By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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.
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.
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."
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.
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 Yaaris 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.
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 worked with Penn in American Desi, and the two returned to Texas six months after Yaarto 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 Beckhambecame a hit. Even though backing from those two studios might have put Yaarinto 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."