REVIEW: Director Abi Varghese comes up with another winner after ‘Akkara Kazhchakal’.
NEW YORK: The utterance of the word ‘Hindu’ by Donald Trump apart, and Kal Penn’s humorous revelations through his character Kumar, of high expectations that weigh upon Indian American youth, in the ‘Harold and Kumar’ franchise, popular mainstream exposure to desi life in America has come mostly through routines by stand-ups like Aasif Mandvi, Russell Peters, Aziz Ansari, and Dan Nainan. Of course, writers like Akhil Sharma and Jhumpa Lahiri have contributed immensely to educating the masses of Indian identity and values.
For most Americans, the word ‘Indians’ usually brings to mind a community full of IT professionals, software geeks, doctors, cabbies, nurses, and moteliers – depending on the city you live in – all with one seemingly zealous common goal: to nurture super smart kids who would go on to win every academic competition there is, including the Spelling Bee, Geography Bee and Jeopardy!
And of course, love for spicy food and seemingly weird festivals, which involves among others, dancing with sticks in hand on the streets of New Jersey, and celebrating Independence Day with a parade in New York City, more than a month after the fireworks are done with on July 4th.
So, if one were to try get into a Caucasian or Black American’s brain and fathom as to what goes on inside a normal Indian household in the US, it might not be too incorrect to say that all they can see like on an Imax theater screen, are, kids studying diligently without complaint for hours the moment they step inside the house, moms cooking fervently to come up with the spiciest dish of the week (after they have removed their work clothes), and dads catching up on work from office, till midnight. The consensus analysis, with a sad shake of the head, might be: Zero Life Community.
And of course, the image of ‘India’ itself conjures up for most Americans hordes of IT-trained men and women on guard at airports, wanting to emigrate at a moment’s notice on an H-1B visa to snatch every job available in America, and call centers that perfect fake accents, popularized by the film ‘Outsourced’, which itself got adapted for television with the same title, and ran for a season.
‘Brown Nation’ on Netflix – a 10-episode comedy sitcom on Netflix in its debut season – thus, comes as a huge relief. With a catch though. The series is definitely a hilarious watch for the South Asian community, a laugh out loud comedy with some superb characters, who are slowly fleshed out. But perhaps, not so much rollicking fun for mainstream America, who may struggle to understand not only the heavy accent of some of the characters in ‘Brown Nation’, but would flounder in the face of cultural innuendos and references that the series throws up – especially from Bollywood – and may not be totally attuned to the type of slapstick humor that Indians love to revel in.
‘Brown Nation’ revolves around the lives of Hasmukh (Rajeev Varma), an immigrant from Gujarat who got schooled in New Zealand, who runs a small foundering IT company with big ambitions, based in Queens, New York, and his artistic wife Dimple (Shenaz Treasurywala). They live with Dimple’s father (Kapil Bawa), an acerbic man who has been visiting from India for more than 9 months, and doesn’t get along with his son-in-law, but loves a dog despised by Hasmukh.
Hyder (Remy Munasifi), a Middle Eastern street savvy man who is Hasmukh’s best friend with a penchant for trying out numerous small businesses, with a side kick in Lemont (Doug E. Doug), and his beautiful girlfriend Samantha (Sana Serrai) who is a flight attendant, are other major characters. In Hasmukh’s office are a bevy of other interesting characters, played by, among others, the talented Omi Vaidya (of ‘3 Idiots’ fame), the lovely Melanie Chandra, the former Miss India America 2007, and British actor Jaspal Binning.
For Malayalee immigrants, some of the episodes in ‘Brown Nation’ will bring to mind situations and characters like from the hit sitcom ‘Akkara Kazchakal’, based on the life and struggles of a Malayali middle-class family in the US, directed by Abi Varghese, which ran for 50 episodes online and on Kairali TV from 2008-2010. So, it shouldn’t come as surprise that ‘Brown Nation’ too is directed by Varghese.
For those who binge watch ‘Brown Nation’, the good news is that it continuously gets better, especially when the situation and scene shifts from the office environment to encounters in the outside world.
Many of the themes explored in the 10 episodes are those which never really have gone out of fashion for the Indian community. Or for any other community, for that matter, and is grounded in reality with a huge cloak of humor: spousal relations, ambitions vs. family life, conflict with relatives, financial constraints, employer-employee match-ups, business transactions which may save money but comes with a hint of trouble, friendship, dating, arranged marriages, and striving to get ahead to achieve the American Dream.
For Varghese, who will be hoping to reprise the success of his Malayalam sitcom, the challenge with ‘Brown Nation’ – if it gets a chance for a second season – would be to find original material which does not resemble stuff he has already done with in ‘Akkara Kazhchakal’, and retain that desi humor at the same time. There is tremendous opportunity to experiment with new subjects, perhaps on issues like politics, inter-case marriages and dating, and hitting the glass ceiling.
The Indian American experience though is finally being probed cinematically in a meaningful way, after decades of being stereotyped.
‘Growing up Smith’, directed by Frank Lotito, which releases in theaters this coming February, delves into the life of a 10-year-old Indian American boy who falls in love with a white girl next door, after his family moves to America, in 1979.
In the meantime, ‘Brown Nation’ offers some good, clean fun and comedy.
(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar. Follow him @SujeetRajan1)