By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The broad satirical comedy Where’s the Party Yaar?, about the assimilation anxieties of college-age NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) living in suburban Texas, is a minority movie with a mainstream sensibility. Distributed by its director and co-writer, Houston-area music producer and DJ Benny Mathews, it mixes the earnest multicultural sensitivity of Indo-American indies like ABCD and American Chai with trace elements of lowbrow undergraduate farce, as disrespectful as a well-timed raspberry.
The movie has a teasingly surreal sense of blinkered unreality: It seems to unfold in an alternate-universe version of Houston that (with the exception of a few pompous college professors) contains exclusively Indian-Americans. And the only distinctions that matter even within that community are the ones that arise from varying degrees of assimilation into the host culture. Religious differences, for example, are mentioned only in passing, caste differences not at all.
At one social extreme in the city’s NRI youth culture are the FOBs, pronounced “fobs” — “fresh off the boat” from India — embarrassing newbies fenced out beyond the velvet ropes by the bouncers at fashionable rave-up desi (“homeboy”) dance parties. Such parties, after all, wouldn’t be worth attending if you didn’t get to sneer at the people who got locked out. And, indeed, the sleek and shallow fellow, Ray (Prem Shah), who organizes the parties, grimaces with disgust (which is clearly self-disgust) when he refers to the tacky dance moves and noisome personal habits of the FOBs he’s desperate to exclude.
The poster child of the oppressed FOB contingent is the dreamy, dorky Harishkumar “Hari” Patel (Sunil Malhotra), who comes complete with high-rise trousers, a Peter Sellers accent and a glistening oil-slick hairdo. Perhaps it goes without saying that Hari is essentially a cartoon character, a stereotype as broad as one of those clueless hick farmers, adrift in the big city, who so often turned up in American silent comedies. The rift that soon develops between Hari and his much more happening cousin, Mohan “Mo” Bakshi (Kal Penn), a collegiate swinger-in-training, hinges less upon cultural than on class differences: Mo’s doctor father came to the U.S. 30 years ago and accumulated enough rupees to build a tacky nouveau riche house that looks like a Bollywood movie set — the setting in which son Mohan plies his trade as a smugly assimilated hip-hop culture snob.
It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the moral through line of Where’s the Party Yaar? tends inexorably toward the turning-point moment in which Mo sees the error of his divisive ways — and the absurdity of (as he puts it) “throwing Indians out of an Indian party.” By the end, Mo has had his consciousness raised, partly by his growing respect for the generous and undiscourageable Hari and partly by his infatuation with Janvi (Serena Varghese), an earnest yet fly and foxy anthropology student working on a video documentary about issues of assimilation.
Benny Mathews conveys his impatience with conventional categories in a brief scene skewering the kitsch multiculturalism of a campus “India Day” celebration, which includes shots of hostesses wearing hats shaped like samosas. But there are also some missed opportunities for sharply barbed satire, such as the well-heeled Mohan’s glib claim that he is “proud to be brown,” a politically correct platitude that he uses as a pickup line. Mathews has obvious storytelling chops, and a sharp eye for absurdity. But there are sacred cows in hip, progressive America, too, and the truly fearless satirist has to be a carnivore.
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