Two films by and about NRIs cause nary a flutter in the Indian media. That is a welcome development.I really wanted to write a contrarian column this month, upending the critical consensus on the two movies I was going to review. Now, having seen both the movies, I can only conclude that, sometimes, the critics reach a consensus for a reason.
It’s Oscar season now in America, but I wanted to review two 2015 films that didn’t quite make it to the Oscar stage, although they were popular on the festival circuits. Both were North American movies that prominently featured NRIs. I was curious about these films partially because of this, and partially because—despite their content—they hardly got any press in India. Perhaps, Modi’s paeans to the NRI notwithstanding, people in India have stopped caring so much about their brethren overseas. (This would be a welcome development, as the mainstream Indian media has, to an embarrassing degree, measured the success of the nation in terms of the success of NRIs.) But I found this lack of response particularly surprising in the case of one of the films, since it featured a Bollywood star and was made by a critically acclaimed director.
Enough with the suspense: the star is Randeep Hooda, the director Deepa Mehta, and the film Beeba Boys. The movie is inspired by real life events. Hooda plays Jeet Johar, an Indian-Canadian gangster/loving father. He leads a Sikh gang that seems more concerned with its sartorial sensibilities than with its criminal enterprises—perhaps that is why they are always getting upstaged by their more dourly-dressed, sensible rivals (who are also, it should be mentioned, Sikhs).
Although the movie was almost universally panned, it sounds so promising. A famous director looking at the seamy underbelly and criminal ties of a minority community in North America—it could have been Deepa Mehta’s Godfather.
Although the movie was almost universally panned, with a rating of 44 percent on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it sounds so promising. A famous director looking at the seamy underbelly and criminal ties of a minority community in North America—it could have been Deepa Mehta’s Godfather. I kept on looking for signs of this potential in the finished product, but I ended up thinking that perhaps the Indian media largely ignored this movie because, in the end, there was little compelling to say about it.
Although the movie begins and ends with grim title cards (in all caps: “Indo-Canadian gang warfare is a reality in Vancouver today” and “We did not make this make this maelstrom up; 173 gang related deaths have occurred in British Columbia in the last ten years”), the film itself can’t seem to decide on a tone. It starts out with one of Hooda’s gang members, played by Waris Ahluwalia, telling corny sardar jokes, and much of the zippy first act has the feeling of a light-hearted farce. It includes: an over-the-top, sensationalist TV report about the gang and their hedonistic life; Hooda playfully flirting with a jury member during his trial; and his mother distributing sweets at a neighbourhood festival when Hooda gets out of jail.
When the movie makes a jarring tonal shift and ventures into the realm of melodrama, it is difficult to feel any emotional connection to characters that the film has, up to that point, taken so lightly. Surely, Mehta has something to say—about the immigrant experience, about masculinity as a way of dealing with marginalisation, about the futility of family feuds—but this is lost, first in a flurry of laughter, then in a hail of bullets.
There is, on the other hand, no problem finding the emotional core of the other movie I intended to review, Meet the Patels. While Beeba Boys puts a fictional twist and a shiny finish on real-life events, Meet the Patels is a documentary with plenty of rough edges. Featuring, and directed by, two Indian-Americans, Ravi and Geeta Patel, the film focuses on Ravi’s attempts to find love and (if his parents have their way) marriage. After breaking up with his white American girlfriend, in part because he couldn’t muster up the courage to introduce her to his parents, Ravi agrees to consider the arranged marriage route, which—in modern-day America—includes online matrimonial ads (shaadi.com is ubiquitous even among Indian-Americans), word-of-mouth recommendations, and an awkward event called the Patel Matrimonial Convention.
This was a movie I didn’t want to like, despite its high ratings (84 percent) on Rotten Tomatoes. A wealthy American, from an upper caste Indian family, learns to love the arranged marriage system—it all sounded terribly regressive. And yet the film won me over, in part because of its emotional candour and its sense of the real dislocation caused by immigration—precisely what Beeba Boys lacked.
True, the movie skirts around caste issues, barely mentioning the hierarchies and oppressions built into the system. But it is not totally devoid of social commentary; witness its ridicule of the Indian obsession with skin colour and its recognition of the unequal gender dynamics in the arrangement of marriages. At its core, though, the movie is not really concerned with social issues in India; despite a brief trip to India, the movie is thoroughly rooted in an American social milieu, and Ravi’s negotiation of that world and his parents’ expectations.
True, the movie skirts around caste issues, barely mentioning the hierarchies and oppressions built into the system. But it is not totally devoid of social commentary; witness its ridicule of the Indian obsession with skin colour and its recognition of the unequal gender dynamics in the arrangement of marriages.
The film works because Ravi’s entire family is disarmingly honest and funny. His parents may hold traditional views about marriage and family, but—especially as the film progresses—they show that they are aware of the new world that their children are navigating and that they truly care about their children’s happiness, even if this means breaking with tradition. The film captures their flaws, but also their vulnerabilities and their charm. Its take on the immigrant experience is hardly new, but it is executed with such understated affability that this hardly matters.
India’s obsession with NRIs may not be over; recently, when gravitational waves were detected, in a dramatic scientific achievement that confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity, a series of newspaper articles were published emphasising the Indian origin of several scientists who had contributed to this achievement. But the fact that two NRI-dominated films—one surprisingly bad, one surprisingly good—can come and go with little fanfare in India is, perhaps, a step in the right direction.