The Hollywood Reporter
By KIRK HONEYCUTT
Ever since “My Beautiful Laundrette,” a fascinating subgenre has emerged in British movies that deal with immigrants from the Indian subcontinent living in the West, where they get caught up in confusing crosscurrents of cultural, religious and ethnic differences. Films such as “East Is East,” “My Son the Fanatic” and “Bhaji on the Beach” have with wit and compassion explored the struggle for identity by such newcomers, especially young people, living in the United Kingdom. What has been missing on movie screens until now, though, has been a depiction of this cultural displacement in the New World.
Krutin Patel’s “ABCD” is the ground-breaker. Independently produced on the East Coast on what clearly was a tight budget, the film already has played in several festivals including the recent Asian American International Film Festival in New York. Reminiscent of early films by Wayne Wang and Ang Lee, “ABCD” should win enthusiastic fans in specialty venues.
Patel is an NYU film grad and Indian-born filmmaker who emigrated to the United States at age 8. In “ABCD,” he has crafted a wryly observant comic drama about a conservative Hindu widow and her grown, assimilated children, a film that reminds us that our country is less of a cultural melting pot than a crazily tossed salad.
The title refers to American Born Confused Desi, a popular expression among Indians raised in the States. The focus is on a sister and her older brother, and one of the very best things about this film is that it captures the special understanding, tolerance and tightly woven bond that can occur between siblings.
No matter how badly each screws up, Nina and Raj are there for each other in their battles not only with the world but their beloved but increasingly disconnected mother Anju (played by none other than the grande dame of Indian acting, Madhur Jaffrey).
Anju lives in an unblemished New Jersey suburb, where she putters in her kitchen making delicious samosas and pakoras and holding long conversations about their children with her late husband. She now questions the wisdom of ever coming to America and despairs over the unmarried state of her children, who live in Manhattan.
Nina (the breathtakingly beautiful Sheetal Sheth) so resents Indian culture that she dates only white Americans. On the other hand, Raj (the equally handsome Faran Tahir) has agreed to an arranged marriage — albeit American style with a protracted engagement that has stretched to two years and premarital bedroom privileges.
Anju contrives to reintroduce her daughter to a childhood friend from Bombay, Ashok (Aasif Mandvi, whose brilliant one-man show, “Sakina’s Restaurant,” wowed critics in Los Angeles and New York). While fresh off the boat, Ashok nevertheless has a refreshingly candid sense of humor and an emotional directness Nina never encounters in her white boys. But he also reminds her of her origins, which don’t jibe with the all-American bar girl image she hides behind.
Raj, an accountant caught up in office politics, realizes he doesn’t love his sweet, well-meaning fiancee. But he is resigned to their eventual marriage until he meets an attractive co-worker who ignites a fire within him he thought long ago extinguished. But Raj deliberately doesn’t pursue a relationship out of respect for both women, a gesture that, in all probability, neither woman ultimately appreciates.
Patel, who co-wrote the script (with James Ambrose) and directed, has developed a story that springs out of a specific cultural situation yet stands on its own as an engaging portrait of people caught up in the hurly-burly of modern urban life.
The film ends on an epiphany that underscores the “confused” in the ABCD acronym. Decisions have been made by both siblings, yet each is left to wonder if the choices are right.
Deirdre Broderick’s music combines Indian and Western flavors where the piano and sitar coexist quite nicely. And cinematographer Milton Kam and designer Deborah Schreier play these immigrant blues against a backdrop of an antiseptic East Coast that seems intent on denying the existence of any ethnicity.