The Problem with Apu (2017) starring Hari Kondabolu

Last WED night, Hari Kondabolu was in DC (Baird Auditorium at The Smithsonian Natural History Museum) to discuss his first documentary film w/ NPR reporter Elizabeth Blair and a diverse audience (which included MANY South Asian immigrants and 1st gen adults in their 20s-40s). This was a free event; I signed up 2 weeks ahead of time (and got a kick out of seeing /chatting w/ MANY familiar faces attending). This film is NOT only funny, it’s smart and thought-provoking (delving into issue of South Asian representation in the media). You can watch this film on truTV  tonight (SUN, 11/19). 

So, what’s the big deal re: Apu here? Well, he’s a stereotype of an immigrant Indian man who runs a convenience store, and voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria, who refused to appear in the film). The Simpsons is a nearly 30 y.o show on the FOX network which is watched/loved by millions. As Maryland-raised actor/musician Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect; The Mindy Project) summed it up: “The problem is- we didn’t have any other type of representation.” Hari interviewed MANY people incl: his parents, Aziz Ansari (Master of None), Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Hasan Minhaj (Homecoming King), Aasif Mandvi (best known from The Daily Show), Maulik Pancholy (Star Trek: Discovery),  Aparna Nancherla (stand-up comic/actor/writer from Virginia), Sakina Jaffrey (House of Cards), Noureen DeWulf (Anger Management), Dr. Vivek Murthy (former Surgeon General under Pres. Obama), W. Kamau Bell (Hari’s friend/collaborator on various projects), Dana Gould (a producer of The Simpsons) and Hollywood trail-brazer Whoopi Goldberg (who speaks on America’s minstrel era, featuring “blackface”).

The audience was laughing all through the film. They were pleasantly surprised to see Whoopi and Dr. Murthy (a trailblazer in his own right). I esp. enjoyed the Q&A afterwards; Hari mentioned his idea for a future doc- focusing on Bengali filmmaker Satyjit Ray. 

Watch the trailer for The Problem with Apu below:




Beyond Bollywood International Film Festival

Meet the Patels (2014)

MeetThePatelsPosterThis documentary from LA-based brother-sister team, Ravi (actor/main subject) and Geeta (director) Patel, is scary relatable for desi (and other singles) all over the US!  When he turned 30 a few years ago, first gen Indian-American Ravi (who’d had only one real relationship with a white woman) agreed to try the traditional Indian way of finding a wife; this (of course) brought joy to his mother and father in North Carolina.  Geeta, his older sis, came along to film the experience. 

The family went off to the Punjab region of India to look at eligible single ladies (fellow Patels); Ravi felt odd about the scenario.  However, he also admitted that he loved the way he grew up- with a strong sense of pride in being a Patel and having an extensive community; he wanted that for his future.  After the trip to India (doesn’t work for him), Ravi says he’ll accept arranged introductions to women born/raised in the U.S.  He also attends a large marriage conference (for singles of the Patel community in the U.S.); it looks very similar to ISNA. 

We learn that as tough as it is for Ravi, Geeta went though the same situations (she thinks she’s had 200 arranged dates since age 20- wow!)  The true stars if the doc are the parents- Champa (mom) and Vasant (dad), who proclaims that being single is akin to being a “loser.”  But they are no stereotype- they are loving/caring/thoughtful parents who want their kids to be happy… and someday soon give them grandchildren.  In the end, Ravi does find his match, but she’s not who you’d expect!  This film is laugh-out-loud hilarious; my friends and I all thought so.

Brahmin Bulls (2013)

brahmin-bullsThis is a powerful (yet subtle) film from a husband-wife team (Indian-Americans) who are friends of the lead actor (Sendhil Ramamurthy from Heroes fame; he is American with South Indian roots).  Director/writer Mahesh Pailoor and Ramamurthy have known each other since undergrad; this role was written for the actor.  The focus is on the strained/distant relationship between 30-something L.A. architect, Sid Sharma (Ramamurthy) and his professor father, Ash (internationally-acclaimed Indian veteran actor, Roshan Seth).  Mary Steenburgen has a crucial role in the film, too.  Wow, what cast!  (By the way, if you’re a fan of tennis, you’ll especially enjoy this film.  Ramamurthy had a scholarship in undergrad, he said in a post-show panel interview).

When Ash drops in from Boston to attend a conference in LA. (you’ll discover the reason why), Sid is very taken aback.  He’s going through a transition in his marriage and at work, and doesn’t feel comfortable having the old man around in his house.  Both men are brooding, charming, intelligent, but also quite stubborn; this is the making for great dramatic conflict.  However, they have more in common than you’d expect!  My friends said they liked the movie a lot, as did I.


A documentary re: Bangladesh

Today I saw a documentary film (along with few new friends of mine) at Busboys & Poets (5th & K sts branch).  This event was sponsored by Drishtipat DC, one branch of a non-profit organization that promotes Bangladeshi culture.  This docu (which will be part of a trilogy about Bangladesh) was very timely, informative, and thought-provoking.

“Portrait of Jihad”, the latest documentary by renowned filmmaker, Shahriar Kabir, depicts the advent of Islamic militancy in secular Bangladesh. In this expose, he interviews members of Harkatul Jihad and other militant groups and unmasks their involvement with state machinaries.

Now, some of you may feel fundamentalism is not very common in Bangladesh.  That’s a big problem in Pakistan, you have heard.   But come on, the mainstream media rarely discusses Bangladesh!  Shahriar Kabir interviewed several young Bangladeshi men (in their 20s and 30s) who have travelled to places like Bosnia and Libya to train or carry out acts of terror.  A few allowed their faces to be seen; others’ faces were hidden under sunglasses, veils, or shadows.

Over the past 10 years or so, I have heard many comments about Bangladesh becoming “more conservative” and “less friendly” from former students, relatives, and friends.  These folks hail from different backgrounds and visited different regions within the country.  One of my old college friends (who was born/raised in BD) commented that when she went to her ancestral village (in 2002), the ladies in her family “had to cover up more.”  Otherwise, they’d get “long/mean stares” from some locals.   Not everyone , she added, but some young men noticebaly disapproved.

After the film, the audience got to ask the director, Shahriar Kabir, questions related to the film.  Kabir, a  soft-spoken man in his 60s, has screened this film in several universities in the NY/NJ area, and will be traveling to Houston tomorrow.  Portrait of Jihad will be edited because some material needs to be cleared up and a few subtitles are not correct, Kabir said.    

There are some people (expatriots) who don’t want to admit anything is wrong with their country of origin/birth/youth.  They see “the old country” as a faraway dream-world where nothing changes.  Since many left decades ago, their vision of their homeland is not very realistic.   People are simple, pure/honest, and in freeze-frame.  This is not true, of course.

When our van got a flat tire on the way from Chittagong to Cox’s Bazaar, we got out to see the  scenery of a little village while an uncle and his driver went to buy a spare tire.  We met a young man and little boy (who looked less than 12 y.o.) selling tea and snacks by the road.  An aunt asked the boy (she can speak the Chittagong dialect) why he wasn’t in school.  He matter-of-factly said that he’d gone to school until the 5th grade, but now there was none for him to attend (except the local madrassa school).  His parents didn’t want him to go to that school (probably because they knew he wouldn’t learn anything useful there).  Or perhaps they feared negative religious influences?

In madrassas (as some of you may know), the focus is on reciting and memorizing the Koran.  This is not necessarily a negative thing, and all madrassas are not connected to fundamentalism, extremism, or terrorism.   But the kids who attend these schools are not learning a skill or trade to get a job in the real world.  The people who run these schools fail to see the plain truth- not all kids can become scholars!  Even in the US, it’s very difficult to become a scholar (get a PhD, become a full professor, publish articles, etc.)  A very small percentage of the boys in madrassas will be able to get scholarships for further study (college).  But what will happen to the others?  What will be their future?

Bangladesh 391

From Wikipedia:

Shahriar Kabir is a Bangladeshi journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist. He is the author of more than 70 books focusing on human rights, communalism, fundamentalism, history, and the Bangladesh war of independence. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his contribution to Bengali literature. Shahriar Kabir has been imprisoned twice for protesting against government-sponsored minority persecution and was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.