Dir: Manish Acharya India/USA 2007. 88mins.
A mostly hilarious screwball comedy set around a New York talent contest for expat Indians - or 'desis' - Loins of Punjab Presents has an infectious energy that makes up for the occasional lapse into self-indulgent cliche. With its wacky ensemble cast and its affectionately satirical mood it feels a little like an Indian version of a Christopher Guest mockumentary.
Though chiefly aimed at the same NRI (non-resident Indian) audiences that it satirises, Loins of Punjab Presents has already shown that it has legs in India itself - where it ran for seven-weeks this autumn on a respectable (for a non-Bollywood film) urban platform release of around 85 screens. Upbeat reactions from the non-desi portion of festival audiences (recently, Dubai) suggest that Manish Acharya's debut also possesses a certain crossover potential. It may not quite have the heft for theatrical distribution outside of the usual diaspora network of screens (where occasional strong language will scare off the family sector), but TV programmers with ethnic or international remits should certainly take a look.
The 'loins' of the title is not a typo: it refers to pork loins, the speciality product of an ex-pat Indian company which has decided to sponsor a Desi Idol talent contest in New Jersey with a $25,000 top prize. We're introduced to seven of the aspiring contestants through a combination of fake interviews and more conventional exposition; comic on-screen captions are also used sparingly, and effectively, to expose the subtext behind a scene or comment.
Among the aspiring Desi Idols are a gay bhangra rapper, a security guard who was made redundant because his name happens to be Saddam Hussein a wicked-stepmother philanthropist who is determined to win at all costs, a sweet but inwardly tough teenage girl called Preeti Patel whose extended Gujurati family turn out in matching t-shirts to cheer her on, and Josh Cohen, a Jewish American who has nothing desi about him except his love of Bollywood film songs, which he learns phonetically.
The cast includes some faces that will be familiar to followers of Indian cinema: among them veteran Indian arthouse actress and social activist Shabana Azmi, who is nicely nasty as Mrs Rrita Kapoor, the scheming philanthropist; and British Indian actress Ayesha Dharker (The Terrorist, Anita and Me), who plays Josh's desi-sceptic girlfriend Opama. Director Acharya plays a futures analyst whose job has just been outsourced to India.
Curiously, it's the film's climax that falls most flat, as sentimental old-country patriotism takes over from the often mordant satire of the run-up. Visually, too, the film is a little uneven: the camera never seems to make up its mind whether it wants to respect the handheld mockumentary code or just make a regular comedy feature.
But Acharya and co-scriptwriter Anuvab Pal have a great sense of comic timing, an obvious affection for their characters, and some good gags (only a handful of which are desi in-jokes). It's refreshing, finally, to see a light-hearted desi movie that takes its distance both from the Bollywood stereotypes and the worthy approach of diaspora dramas like The Namesake or Praying with Anger.
Production companies/backers/world sales
The Riese Organization
Horn OK Please Entertainment