

Eventually, Music Masala took off. Thakkar was now booking annual cruise ship parties and recording CDs with the MM imprint. But that desperate FOB refrain was still haunting him. Where's the party, yaar?

Thakkar knew this much: Inherent in the act of coloring a pair of dumb-ass white shoes in order to get into a party was the very essence of the identity struggle he and his Indian peers had experienced for years.

The first major wave of Indian immigration to the United States occurred in the 1970s, giving birth to what are informally known as ABCDs, American-born confused desis (desi, pronounced "daisy," is slang for someone of Indian descent born outside India). Like any other first-generation group, they're saddled with trying to balance allegiance between the customs of a faraway land and the immediate American culture.

The more ABCDs assimilated, the more important it was that they distance themselves from FOBs, who were coming in droves. FOBs were part of the nationwide Indian population increase from 815,000 in 1990 to 1.6 million in 2000. The Houston area experienced a similar surge, with the Indian populations of Harris and Fort Bend counties jumping from 25,000 in 1990 to 49,000 in 2000.

FOBs were almost exclusively male. Somehow, women assimilated better, were more attuned to style. And everyone Thakkar knew had a FOB story: An uncle who levitated over the toilet seat because he was used to doing his business over a hole in the ground; a cousin who doused himself in talcum powder because they didn't have Right Guard in the village Kroger; a nephew whose clothes looked like Greg Brady's hand-me-downs.

The rift between ABCDs and FOBs remained an amusement inside the Indian-American community until the 2001 independent film American Desi. Indian-American audiences loved it; American critics called it formulaic. It was also thoroughly groundbreaking. It was one of the first times young Indian filmmakers pointed the camera at themselves, and showed budding movie hopefuls like Thakkar that they could tackle their identity issues on their own terms.

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