Md. Director Casts Aside Cliches About Indian Immigrants

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Vishal is an Indian computer whiz with a roguish smile. He has melt-your-heart eyes and big dreams of becoming a software mogul in the United States. That's where the plot of an Indian song-and-dance movie being shot in the Washington area parts company with typical Bollywood fare.

Docile, marriage-minded heroines are out. Instead, the leading lady Vishal meets after moving to Washington is Preeti, a geeky gal from his home city of Bangalore who has blossomed into a poised executive and is now -- gasp! -- his boss. There's also Neelu, a U.S.-raised television reporter who throws a fit when her Indian parents try to "accidentally" introduce her to Vishal as a marriage prospect. Rounding out the love tangle is Nick, a half-Indian, half-American accountant trying to connect with his roots by dating Indian girls -- only to discover they're even less traditional than he is.

"I want to portray what life is actually like for 20-something Indian immigrants here," said Indian-born, Maryland-raised director Shilpa Priya Jagadeesh (known to her Indian audiences as Priyabharati Joshi). "The romantic struggle of not wanting our parents to arrange a marriage for us because that's not the environment we grew up in, but also of not having a lot of experience finding someone on our own because our parents restricted our dating when we were younger. . . . It's kind of 'Bridget Jones meets Bollywood.' "

So rather than setting the film's show-stopper dance numbers in what Jagadeesh calls "the Indian movie version of Washington" -- marble monuments, ethnic Indian restaurants and sari shops -- she has chosen the sort of backdrops against which life really plays out for many first- and second-generation immigrants here: offices of Northern Virginia high-tech firms; the upscale, make-your-own-meal restaurant Dinner Zen in Reston; a suburban ice-skating rink; and a mixer held by NetSAP, the network of South Asian professionals, at the Willard Hotel, where the music of choice is not bhangra but salsa.

"I'm not setting this in Washington because of the pretty architecture," explained Jagadeesh, 29, who has worked on television movies in India and has brought in several well-known Indian film actors to play the leads. She said her aim is to correct some Indian misconceptions about immigrant life in America.

"There's this stereotype in Indian movies that Indian girls raised here are morally debauched and end up being rude to their parents, promiscuous and losing their (Hindu vegetarian) religion -- you know, eating meat right and left," she said. "Also, the women characters are either long-suffering, self-sacrificing mother types who are put on a pedestal, or jezebel vamps to be reviled. Well, what about the rest of us who are just trying to live our lives?"

Of course, there are already several well-received nonmusical films that explore the nuances and contradictions of Indian immigrant life, including such English-language hits as "The Namesake" and "Monsoon Wedding."

But Jagadeesh said the Indian-language song-and-dance "Masala" genre that is the staple of commercial Indian cinema is a better vehicle to spread her message because of its mass appeal in India.

Indian audiences will also recognize stars Diganth Manchale -- think Ashton Kutcher's looks and mischievous grin -- and Tejaswini Prakash, who enjoys a sweetheart status along the lines of "Ugly Betty's" America Ferrera.

Technically, Jagadeesh's movie, "e-Preeti," is not a product of Bollywood, which refers to the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai, but of "Sandalwood," the nickname for films produced in the Southern Indian city of Bangalore in a regional language called Kannada. Because Hindi is India's national language, Bollywood films tend to play across the country and are better known overseas. But India's more than half-a-dozen regional film industries are also bustling enterprises that attract tens of millions of fans within their regions.

Because movie-going is a such major habit in India -- young city dwellers might catch as many as three new releases a week -- there is also a steady market for even relatively low-budget productions. That is a boon to a first-time feature director like Jagadeesh, who has raised less than a million dollars from private investors in India and the United States.

To cut costs, Jagadeesh has drawn on the Washington area's tightly knit Southern Indian community. Dozens of friends of friends have offered her their businesses, apartments and homes to use as shoot locations free of charge. Jagadeesh's own parents agreed to put up several of the actors in their spacious Rockville house and to allow Jagadeesh to turn their large finished basement into a fully-functioning production office.

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