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Anurag Mehta's 'American Chai'

Poster for American Chai (2001).

Poster for American Chai (2001).

Anurag Mehta is the writer and director of American Chai, a coming-of-age story about a second-generation Indian American college student who is afraid to tell his parents that he is studying music instead of medicine. An impressive debut feature, the film explores issues of assimilation, generational conflict, and interracial dating, and presents an honest portrayal of the Indian American community. American Chai won the Audience Award at the 2001 Gen Art Film Festival, the Best Feature Film Award at the 2001 Philadelphia Festival of Independents, and the Audience Award at the 2001 Slamdance Film Festival.

Asia Society spoke with the director at the Asia Society's offices in New York City.

How long have you been interested in film?

I got interested in film at a very young age. I was four when I saw Star Wars and I loved that movie. I spent every weekend at the theaters when I was twelve and thirteen. I loved everything about the movies. Early on, my favorite movies were by Spielberg -- the big action movies. I also watched a lot of Bollywood movies back then. I loved Amitabh Bachchan movies. When I got to college, it just seemed natural. I had so much fun making videos that I wanted to make them on a bigger scale. I liked writing, too. I studied film at Rutgers University.

Was the “Jersey University” in the film based on Rutgers?

Yes. I wanted it to be Rutgers in the film, but they said it would take a year to decide if I could use the name or not, so I had to make up “Jersey University.” That part of the film was based on my story. I grew up in a town in New Jersey that had some Indians, but not too many. When I got to college, it was the first time I saw so many other Indian American kids. I always wanted to tell the story of how we all grew up. The film is not specifically autobiographical in other ways, though. [Unlike the parents in the film], my parents are very supportive of my filmmaking.

How much of American Chai is fiction? Did you pretend to be pre-med as well?

No, that part was totally made up. I did have a lot of friends who hid things from their parents, including myself. I was hiding some stuff, but my parents were always cool with my artistic pursuits and those of my brother, Aalok, who is the star of the film. I drew from the general sense of hiding things from your parents among Indian Americans. I did know a few people who were hiding their major or even hiding the fact that they weren’t in school anymore. I thought that it made for a nice basic plot to hang the story on.

Why did you cast your brother in the lead role? What was it like working together?

My brother has been a musician his whole life and I was listening to his music while I was writing the screenplay. I always knew he would do the music for the film. As I was writing it, I started to picture him in the [lead] role. I brought it up with him and at first he was very apprehensive because he didn’t have a strong background in acting. We were still about six months away from auditions or casting. I auditioned other actors, but my brother dedicated himself to the role. He spent six months training and working with acting coaches. Once he had put in all of that time and effort, he was really good and I knew we would have such a good connection. I also knew the music would be tremendous.

Why do you think there has been a recent surge of Indian American coming-of-age films, like American Desi and ABCD? Does this coincide with the development of the Indian American community?

Exactly. I think the people born in this country are starting to get to the age where they can do such things. I think it’s just natural that film would come out of this. Film is in the blood of Indian people. Film is such a big part of Indian culture. I think it’s natural that you’re going to have a period in the beginning where people make [coming-of-age] films. In fact, M. Night Shyamalan made a coming-of-age film in 1992 called Praying with Anger. He wrote, directed, and starred in it and it was shot in India with a lot of money. It was a good movie, but it wasn’t the right time to market it.

Whenever there is something new in film, you always find a few films that come out together. All of these films were made independently. I first heard about these other Indian American movies when we were already shooting. I have heard of a theory called morphic resonance where several people tap into something in the collective subconscious at the same time.

What I think distinguishes American Chai from other Indian American coming of age films is that even though you employ a lot of stereotypical Indian characters, you give them depth and dimension that the other films don’t. For example, Ajay Naidu played the typical liquor store clerk, but you showed a whole other side of his life as well. Did you make a conscious effort to set these stereotypes up and then break them?

Definitely. In fact I always wanted Ajay Naidu to play that character, but I had no connection to him, so I sent the script to his agent and a letter to him. I went into detail in that letter explaining that though the character of Hari is at first only comedic, you will see at the end that he plays a large role in the movie in terms of changing the main character. I was worried that he would read the first scene and see this comedic liquor store clerk without depth and stop reading. Luckily he kept on reading.

I think there’s a difference between stereotypes and archetypes. Stereotypes only show one side. But there are a lot of Indians who work in liquor stores. It’s an archetypal character, but you have to show how real they are too. That type of person has always fascinated me, the person who comes to the US and works hard and waits for his wife to come over. He’s a very real person.

I also appreciated his character because it showed the working-class side of the Indian American community. Not all Indian Americans are doctors and engineers.

I wanted to touch on that. The film shows a mish-mash of people and reflects the diversity of the Indian community.

You cast Paresh Rawal, who is well known in Bollywood, as the father in the film. What did he add to the film?

He’s tremendous. He’s like the Anthony Hopkins of Bollywood. He’s one of people’s favorites; he steals the show in whatever movie he is in. I was a little nervous the first day of shooting because he has so much experience, but he was so down to earth and taken with the whole independent film set. He couldn’t believe that with such a low budget we had walkie talkies. Apparently that’s not how they do things in Bollywood. He said in Bollywood everyone just yells; there are no walkie talkies. He got the part down. We talked about the role before we started shooting, but he was perfect the first day we rehearsed. I couldn’t contain myself because I was so happy. He’s brilliant. He adds a lot of weight to the film. Good actors like him bring so much depth to their roles.

You mentioned Amitabh [Bachchan] before and there are a few Bollywood-inspired scenes in the film. Was Bollywood a big influence on you?

I have always liked Bollywood films, but as I got more immersed in Hollywood films, Bollywood films started to take on a funny kind of charm. They are very melodramatic and we always poked fun at them in our everyday existence. At the same time it was a very loving sort of fun we poked at them; we were laughing both at and with the Bollywood films.

You were laughing, but your film has a Bollywood ending, particularly regarding the romance and the father’s change of heart.

I’ve always loved the mythic side to Bollywood films. Those stories are very basic and it’s more the style of the storytelling then the story itself.

Maybe the difference is that your characters are a bit more realistic than those in Bollywood films. Aasif Mandvi’s role, in particular, I thought was a very honest portrait of the Indian American male psyche.

When listening to a lot of Indian American men, I was amazed to hear some of these attitudes. These attitudes [about women and interracial dating] exist in the Indian American community; I just put them all together into one character. I wanted him to be very fast-talking and American in his disposition. He is not what someone outside of the Indian community would usually associate with an Indian character, but I know guys like him. He has these theories about women that are half-true, but at the same time very wrong. I wanted to show him walking this line and everyone reacting to him as if he’s wrong. I wanted to show that these attitudes exist, but they’re not right. The film is not an endorsement of those ideas. I also wanted to show them because they are funny. I’ve always laughed when guys go off on this testosterone-filled machismo thing, because you know they are compensating for something else.

Do you think non-desi audiences will find American Chai funny?

They do laugh. We had a screening in Leonard Maltin’s class at USC in front of 350 students, very few of them Indian, and they were laughing very hard, even at the Bollywood stuff. We also screened it in front of 50-year-old non-Indians in New Jersey, and again, they related to the film. Bollywood is seeping into mainstream culture, so non-Indians are getting the Bollywood jokes. We won audience awards at the Slamdance Film Festival and at the Gen Arts Festival with no Indians in the audiences. So much of the film is universal.

Are you releasing this film in India and in the U.K.?

Yes, we are trying to, but I wanted to release it here first. Piracy is such a huge issue. We are trying to prevent that from happening. It’s a shame. The people that get hurt the most are small filmmakers like myself. The way that Indian Americans are used to getting their movies is from the corner video store. But now, when Bollywood films are shown in theaters here, it’s a real problem because people are used to buying the pirated copy. The piracy racket is so organized. It’s not pirated off a video camera in the theater; they have arrangements with theaters to take the print overnight and copy it. I don’t feel bad about revealing this, because I really hate this pirating. I know how much it hurts other filmmakers. I just hope it doesn’t happen to me. No one believes me when I say my film will not be pirated.

I have a friend who was in the film American Desi and he said his mother saw copies in the local video store and started yelling at the store clerk that these pirated copies were taking money away from her son. After she finished screaming, she bought two pirated copies!

It’s just generally accepted. People so freely tell me that they bought a pirated copy of Monsoon Wedding, even after we had a big conversation about how pirating is awful. It’s going to keep happening until there’s a major crackdown. Bollywood producers will have the major Indian market where they make so much money, so a few pirated copies abroad don’t matter that much. But for Indian American producers, this is our market. The reason Indian American or Indian British producers have to cap budgets, the reason we can’t make movies with as high of a budget as Hollywood films, is because the producers will not make back that much money because video pirates make a lot of their money.

We are trying to screen the film in theaters that we think are secure. We have an American distributor; I hate to say it but a lot of the piracy happens at the distributor level. We are trying to prevent it, but who knows?

Back to the plot of the film; a lot of second generation Americans have problems reconciling two cultures. Why do you think the Indian American community in particular has such a hard time with generational conflict?

It’s a hard issue. I think it stems from the respect for elders and parents that is inherent in Indian culture. Our parents never publicly questioned the word of their parents. There is a high respect for your elders that is really good in some ways, but in a lot of ways it’s stifling. It’s the way society is there. You live in joint families, you live with your parents after you get married. It has its plusses and minuses. Your father’s word is written in stone. To a greater extent, that applies to the husband as well. Your husband is your god. I have problems with this patriarchy.

America, on the other hand, is all about independence and following your dreams. All immigrants came here because they are pioneers of some sort. I told my parents that moving to California to be a filmmaker is not as big a deal as them coming to the US from Bombay in the 1960s. You couldn’t talk on the phone; you couldn’t email. You would hear from your family every three weeks. It was a totally different country. It was a huge risk that I don’t think I could take. I find it interesting that the older generation of Indian Americans had that pioneering spirit, but it got stifled in their children.

The film brings up that parallel between the older generation following their dreams in the U.S. and the younger generation following their dreams through the arts.

Yes, I wanted to hint at that in the film. The younger generation has to learn how to make their parents understand their artistic ambitions. Too many people say they will make the most of their lives within the confines of what their parents want for them. In my case, my parents understood that I wanted to make movies. I got a little lucky because my dad wanted to be a cricket player when he was young. He wanted to go all the way with it, if possible, but his family did not support him. They wouldn’t let him take it to the professional level. I think he wanted to support us if we were ever passionate about something.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a script that is a lot broader in scope. There’s an Indian character, but he is not the main character. Again, it is going to be a very real representation of an Indian American character. I would like to get to the point where I can put characters of South Asian ancestry into movies and have them be Americans and no one thinks twice about it. I just saw K-Pax and Ajay [Naidu] is in it. He plays a doctor and he’s great, but his character has an accent and there’s no need for him to have an accent in the film.

Do you think we are starting to see more South Asian characters in the mainstream media?

Slowly, but I have not seen too many South Asian characters with American accents. Ajay is straight out of Chicago, so to make someone like that put on an accent is odd. In my film, he plays someone from India, so there is a reason he has an accent. But even in some of the other Indian American films, the guys speak with accents. We should be ready to be accepted as Americans. It will be slow. We can’t just pretend that tomorrow we can make a Hollywood film with all Indian characters. That’s my goal someday; to make a movie with Indian characters and have it be just a regular film. There are other minorities who are much closer to that goal. Latin Americans and [East] Asian Americans may get there first, but South Asian Americans will get there as well.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Society.