Happy 4th of July! Let’s Talk About Indian American Movies

Happy 4th! I celebrated by doing a purposeful long and meandering drive for curbside pick-up orders, and then returning home and immediately becoming overheated and exhausted. Which is why I didn’t even reply to comments until just now (sorry!). Anyway, for a nice American themed post, I am going to have a mini-discussion of the Indian American film genre.

I am defining Indian American films as movies that are created by people of Indian descent, that are set in America, and that have Indian American characters. If they are made by Indian Americans but don’t feature Indian Americans as leads, no (so no M. Night Shyamalan). If they feature Indian Americans as leads but are not made by Indian Americans, also no (so no Harold and Kumar, much though I love it). But the funny thing is, there are A LOT of movies that do fit this restriction.

I guess it’s not really that funny. Like all artwork, film has the possibility of artists telling a personal story. And American film has a tradition of speaking out and representing your community through your work, especially your early work when your are finding your unique voice and identity in the world. Starting in the 90s and through to today, there is a growing number of second generation Indian Americans, young people who want to be filmmakers and start by telling a version of their own story on film.

Mindy Kaling’s Ouvre

Mindy Kaling doesn’t make “Indian American” art, which is in fact what makes them so uniquely Indian American. The characters she writes and often plays are young American women, with American dreams and behavior and beliefs and motivations. And they also happen to have “funny” names and brown skin. And people make assumptions because of that.

You are Indian American because you are Indian American. If you tell your story, it is an Indian American story because it is yours. That’s it, that’s the only requirement. So when Mindy Kaling makes her fun light silly rom-com inspired TV shows and movies it isn’t because she is post-racial or her characters are about “more than their heritage” or anything like that. She is telling her stories of her world as she sees it, and in her world the Indian heritage is there and so is a lot of other stuff. She is telling the story of Indian Americans who are told they aren’t “Indian” enough because they never learned an Indian language, or about their religion, or joined cultural groups, or any of that.

Watch her movie Late Night, her TV show The Mindy Project (although that kind of loses it’s way in later seasons), her streaming series Never Have I Ever, really anything she has touched, to get the sense of that unique particular kind of voice.

My Thoughts After Binging Mindy Kaling's New Series | The Everygirl
There is a reason the heroine of this show is desi. Yes, it’s not a major plot point, but it’s still her identity. That is your identity, even if every story of your life is about it. Because every story of your life IS about it, because it is about you, and that is who you are.

Mississippi Masala

This is not made by an Indian American, it is made by an Indian-British person. But it tells an extremely American story, a young desi woman in rural America who falls in love with an African-American man in the face of family objection. Her hardworking not-rich family, and her love story with a not-white and not-rich American man, and most of all the sense of being isolated in the midst of non-Indian America is a unique story in fiction, but a common story in reality. There are desis all over America, a lot of them are in urban areas with large communities around them, but a lot of them are in small towns, alone, forced to figure out who they are if there is no one like them around them.

Mississippi Masala - Wikipedia

Loins of Punjab Presents

My personal favorite. It’s a specifically New Jersey American movie, the Indian American community that is settled and surrounded by people like “them”, that has created it’s own layers and exclusions of who is “better” within the Indian-American New Jersey world. And then it turns that on its head and shows how no one is better or worse, they are all just people trying to get along and live their lives.

Loins Of Punjab Presents Movie: Reviews | Release Date | Songs ...

The Big Sick

A rom-com about what happens when an American man falls in love with an American woman and they start to figure out their lives and who they are, until his identity as an Indian-American suddenly makes it clear that this isn’t going to be as easy as they thought. Again, Indian-American isn’t the same thing for everybody. In the Mindy Kaling world, the cultural differences don’t seriously threaten the romance, her cultural struggles are internal not external, figuring out how to integrate this part of her identity. In the Mississippi Masala world, the threat to the romance was there all along, there was no easy moment of Americans meeting. In this movie, 90% of their life is in the same world, no cultural conflict, but that last 10% is really important.

The Big Sick | DC Counseling & Psychotherapy Center

The Namesake

One of the real classics of the Indian American identity, comparing the experience of a couple who married in Calcutta and moved to America with that of their American-raised son. One of the best parts of the film is that the casting reflects those identities, Tabu and Irrfan Khan, Indian actors (both meaning they are of Indian nationality and that their careers are in India) playing the parents and Kal Penn an American actor playing the child. It’s a primarily internal personal story, for this one family and these three people, this was the American experience.

Amazon.com: The Namesake: Kal Penn, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Jacinda ...

American Desi

The sleeper hit! Which delightfully tells the story that was happening on campuses all over America, as young Indian Americans who grew up in isolated bubbles found their “tribe” upon arrival at college. Heck, this is my story! Sort of. I’m not Indian American, but I landed in college to discover I was one of only two non-desis on my dorm floor. The Diwali Garba was the biggest campus event of the year, the Indian Students Association was the most active group, this was a whole special unique world within America. And that’s what this movie is about a love story set at Rutgers in the world of this massive community of young Indians in America.

American Desi (2001) - Rotten Tomatoes

Lilly Singh/Superwoman’s Ouvre

Woot, Lilly Singh! I am proud to say that I knew her back before she was famous. Okay, before she was super super famous. A young Indian American woman who started making youtube videos for fun and slowly got more popular. Salman Khan gave her a small role in a movie he produced, she did those youtube creator live appearance things, her profile grew bigger and bigger, and now she has her own streaming show on Hulu (I think). One of the many wonderful things about her is that she mixes in Indian references with American references with universal references. Because, why not? That is her world, if people can’t follow her thinking, that is on them.

21 thoughts on “Happy 4th of July! Let’s Talk About Indian American Movies

  1. I know this is a movie blog. However, I would love to recommend an Indian American Novel: When Dimple Met Rishi. It’s. Rom-Com novel. Think To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

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    • Oh, that has come up before! I think a bunch of the commenters mentioned reading and loving it.

      On Sat, Jul 4, 2020 at 8:56 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. A couple of small nits to pick (because I’m feeling nitpicky): It seems to me, despite all your caveats at the beginning, that you are using a rather loose definition of both “Indian” and “American.” Isn’t the guy who made “The Big Sick” actually Pakistani-American? It does make a difference to their growing up experience. And isn’t Lily Singh Indo-Canadian? I thought she started her Youtube career while living in Toronto.

    And this leads to the bigger point. How “representative” (since “representation” is a hot topic in both literature and films right now) are these characters and films of the actual “Indian American” experience? For example, when I saw American Desi, I was stuck on the fact that the lead character’s name was Something Reddy — a Telugu name — but he spoke in Hindi to his parents. Why? Well, because the actor/producer only identified Hindi with being Indian (I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even know that there are other Indian languages — many native Hindi speakers, even not born in the U.S.A., don’t), and he picked the last name “Reddy” because it was one commonly being heard around Silicon Valley in those days, and he may not even have been aware that it is a Telugu name. Now, if a non-Indian made this film, and made those kinds of mistakes, that person would be called out and reviled for not knowing the “reality” of the characters or their world. But, because it’s made by an Indian American, should he get a pass? Let me add, by the way, that he probably is representing HIS reality — many second generation people do, in fact, know very little about India or Indian culture. It could be due to rebellion when they were growing up, where they were so sick of the pressure to be “Indian” that they decided to actively pursue ignorance, or it could be because their family was already so disconnected from their “roots” that they had no reason to know any more. But, to a non-Indian watching these films to get an understanding of “the Indian American experience,” they can present a very distorted reality.

    BTW, when Mira Nair first approached Denzel Washington to act in MM, he told her that she didn’t understand what being black in the U.S. was like, so he rejected her film and told her to work on her script some more if she wants to make it. I believe she went through two or three more drafts (after doing more research on African Americans) before he found it acceptable. So yet one more instance of one cultural group working off of assumptions about another one.

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    • You are correct on both counts! And thanks I really did intend to do only Indian-American, there were a couple other examples I had on the list and pulled off because they were Canadian, or Pakistani. If this post was getting more views, I would remove The Big Sick and Lilly Singh, but since no one is really reading it, I won’t worry as much 🙂

      The reason I was so nit-picky is your second point. If the product is made by someone of Indian heritage, and the lead character is Indian-American, then it represents the Indian-American experience. Because it just does, this is the world as seen by at least one Indian American. So the flaw you point out in American Desi represents the reality as the maker saw the world, and he was Indian-American. So it might mean that (at least in that era) young Indian-Americans were less aware of the meaning behind different names, or it might mean that (at least in that era) young Indian-Americans would all speak Hindi by default. It might also simply mean that the character’s grandparents had moved from the Telugu region to a Hindi speaking region and therefore his parents were raised fluent in Hindi rather than Telugu. Or that his father was Telugu but his mother was not so Hindi was the common language of the family. It could be about how cultural boundaries indicated by names are more fluid than we think. If it was a movie made by a non-Indian American I would simply call it an error, but since it was made by an Indian-American, it accurately reflects the Indian-American experience of this one person and I can think of many reasons that might be true. And the big answer is, if these films are made by Indian-Americans, than they do represent the Indian-American experience. And for this filmmaker, the meaning of the last name “Reddy” was simply not important to his Indian American life, what was important was making larger connections with other second generation desis without regard to their specific ethnic background.

      On Sun, Jul 5, 2020 at 7:06 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. This post and the replies made me think of my experience with American desis when I bring up my Indian film hobby. Almost all of them are deeply uncomfortable. They do not want to talk about it and their reactions make it obvious that they find my interest embarrassing and that I must lack sophistication and taste. The one person who wasn’t embarrassed was a lovely man I used to work with who was from Tamil Nadu. It blew his mind that I knew Rajnikanth and Prabhudeva and AR Rehman. He did make me laugh hard though when I asked him if he was seeing the new Rajni film and he replied that he never paid to see Tamil films like hello American desi bootleg video network.

    Anyway, going back to the embarrassed American desis, I just remembered that this reaction applies even to first gen Indians. A young woman from Delhi gave me serious side-eye for wanting to talk about Indian films. It’s not just the second-gen people who have this reaction.

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    • I wonder if it is also context that makes a difference? When I was in college in the dorms, watching Indian movies was normal for both the desis and non-desis on occasion. But that was an intimate situation where people were more comfortable opening up about things than at maybe any other time, minimal embarrassment in sharing their interests. It was also a situation where different classes and communities of desis were thrown together and mixed with outsiders in a way that might not happen again for the rest of their lives. After college, all of my friends from that era have drifted away further and further into the desi community, they would be unlikely to make a connection with someone outside their community in such a way that they would feel comfortable talking movies. And in contrast, the desi friends I have made as an adult tend to be so much into the non-desi world that they see the films as old-fashioned and embarrassing.

      Hindi films in particular have such a strong class component to their fandom, if you are upper class enough to immigrate to America, and then to succeed in the white world such that you have a job and friends within it, you are unlikely to feel comfortable admitting a love for Hindi films, or more likely truly don’t enjoy watching the films because it wasn’t something your family ever did, even back in India. At least, that has been my experience.

      On Sun, Jul 5, 2020 at 9:40 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I get the same reaction and I’ve been thinking about how to understand it. Turning it around, it’s common as an American to find people from other countries have adopted some piece of American pop culture as their own, often in ways that are different from how those same pieces fit in the American context. My husband and his friends, for example, have this generational attachment to AC/DC that I find hard to understand or share, and that would be less likely to find here in people who grew up like they did, in the 80s in the inner city. Or an ex boyfriend, also Spanish, who loved John Ford and was totally enamored of that John Wayne image of masculinity, again something that would have been surprising to find here in a college student, philosophy major, at the end of the 90s. I definitely was not interested in watching or discussing John Ford movies with him except to the degree that I could dissect them from a feminist or historical perspective, while he just liked watching them for enjoyment. Sorry this is getting long, I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s easier to understand from within my own pop culture context how we use taste as an identity marker, and when people come into the conversation from outside the context where that art was created, they’re not responding to it or using it in the same way. And to the degree that those identity markers are important to your understanding of yourself, it can be maybe weird and unwelcome to have outsiders with their unbounded enthusiasm come at you looking to engage (speaking as that enthusiastic outsider too).

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      • Yes, all of that makes sense to me. There was a fearlessness to my college interactions because we were all so young and still finding ourselves and no one had any preconceived notions. Like, no pre-conceived notions that a white person might make fun of Indian film or take it the wrong way, or that liking Indian films yourself says something about who you are, or any of that. But that gets worn away as you grow up and you build up protections around what popular culture means to you and who you want to share it with.

        In my personal experience, I have had only awkward cautious interactions with desis in casual environments. But when we have a chance to sit down and really talk, the pressure eases up as there becomes an awareness that I really do just like the movies, no judgement, and I want to hear what they think and enjoy and just talk. Of course, sometimes that no pressure conversation also reveals that the person I am talking to truly does not enjoy or care about the films themselves and finds my passion for them a bit tiresome. But it takes time, and trust, and it’s pretty rare that there is a situation where I can develop that outside of the little hotbox of college dorms.

        On Sun, Jul 5, 2020 at 11:38 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. This is a very very interesting discussion! I had some words with various people online about Never Have I Ever as I insisted that any story told by Desis is a Desi story. I saw a well-known author and book critic proudly say that she would not discuss NHIE as it was an affront to her as a Muslim, as someone with disabilities, and silenced her voice. I was like, if you want YOUR story told, tell it yourself! And we won’t tell you that your story isn’t a Desi one. It is because YOU’RE DESI. My story isn’t the same as Devi’s in NHIE but if I want my story told I’ll tell it and it’ll be a Desi story.

    Like Alisa, I get a lot of looks when I tell people my very deep involvement in Indian film and culture. I am frequently in the position of feeling like I have to explain myself…and I AM Desi. But am I less Desi because I have one Indian parent instead of 2? That’s going to be a lot of the next gen of Indian Americans.

    I keep using Katrina Kaif as my example. I’m probably technically more Indian than she is. I look more Indian than she does. But why don’t we each get to define ourselves the way we want? And am I seen as appropriating a culture that is actually mine? Is Katrina? Who cares?!?? I’m flattered when someone is excited about something from my culture. It gives us a bridge to understand each other.

    Not every American loves American film. So it seems reasonable that not every Desi will love Indian film. But it’s always odd to me that some people who do can’t connect with non-Desis about it. I think Margaret’s right about how essentially how for second gen and Desis who have come here, Bollywood represents the culture they want to (at least partially) assimilate out of. I’m not sure that sentence made sense.

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    • The debate over what makes a truly Indian-American story is so interesting to me, because that same debate happens in every minority community. What is a “true” Black story, or a “true” Deaf story? Or even, what is a “true” rape survivor story? Whatever story is yours, is true. Because it is yours and this is who you are. And yet the same debate comes up again and again, in every community, without seemingly an awareness that every community is having the same battle. Which is why I find these examples of art so important. They are people telling their own stories, there is nothing more true than that. If you want to learn about America, watch American stories, this is who they are each with their own experiences.

      Just to throw in my own experience with appropriation, I’ve had an odd experience of people anticipating that I am more into the culture as a whole, that I identify with it, than is true. Because appropriation is easier to deal with, 100% adoration for the food and the religion and the clothes and the history. Knowing a lot about the culture without loving all of it or identifying with it particularly is more confusing. Sometimes it is a critical response to anticipated appropriation, but more often it is hopeful. Someone who just likes the idea of someone from the outside liking their culture, and being interested in sharing every part of it. And then I have to disappoint them and admit I’m not interested in cooking, or clothes, and my relationship with the religion and culture is more from a critical distance than being a “fan”.

      Your last sentence makes sense to me! You want to be seen as more than just “the Indian one”, you want an identity beyond your culture, so you resist having those conversations and struggle to be seen as a full person with other interests.

      On Sun, Jul 5, 2020 at 12:01 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Not a part of any movie or an actor or anything, but Deepika Mutalya (Indian-American, Telugu) is great! She has her own YouTube beauty/vlog channel and has her own business Tinted which now sells lipsticks that work for all skin shades and as rouge and eyeshadow as well. She doesn’t have that many subscribers, but she deserves more and she is just so positive so I am just sharing her here. Her vlogs, especially about a photoshoot or anything about her family are very enjoyable.

    This is my favourite, but I am something of a wedding enthusiast so no surprise:

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    • Yaaaay! Positive people telling their stories! There is always space for that.

      On Sun, Jul 5, 2020 at 2:36 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I watched the whole video and the dresses, the hotel, the makeup, the funny comments, the family relationships, all wonderful! But woo they must have some serious money because that was a $100K wedding, easily.

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      • Yea they are rich, but not in a bad way. Appearently they made some good investments and saved a lot of money thoguh the years, which means why they have so much now. They remind me of the families in HAHK – rich, but not snobby and very loving towards each other and still very down to earth.

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  6. Adivi Sesh (Kshanam, Gudhachari) is technically an Indian-American, although born in India, brought up completely in the US. He directed a film on his own in the US – casting Americans too, before trying his luck in Hyderabad.

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  7. Flavors – made by Raj-Krishna (directors of A Gentleman) – very few know they are of Telugu orign – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flavors_(film)

    Some Telugu movies/series set up in the US, acted/produced/directed by Indian Americans or NRIs –
    1. Padamati Sandhyaragam – I know this is mentioned multiple times both by me and others – Except the heroine, the director and one of the persons loving the heroine – all are US settled Indians. Movie is about an Indian orthodox family moving to the US – father not able to settle, a White and a Black trying to woo the girl, girl falling in love with the White and eloping – the conflicts of cultures. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Padamati_Sandhya_Ragam
    2. Vennela – made by a NRI director, Deva Katta (director of Prasthanam) – lives of Telugus coming to an US university for studying. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vennela

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  8. This post made me a few different things. Here they are in no particular order:

    – The problem with Never Have I Ever is that it tells Mindy’s story but it transposes it to a time period almost one generation later. Mindy is almost exactly my age. The Mindy surrogate in the show is almost young enough to be Mindy’s daughter. The thing that really bothered me about the show is that it does huge disservice to Indian immigrant women my age by making the main character’s mother behave in ways that I have never seen an educated Indian woman in her 40s behave. Nobody is going around yelling about books getting blessed by priests or unironically pushing their cousins into an arranged marriage or getting scandalized if their teenage daughter talks to a boy. Mindy is taking the behavior of someone her mother’s age and putting it on a woman her own age. Has Mindy never actually met an Indian woman her own age? I really wish the show was set in the 80s or 90s like The Goldbergs or Fresh Off The Boat. I am already tired of non Indian filmmakers stereotyping Indian women. When an Indian American woman does it, the stereotypes become all the more entrenched.

    – The thing that I most remember about Mississippi Masala is that she identifies as a Ugandan first and an Indian American second. There is a shared history of colonialism between the two characters (and Denzel’s brother) where the Afraican American knows nothing about Africa while the woman who is considered Indian thinks of herself as African. It captures the identity crisis of the children of a diaspora (not just Indian, but any diaspora) in a way that a lot of other movies don’t.

    – A few other commenters have mentioned how Indians act snobbish and don’t really like to talk to a white person about Indian movies. Speaking as someone from the other side, for every American like you who really knows Indian movies, I have met 50 Americans who don’t know much about Indian movies beyond having watched K3G with their college roommate. I don’t really want to have that conversation again. I love Indian movies but unless evidence to the contrary, I assume that any white person talking to me about “Bollywood” knows very little about Indian movies and is eventually going to say something insulting and racist. This also goes for a lot of Indian Americans who often act like Indian movies is beneath them.

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    • -That is a fascinating commentary on Never Have I Ever!!!! It makes complete sense to me, I understand exactly what you mean. And I suspect it is about more than just the mother character, the life of a desi teenager in modern America is different from the 90s in thousands of ways, and not reflecting that change has meaning. I’ve heard similar complaints about Kim’s Convenience (which I love), that it is reflecting the story of the author who is a generation above his characters, and a lot of what he is showing simply doesn’t exist any more, not just character traits but things like inner city Korean Christian Churches. I would say that I am sure there are still Indian American parents who do what you are describing, but not exactly the same as these parents. Like, they might be of a different education level, or from a different cultural background within India, and so on and so forth. But the parents of today who would be the equivalent of Mindy’s parents in the 90s, would not act like that. I only mention it because I am sure if you say “no Indian mother would do —-“, there’s going to be someone who says “well, my mother who had an arranged marriage with my father and arrived in America not speaking English, and also we are from a very small tight knit minority ethnic group within India,etc. etc. etc., does act like that.” But that mother they are describing is not the mother character Mindy is showing.

      -Thank you, I hadn’t heard of that part of Mississippi Masala. One of my roommates in college came to America by way of Kenya, which I found fascinating. But in her case, she identified primarily as Indian (where she lived until she was 6 or 7) and American (where she lived since she was 12). Kenya was just a waystation between India and America, not a big part of her identity.

      -I hope we didn’t come off as saying “snobbish”, more just not interested. With a conclusion that the person we are talking to either is not interested in the films at all, or is not comfortable talking about them with an outsider. What you say matches what I mostly experience, it’s pointless to even bring up the films in a casual conversation, but if there is the time and space to really talk, then I will bring it up. A short conversation feels like I am showing off, like I want to check off the box of “see, I know about your culture, I watched a movie once”. A long conversation is more of a “no, I am sincerely fascinated with these films and will talk about anything you care to discuss”. Actually, my worry at this point is that I start to feel like I am lying because I put off bringing up films for so long. Like, I will be having a pleasant conversation in a group about this and that and the desi person will mention something related to films, and I don’t want to interrupt the flow by saying “actually, I studied Indian films in grad school”, so I just let it go, and then half an hour later it’s turned into the desi person explaining the plot of DDLJ to the group and I feel like a hypocrite for sitting there nodding along as though this is new to me. It’s a tricky balance.

      On Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 8:01 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • – Definitely agree with you that it’s less that no Indian woman my age would ever say that and more no Indian woman from the socio-economic background and experiences portrayed in that show would say that. I have also spoken to my niece and daughters of some friends who were all born in the US/Western Europe to Indian parents and are now teenagers about this show. They do not identify with it because it is nothing like their experiences growing up. Weirdly enough, they identify more with Tabu’s daughter in The Namesake, which actually is a story from one generation ago.

        – I saw Mississippi Masala while still living in India almost 20 years ago and I still clearly remember a scene where the younger brother of Denzel’s character is completely in awe of the fact that she knows Africa. And he says something about how he wished he knew more about Africa. They kind of bond over the fact that she barely knows anything about India. Until that moment I had never actually considered this part of the African American experience.

        – I know what you mean about being too late to divulge your knowledge of something you are not expected to know. I speak fairly fluent French at this point. There are a lot of French speakers at my workplace but they all speak to me (and other non French speakers) in English. There have been a couple instances where they are speaking French to each other around me and I am fairly sure that the conversation is not meant for my ears. I have to quickly figure out a way to let them know that I can actually understand them.

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        • I have to admit I’ve never seen Mississippi Masala, but that connection sounds fascinating.

          Yes, that experience you have at the office is exactly what it feels like! I don’t want to claim I am “fluent” in Indian culture, like I was born to it, but I do know more than would be expected and it’s not really fair for me to “eavesdrop” on a conversation without you realizing I understand more than you are expected to know.

          On Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 11:20 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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