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.

Serena Varghese, who plays Mohan's love interest, had never acted before. On a lark, the then-19-year-old marketing major answered a casting call in the campus paper. Originally scheduled for a smaller part, Varghese asked for the role of strong-minded, studious Janvi, because, she says, "I wish I had a little bit of her in me."

Tina Cherian, then a 21-year-old finance major, won the role of Priya "All this math makes me dizzy" Varghese. She drew on her high school debate and storytelling team experiences to transform into the spaced-out party girl who routinely walks into the wrong classrooms.

Malhotra colors the character of Hari with a certain tender dignity. For all of Hari's often predictable pratfalls, it's Malhotra's subtler intonations that humanize the character.

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."

Malhotra worked with Penn in American Desi, and the two returned to Texas six months after Yaar to shoot The Arrangement, an Indian-American comedy set in Austin.

Malhotra was born in India, and his family moved to Skokie, Illinois, when he was six months old. Although he was a band geek, he never felt like a FOB -- in reading the script for Yaar, he identified more with Mohan than with Hari.

Malhotra moved from New York City to Los Angeles earlier this year to find more work, as opportunities are gradually expanding for Indian-American actors.

"The idea of Indians and South Asians actually existing in the world, in the U.S…that is slowly starting to seep in" in Hollywood, he says with a laugh. Pointing to last year's Hollywood-meets-Bollywood satire The Guru, Malhotra can't help but feel optimistic. Though not a commercial smash like Bend It Like Beckham, the movie paired Indian actors with American stars Heather Graham and Marisa Tomei, and was released by Universal.

"I think things are starting to open," he says. "It's not a watershed, it's a trickle. But it's a good trickle."

After Sunil Thakkar's mother had a heart attack, he and Sandhya moved the production office into their Sugar Land home to be closer to her. However, to keep Sandhya from attacking her husband, the two worked -- and still work -- in different rooms. They meet in the kitchen for lunch (which could more accurately be described as breakfast for the late-waking Thakkar) and then retreat to their separate corners.

The division is necessary to balance their conflicting personalities, best described by Mathews as "Sunil has the ideas; Sandhya makes them work."

Sandhya, an associate producer, wrote every check relating to Yaar's expenses and basically functioned as the production's left brain. She also took care of the couple's two young children and did the cooking every night, waking every morning at five or six to brace herself for another day of Thakkar's obsessive creative impulses. Thakkar was especially consumed with the film's soundtrack, easily one of the movie's highlights.

Although some songs are used for only seconds at a time, securing the music took well over a year, Sandhya says. In order to get the rights to several songs by the Indian-U.K. band Cornershop, Thakkar ambushed the musicians in their tour bus after a Houston gig. Sandhya says her fanatical husband begged the band to watch a rough cut of the movie. They allowed Thakkar to use the songs, but only after Sandhya reluctantly brokered a deal that, if the film is a smash, will probably make Cornershop the biggest beneficiaries.

"If it grosses a lot, we owe them a lot," she says, cradling her head in her hands.

Most surprising, the Thakkars and the rest of the crew ignored potential interest from Miramax and Fox Searchlight representatives, who the Thakkars say called them after Bend It Like Beckham became a hit. Even though backing from those two studios might have put Yaar into more theaters, the Thakkars say they can market and distribute the film better by giving it their undivided attention. They don't want their film relegated to the bottom of some studio's priority list.

The movie has already achieved a good buzz from film festival screenings in cities like Austin and San Francisco. It's scheduled to open in seven major cities, including Houston, on September 5.

And although it sounds like the sort of aw-shucks thing he's supposed to say, Thakkar comes across as sincere when he says Yaar's financial future isn't as important to him as the fact that he simply helped make the film in the first place.

"The Indian dream is to make a movie," he says, sitting still for the first time. "The American dream is to make it on your own. I feel like I've got both."

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