Indian American Sureel (Aalok Mehta) leads a secret life, pretending to be a pre-med student when, in reality, he has spent four years in college pursuing music. The deception is all for the benefit of his intractably traditional father (Paresh Rawal), who wants to dictate his entire life, from future career to arranged wife. Sureel falls in love with dance student Maya (Sheetal Sheth), who's a lovely exception to his erstwhile white-girl rule. Despite the obstructions created by their backgrounds and families, these two are determined to make real their dreams.
"It's an Indian Jazz Singer," an estimable colleague hissed into my ear, and that pretty much nails American Chai. Writer-director Anurag Mehta is obviously compassionate about this tale of cultures and generations clashing. It opens on a comic high, with Sureel describing the bizarreness of his childhood as the only Indian boy in a New Jersey suburb and his humorously combative relationship with Dad. (Rawal has some laugh-out-loud moments as this most humorless and bigoted of patriarchs, and is the best thing in the film. Bharti Desai, as Mom, is a funny, querulously obedient match for him.) There are piquant observations about traditional Indian sexual modesty and Bollywood films (with their ubiquitous musical numbers). But, largely due to some script weaknesses and the casting of the director's brother, the film trails off into inconsequentiality. Aalok Mehta is competent and has a (very) low-key appeal, but lacks a real performer's drive and temperament to make you truly identify with Sureel. He only comes alive in those moments when he's singing (and the songs, which he wrote, are often good folk-tinged rock). But there are too many dewy moments and conversations between him and Maya, in which they actually say things like "I want to make real my dreams," and related, ingenuous corn. However, it's a sweet affair, all right, with the two staring at each other with matching huge eyes, rather like adorable cartoon forest creatures. Sheth, with her unjustly luxuriant eyelashes and graceful dancing, is as lovely a female presence as any on the screen today. Aasif Mandvi brings quirky, downtown comic skills to the role of a goofy friend, which is a welcome contrast to the gross Middle Eastern racial caricature he plays in the current Broadway revival of Oklahoma!.