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.

Mathews moved to the States when he was ten and eventually settled in Houston. His parents were avid fans of Indian and Western cinema. He digested every directorial style, from Alfred Hitchcock to Woody Allen.

But in Yaar, he also made sure to make reference to chintzy clichés of traditional Indian Bollywood films. He inserted a tongue-in-cheek dance scene and pastel-colored dream sequences. He even gave a sly nod to an Indian toothpaste commercial that has been a television staple for decades. These inside jokes may fly over the heads of many American audiences, but they provide some of the film's strongest material.

Cherian drew on her debate experience to play Priya.
George Hixson
Cherian drew on her debate experience to play Priya.
Sandhya jokes that Sunil's impulses drive her crazy.
Daniel Kramer
Sandhya jokes that Sunil's impulses drive her crazy.

Even with the Indian flavor, it's ultimately a universal story, which is why everyone involved believes it will have crossover success. But they also believe it will especially resonate with an Indian-American audience -- Mathews expects to see more films like this made in the future.

So does Aroon Shivdasani, executive director of the New York-based Indo-American Arts Council. Shivdasani, who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s, views the recent wave of Indian-American films as an obvious result of this emerging immigrant group.

"They're trying to become part of the American scene," she says. The young generation also has a lot of questions about its own identity and roots. But while many Indians have come to the States and made their mark in technological and medical fields, their presence in the arts has been largely overlooked -- even within the Indian-American community, she says.

Rick Ferguson, the Houston Film Commission's executive director, calls Yaar the "opening salvo" of a developing filmmaking presence in Houston's Indian community.

"It's sort of a natural marriage of a fairly prolific industry and the availability of resources here," he says. Having a large thriving Indian community in general helps, too.

While Yaar is the only completed project locally, Ferguson says he's aware of a handful of other Indian movies in development in Houston -- what he calls "fusion" projects -- which blend some Bollywood aesthetics with traditional Western fare. One project is an old-fashioned horror movie, with Indian and American actors.

Houston is also the U.S. headquarters for Cinemawalla, a company that produces and markets Indian- and Bengali-language films in India. Producer Sutapa Ghosh says she's working on her first local English-language movie. She doesn't want to disclose details until filming starts later this year.

Richard Pena, program director for the Lincoln Center Film Society, says the upswing in such activity reflects the "unheard voices" that are "one of the most fertile areas of the American independent cinema." Whether the theme is based on race or language or sexual orientation, these outside groups have provided some of the most compelling films within independent cinema in the last ten or 15 years, he says.

"For many other Americans, it happened a generation or two ago. For these Americans, it's happening now," he says of the Indian-American cinematic boom. "Indian-Americans have reached a certain level of both assimilation and self-awareness within American culture that they're now wanting to reflect on the particularities of their own experience here in our country."

Thakkar's experience in this country was particularly strange. Growing up in India, he was a loner with a horrible stutter. When he moved to Houston, he had to struggle with extreme FOBness, a battle he says he really never won.

Even though the goofy kid with the speech impediment found himself hosting the hottest desi radio show in Houston, Thakkar still considers himself a FOB. He pokes fun at himself in Yaar, playing the lovably clueless FOB Shyam Sunder Balabhadrapatramukhi. Shyam and his FOB roommates occupy an apartment dominated by hideous leopard-print coverings. He travels the UH campus in the requisite white sneakers, makes pathetic attempts to adopt American slang and, in primping for a big desi party, finds it necessary to shave his ears.

Maybe it's penance for Thakkar's real life as the guy who had to turn away so many FOBs -- his brothers -- from his events. The movie even uses the name of his company, Music Masala, and portrays its owner as an insensitive, FOB-hating prick.

Thakkar didn't mind being the butt of many of the movie's jokes. Although he's a shrewd businessman, he sounds sincere when he says he just wants to make people laugh.

"This really wasn't a business thing for me," he says of Yaar. Thakkar has too much enthusiasm for mere words. He's a bundle of energy, shifting in his seat, using his hands to illustrate this point, busting out the 7-Eleven clerk's accent for that one. He's a huge freakin' ham.

"I think, at the end of the day, if it puts a smile on people's faces when they're watching it, that's it. Objective met. Money made? Fine. This movie we made from the heart; it wasn't something we contrived."

Heart, or at least gut, had a lot to do with casting choices. Sunil Malhotra was picked to play Hari at the last minute, when the original actor wasn't available because of visa problems. The producers auditioned more than 700 candidates for the two leading female roles before choosing two Houston-born UH students.

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