By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
He had the idea for a movie. All he needed was money.
Thakkar turned to Farid Virani, a longtime friend with ample funds and even more confidence in Thakkar's vision. Virani promised to bankroll the film if Thakkar would quit his engineering job and focus solely on the movie. Thakkar and his wife, Sandyha, had two young children and Thakkar's elderly mother to support -- forfeiting a steady paycheck verged on insanity.
But after talking it over with Sandhya, Thakkar quit his job. Virani opened a production checking account with $250,000, an amount that eventually would triple.
Thakkar had the money. Now he needed a director, a script and a cast. And, more than anything, he needed Kal Penn.
"When you go to school to be a doctor or a lawyer, you don't go to school to be an Indian lawyer or an Indian doctor, and it's the same thing with acting," Penn says from his Los Angeles home. "You don't think that you're just going to be an Indian actor."
Penn, 26, should know better than anyone how hard it is for Indian-American actors to break into Hollywood. He's probably the most in-demand of the crowd, which doesn't mean he's poaching roles from Tom Cruise. It does mean he can balance his indie bread-and-butter with studio fare like National Lampoon's Van Wilderand Malibu's Most Wanted.
Penn played the supporting comic roles in those two films, with all the punch lines based on his characters' inherent Indian-ness. It seemed a waste of the actor's theatrical training, especially since he was talented and charming enough to be the leading man in American Desi. That movie also secured his place among Indian-American audiences, making him a natural first choice for Mohan in Yaar.
Just as Hari is the ultimate FOB, Mohan is the über-ABCD, a spoiled brat living at home, unable to survive without a cell phone and his dad's credit card. A University of Houston student with no major, Mohan drifts through academics like he drifts through his parents' swimming pool. But as an assistant to a party promoter, Mohan is one of the coolest Indian students on campus.
When Penn first read the script, he found a movie that was not in danger of taking itself too seriously. It is essentially a lighthearted romantic comedy, albeit one that relishes exploiting the most outrageous Indian stereotypes for its own purposes.
Case in point: In an early scene, Mohan's mother tells his younger brother not to forget to bring his lunch to school. Cringing at the thought, the boy replies that he's tired of eating curry burgers and smelling like a spice rack.
Initially, Penn just couldn't believe the dialogue.
"The only way you would ever hear that line would be on, like, an awful episode of the most racist TV show out there," he says. "That's such an offensive line. Curry burgers do not exist, and why would you smell like a spice rack if you ate one? It's so incredibly offensive that I thought, in a film like this, it's funny, because it's almost like you're taking it back You're, like, taking back that term and you're sort of poking fun at the people who would actually believe that that's true."
Penn also knew the producers could take more risks with an indie movie. In a studio film, he says, "a lot of MBAs make decisions and that has its pluses and minuses."
This was a new genre with no audience expectations and with rules that could be made up on the spot. A tight budget meant a punishing shooting schedule, but Penn was sold. He gave Thakkar three weeks.
As if anyone would mistake an Oscar-sweeping epic for a movie with a running body-odor gag. But it proved to be prescient advice, especially for the 90 percent of the cast who had never acted in front of a camera.
It probably also helped Mathews. His only other attempt at feature filmmaking was the less-than-successful Off the Menu, made in 1995 on a $20,000 budget. Thakkar, Mathews's classmate at UH, was one of the film's stars.
After that film, Mathews moved to Los Angeles and broke into the entertainment industry, building a reputation directing videos for such acts as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Scarface.
When Thakkar called him in 2001 and asked him to direct a movie -- and said he had a real budget -- Mathews saw his chance to escape the four-minute confines of videos.
Even though the Indian-born Mathews never considered himself a FOB, he could identify with Hari.
Speaking from Los Angeles, Mathews says, "I think everybody at one time has felt like an outsider Being from an entire different culture and not looking like anybody else in your classroom is something that I could relate to."
He liked the fact that Thakkar wanted to tackle identity issues with comedy, unlike other movies, where assimilation is treated "as this humongous ordeal that cannot be overcome." "Luckily," he adds, "we have come to this country after the '60s, after civil rights, after all the work that all the people who came here before us did."