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:

 

 

 

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Mudbound (2017) starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, & Mary J. Blige

NOTE: This review contains MILD spoilers for the film (which opens in theaters on NOV 17th).

I was lucky enough to attend a pre-screening of this film (produced by Netflix Studios) at Landmark E St in DC last week. I ran into two friends/movie fans there; we ALL liked it (though it contains some dark, gritty, and violent moments). It will stay in your mind for some time, no doubt. The director is Dee Rees, an openly gay African-American woman, who made the critical indie coming-of-age drama, Pariah. (I read about this film, BUT haven’t seen yet.) At Sundance, Mudbound received a standing ovation. 

The story is one part fiction (based on a novel w/ a white female protagonist) and one part fact (based on real events in the life of a black family). In the hands of another screenwriter, two different films would’ve been made from this material- one focusing on genteel/educated Tennessee spinster turned wife/mother, Laura McAllan (British actress Carey Mulligan) and her straight-talking/stubborn husband, Henry (Jason Clarke, an Aussie); the other on the African-American family farming part of the McAllan’s ancestral land in Mississippi, headed by Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife, Florence, Mary J. Blige (the R&B singer). What ties these two threads together is the unlikely (and potentially dangerous) friendship between Laura’s charming/handsome brother-in-law, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, giving a strong/layered performance), and the Jackson’s eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, a fresh/compelling young actor recently in Straight Outta Compton).

Both Jamie and Ronsel, though of different ages and races, are WWII vets suffering through symptoms of PTSD after returning home to rural America. Jamie takes to drinking and wasting time, which greatly disappoints Henry, the responsible older brother and family man. Laura has strong feelings for Jamie, though she has long repressed them. Unlike his father, Ronsel can’t quietly acquiesce to the white people in town (whether it be Henry, his blatantly racist father- Pappy, shop owners, or even the sheriff). Hap and Florence worry about their son, who quietly seethes upon realizing the (very limited) role he will have as an adult black man in the segregated South. 

Watch the trailer for the film here:

The Big Sick (2017) starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, & Ray Romano

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the movie (now in wide release).

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The amazing part of this movie is that it deals with deeply serious complex issues, but does so with humor and grace. The screenplay is remarkable and nuanced…

The screenplay for this quirky, clever, and (sometimes) emotional rom com was written by its Pakistani immigrant lead actor (Kumail Nanjiani from Silicon Valley) and his American-born wife (Emily V. Gordon); it is based (partly) on their real-life love story. Emily is played by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the famed director, Elia Kazan); her character falls into a coma mid-way through the movie. Kumail’s love of video games and admiration of Hugh Grant (esp. his hairstyle) are noted; he mentioned these points in various interviews. This is NOT the typical rom com (thank goodness!)- it’s a LOT more realistic (“awkward” is a term used in promos), it includes people of color (POC), and is easy to relate to (esp. for second-generation desis and/or Muslims). 

Veteran actors, Holly Hunter (who I really enjoy watching) and Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) play Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry. Kumail’s father is played by a veteran Bollywood comedian, Anupam Kher, who also played the patriarch on the British film Bend it Like Beckham; he acts in both Hindi and English. Kumail’s friends from the comedy world get rather meaty roles for this genre; they are Aidy Bryant (SNL), Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunholer. Fans of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore may recognize Indian-born model-turned-actress, Shenaz Treasury, who plays Fatima, Kumail’s sister-in-law. 

One may be tempted to say Kumail’s family are the antagonists of the story. This might be true if one is trying to parse out this or that or the other with the characters, but this is over-simplification. They are an obstacle for Kumail, but really his biggest enemy is himself, how he views what his family has put on him, what his own culture has done to his mind, and at the same time reconciling with being a modern American given all the relative opportunities everyone else has. 

In the break-up scene, Kumail declares: “I’m fighting over 1,400 years of tradition! You were just ugly in high school!” after Emily finds the cigar box filled w/ pics of eligible women. Yes, indeed he is fighting something (baggage, anyone?)- he doesn’t believe in Islam (pretends to pray in his parents’ basement), drinks alcohol (a no-no for devout Muslims), and is hiding his relationship from his family (NOT healthy). I think that ALL of us in the desi diaspora have family, friends, or everyday acquaintances who have gone through something like this! Jhumpa Lahiri (who is an Indian-American/Hindu) wrote about some of the same themes in The Namesake; the film (which contains some Bengali language- cool) was quite good also. 

The tonal shifts might seem extreme at first, but they gradually cement a powerful narrative that makes for a lot of laughs, but also becomes bittersweet and endearing without resorting to a hint of sentimentality.

Now, a few of you may have read the criticism re: how “brown women” are portrayed in this film; I scanned over 3 opinion pieces so far. I was worried about this (before I saw it), however, a desi woman could NOT be the lead of this story b/c it was re: Kumail’s life. It’s obvious that Fatima and Naveed, Kumail’s older brother, have a loving relationship (which was arranged). Also, the single women who come to dinner are ALL of different looks and personalities, from a curvy Pakistani sci fi nerd, an American-raised waif (who speaks Urdu), and Khadija (Vela Lovell- who is Caucasian and Indian in reality). This American actress is part of the ensemble cast on CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a quirky comedy where she plays the slacker neighbor of Rebecca, the lead character. In an alternate world, Khadija and Kumail could have worked (as they have some chemistry), BUT he was already deeply in love w/ Emily. Are there stereotypes in this film? Yes, there are some present, BUT there are also subtle touches (where MOST of the characters are humanized).

Sure, there needs to be stories of desis/Muslims getting together, BUT we need artists to write those tales, funds to produce, and an audience which will be receptive to such stories. Remember that NOT all American desis (yes, even those here for decades) approve of dating and “love marriage.” Sometimes the singles (as adults, of course) need to find the inner strength to go after the type of relationship that they want and maintain it, even in times of adversity. Arranged marriage is NOT guaranteed to be a succes, BUT love doesn’t always last forever either. Let’s write our own stories OR support creative types from communities of color (NOT just our own)! Dwelling solely on negativity gets us nowhere.