I just watched this movie for the 4th time, and it is still So. Good! And such a hard sell! I’ve seen it 4 times partly because people will only watch it if I sit next to them and force them to. Because the title alone really isn’t enough to sell it.
Although, if you know the background, the title is actually a perfect encapsulation of the whole concept of the film. “Loin of Punjab” is the loveable miss-pronunciation of “Lion of Punjab” used repeatedly by Ajith in some 70s potboiler who’s name I can’t remember (you in the comments! Help me!). It’s an inside joke, telling the audience that this film is for them and we don’t have to care if everyone else thinks it is stupid, WE get it.
That’s what the whole film is like, loving and incredibly specific depictions of a certain community. It starts out a little bit Christopher Guest-ian, with a faux documentary and looking like it is going to make fun of these people. But it is more A Mighty Wind Christopher Guest, where there is a lot of heart and you really care about these people, than Waiting for Guffman Christopher Guest, where everything seems a little mean. (Side-note, did you know Christopher Guest is a member of one of the oldest and most powerful aristocratic families in England? And is married to Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh’s daughter? It’s like a through-the-looking glass version of Saif and Kareena!)
(what a happy perfect family! hiding massive dysfunction and addiction issues!)
What makes this so wonderful is that this film shows a community that doesn’t get a lot of love. The Indian version of the NRI experience includes a lot of fancy houses and big dance sequences and generally perfect lives, with only the slightest tinge of melancholy for what they left behind. Which makes sense, that is distilling the experience down to it’s emotional center, and how it is in relationship to India (richer, bigger, but still with that tinge of loneliness). And then of course, from the American side, this community tends to be relegated to the sidelines, the comic relief, the “odd” ones. Or else they aren’t acknowledged at all, so assimilated as to make them interchangeable with any other character from any other ethnicity. But here is a film, finally, that treats them as the unique thing they are, not Indian, but not the usual “American” either.
I know I know, this isn’t quite so groundbreaking any more, Master of None and The Mindy Project have started showing the Indian-American community from the perspective of people with in it. And I guess Mississippi Masala and a few other films were there before too. And then there are the very occasional, usually not very successful, Indian films like Patiala House that try to deal with these issues. But Loins of Punjab manages to make a movie about the Indian American community without making it about the Indian American community, if that makes sense?
Yes, they are all desis. And yes, they are incredibly specific types (from my minimal experience of the New Jersey lifestyle, I am able to recognize the differences even in just the details of the towns they are from). But that’s just the superficial part of them. Ultimately, the character challenges they are dealing with are universal. Finding love, growing up, being evil, etc. etc. It’s not a movie about the challenges that face the Indian American community or what it means to be Indian American, it’s a movie about a bunch of people dealing with a bunch of different problems and, oh yeah, they also happen to all be Indian. Well, most of them.
Them being Indian is all they have in common. Which is kind of a big statement, really. That this immigrant community that is stereotyped as being “all like this” or “all like that” truly are completely different people with only a former country in common. Which is where the brilliance of the set-up comes in, an artificial construct of a contest that requires everyone to self-identify as “Desi”.
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It’s a really straightforward film, it just has a lot of stories, that’s all. But they are all really straight-forward stories. The “Loins of Punjab” is a leading New York meatpacking company owned by a Desi. His very serious assistant has hired an event company in Jackson Heights to run a “Desi Idol” competition, in which the winner will get $25,000. The contest is, of course, held in a hotel in Edison (I told you it was super specific about the regional stuff!).
Our contestants are Seema Rahmani (in real life, from Newark! In the film, living in Manhattan), an aspiring actress who dreams of making it in “Bollywood” despite the fact that she doesn’t speak Hindi. Also, Ishita Sharma, playing Preeti Patel from Edison, whose family encourages her to sing at local community contests and so on, so long as it doesn’t interfere with her clear life path towards engineering or medical school at a name University. And then there’s Ajay Naidu (in real life, grew up around the corner from where I go to work everyday!) who’s character is from Willets Point, Shabana Azmi’s character from Long Island, and finally Manish Acharya the director playing a character from Gramercy Park.
Okay, for a little more information about the characters, in case their home towns don’t totally fill it in for you, Seema Rahmani talks the talk of being all modern and confident, and has big plans to be an actress, but she is hiding an uncertainty about her right to an Indian identity and her abilities. Ishita Sharma is a talented singer, but her family is never going to let her pursue it. Ajay Naidu is a gay Bhangra rapper in a loving personal and professional partnership with an African-American fellow rapper. Shabana Azmi is, of course, an evil wealthy upper class society woman (her sweet spot! That’s, like, every other thing on her resume for the past 10 years).
Oh, and then there’s the most painful character! “Josh Cohen”, played by Michael Raimodi, and his girlfriend Ayesha Dharkar (who played Shabana’s daughter in Saaz ten years earlier! And then they never had a scene together in this). Michael is that guy who goes to India and studies the language and the culture and thinks he understands it all. And maybe he does, in India. But that’s not the same as learning what it is like to be Indian-American and to be a white guy within an Indian-American community. (Yes, I am aware that it is strange for me, a white person who writes about Indian film, to be saying this. But I do try really hard to always be aware I can’t truly understand people’s experience!)
Michael really isn’t a bad guy, it’s Ayesha’s idea for him to join this contest, and he really does love Indian music, and he is really a good trained classical singer. Really, his biggest problem is that he just can’t see the bad in the world. Because he’s a white man in America, so he’s never experienced it. And so far, he and Ayesha have been living in a little happy bubble where nothing bad seemed like it would touch them. But now that they are thrown into a hotel in Edison, surrounded by desis, suddenly Ayesha is starting to notice that things aren’t quite the easy and perfect and colorblind way they used to be. And Michael is just too determinedly nice to understand what is happening, even when she tries to explain it to him
That’s one of the fun, and yet totally reasonable, ways this film flips the usual stereotype on its head. In this through the looking glass world where the Indian-American’s are in charge and the white Americans are the minorities, the Indians no longer have to be the polite ones, the unassuming ones, the ones who fade into the background. They can be just as rude and horrible and selfish and inconsiderate as any other American! And it is the white people who have to learn to roll over and take it.
It’s also a chance for some of these people to reveal their true noble and good and fragile selves. All the things that surviving in American society in general has driven into hiding. Seema can slowly give up her confident facade and let herself be sweet and open and happy with a nice desi guy. And Manish gets to be the dashing hero for once, instead of the boring statistics guy who ruins his blind date and was just laid off (that’s how he is introduced). Ajay Naidu finally finds an audience who understands his music and can make him a rock star. And Ishati Sharma finally finds someone who can help her escape her family. And Shabana Azmi finally finds people who aren’t afraid to stand up to her.
(I’m not going to spoil how Manish becomes a hero, but it does involve this song)
And did I mention it’s really really funny? It is! It’s really really funny! Shabana taking her little dog with her everywhere, a contestant named Saddam Hussein who got laid off, an adorable meet-cute between Manish and Seema, every little moment is amusing. But what it adds up to as a whole is so much bigger, a whole lovely little world of people who are allowed to be people, not just statistics.