Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center to Nov. 25
Like the young Indo-British soccer fanatic of Bend It Like Beckham, the central character of American Chai has two problems: his parents. The theme of a young person of Indian descent oppressed by tradition, however, is about all writer-director Anurag Mehta’s low-budget debut shares with that formulaic but endearingly spirited international hit. Awkwardly scripted and amateurishly performed, American Chai is a well-meaning dud. A New Jersey college student who lives near but not with Mom and Dad, Sureel (Aalok Mehta, the director’s younger brother) has achieved some independence. The price he pays is continual deception: Sureel’s overbearing father (Paresh Rawal) thinks his son is about to graduate with a pre-med degree, but in fact the kid’s a music major who plays in a lame rap-rock band, Fathead. When Sureel is booted from the group for lack of dedication, his fickle white girlfriend, Jen (Jamie Hurley), switches her allegiance to a guy who’s still in Fathead. The sting of these rejections lasts about a minute, because Sureel immediately spots his true soul mate, Maya (Sheetal Sheeth), a fellow student and aspiring dancer who’s nicer and prettier than Jen, and Indian to boot. (The only thing she lacks is a personality.) Sureel and his pal Toby (Josh Ackerman), the movie’s token decent white guy, soon start a new, multiculti group: American Chai, which is a sort of Indian-infused Dave Matthews Band, but even worse than that description suggests. (Aalok Mehta, a musician in real life, wrote some of the forgettable score.) A series of contrived crises threaten to separate Sureel from Maya, Sureel from his parents, and Toby from his Indian paramour (Reena Shah), but it’s impossible to care: This is the sort of movie that passes off stale campus-pub chatter as wit and imagines that petty squabbles are dramatic developments. “Don’t be limited by your past,” sings Sureel in his big number, but American Chai embraces every cliché of the Indians-in-America culture-clash flick, right down to the shoddy mock-Bollywood song-and-dance number. Mark Jenkins