Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hide And Sikh

Some people take great pleasure in wearing a costume to suit the occasion. Whether it be leathers, feathers, black tie or business drag, the chance to create a new look or ensemble is cause enough for celebration. For others, trying to be something or someone other than themselves can feel like a betrayal of their core beliefs, their ideals, indeed the very person they claim to be. And yet there are occasions when that kind of soul-sucking transformation may be their key to success.

Knowing when to pull out all the stops is a tricky business. No matter how many times you've rehearsed a role, an aria, or prepared for an audition or interview, when the chips are down you've got to deliver. Barbra Streisand showed audiences what it was all about during the first act finale of Funny Girl. Here's Sam Harris singing Jule Styne's great hit, Don't Rain On My Parade.

How much of a risk taker do you consider yourself to be? Do the ends always justify the means?  How much of your integrity are you willing to compromise? And, finally, when you think you got the success you deserved, was it worth the sacrifices that had to be made? 

Identity crises come in every size, shape, and flavor. Some are spicier -- and perhaps more musical -- than others. On Sunday, I spent several hours at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, watching movies about two men pursuing their romantic and professional goals at great personal expense. Their struggles were alternately amusing and heartbreaking, uplifting and humiliating. 

And yet they persisted.

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Each year, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival presents a Bollywood musical to an enthusiastic crowd that has filled the Castro Theater to capacity. This year was no different, with the presentation of Aditya Chopra's rollicking Rab Ni Bana De Jodi. I'm always amazed at the convoluted plot twists dreamed up for Bollywood musicals, but this one was actually quite touching.

As the film starts, a young, rather nerdy man is escorting a beautiful woman from the airport to a private residence. The man is Surinder Sahni, an employee at Punjab Power who was the favorite student of a university professor (played by M. K. Raina). The professor is about to marry off his daughter when the wedding party receives news that the groom and his family have been killed in a bus accident. After suffering a major heart attack, the professor confides in Surinder that he could die in spiritual peace if Surinder would marry his daughter, Taani.

Suri, of course, fell in love with Taani the moment he saw her. Although she agrees to the marriage in order to honor her father's wishes, she tells Suri that she can never love him. Suri, being a major nerd, has never really felt love and just hopes to make her happy. A hopeless romantic, he is painfully shy and a bit of clutz.

When Taani (Anushka Sharma) decides to take dance lessons being offered to aspiring contestants in India's version of So You Think You Can Dance, Surinder gives his permission while realizing that she is not attracted to him in the way a young bride should be. With the help of his best friend, a hair stylist named Bobby (Vinay Pathak), Surinder creates an alter ego named Raj (the outrageously vain and boisterous fool who ends up being chosen as Taani's dance partner).

Switching back and forth between the roles of Surinder and Raj is a favorite Bollywood leading man, Shahrukh Khan. The plot takes some wonderful twists and turns, including one of the funniest eating scenes since Albert Finney and Joyce Redman shared a lusty meal in 1963's Tom Jones.

As the movie progresses, Surinder has to keep switching identities without ever letting Taani become aware of the ruse. One of the key plot points is that, after having won over Taani's heart as a dance partner, Suri realizes that his wife doesn't really know who the real Surinder is. Despite Bobby's pleas to just tell her the truth and get it over with, Surinder embarks on a series of tests to see if she genuinely loves him.

There is much dancing, great silliness, and some superb romantic fantasy. What sets this movie apart, however, is that there is a truly tender love story beneath all the spectacle that supports a very touching, traditional male view of fidelity, monogamy, and devotion to one's spouse. There is no way to sum up three hours of delicious nonsense. Trust me when I tell you that the film is a constant source of joy, a visual and comic treasure, and an extremely uplifting experience. As always, the audience is eating out of Shahrukh Khan's hand from the moment he appears onscreen. Here's the trailer:

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A much more sobering story is to be found in Sarab Neelam's Ocean of Pearls. A young Canadian transplant surgeon (Omid Abtahi) whose parents immigrated to Toronto from the Punjab region of India, has followed the traditions of his Sikh culture throughout his adult life. Although he is used to putting up with racial profiling when passing through airports and attemtping to enter nightclubs, his groundbreaking research on keeping a transplantable liver viable for a longer period of time has made him a professional "get." 

When Dr. Singh gets recruited by a hospital in Detroit to help create a brand new transplant center, he is promised total administrative support, an operating room staff of his choice, and is led to believe that, as the transplant center's Chief of Surgery,  his will be the face of the new project.

There's just one problem. After the events of September 11th, Dr. Singh's turban is seen as a potential turnoff that could scare away major donors. After the hospital's president (Ron Canada) adds a blond, blue-eyed Christian doctor to the transplant team, Dr. Singh must fight to retain control of what was supposed to be "his" transplant center. 

Faced with the brutal realities of having an older transplant surgeon on staff who is a clumsy butcher, seeing his own role in the transplant center drastically diminished, and being forced to confront a different set of healthcare/insurance priorities in the United States, Dr. Singh must decide whether to adapt to his new surroundings or lose control of his professional dreams.

Dr. Singh's father (Ajay Mehta), who is considered a spiritual leader in Toronto's Sikh community, has always had great difficulty communicating with his son. He does, however, head a summer camp for Sikh children at which his son Amrit's presence is expected every year.

Amrit's girlfriend (Navi Rawat) is an aspiring photojournalist who comes from an extremely traditional family of Sikhs.  Smita has recently been offered a grant which would require her to spend two years in Punjab. 

As the bureaucratic pressures mount at the Detroit hospital, Dr. Singh finally makes the difficult decision to cut his hair and stop wearing his turban to work. When Smita comes to visit, she senses something is wrong but cannot get Amrit to explain what has happened. 

As Amrit's efforts to save a dying patient (Brenda Strong) are stymied by her poor finances and her lack of insurance coverage, the young surgeon is forced to confront the dubious wisdom of his choices and wonder whether they were worth the moral compromises he made. The film's director notes that:
"As a practicing Sikh living in the United States, I have undertaken this effort to reach out broadly to various communities after the events of 9/11. This tragedy has led to hate crimes - especially against Sikhs. It is extremely important to note, however, that this film and its characters are fictitious, though loosely based on my own experiences and observations. This film is not intended to be a definitive depiction of Sikhs or Sikhism. It is one character's journey to find inner peace."
Ocean of Pearls offers a deeply moving narrative that probes a physician's rarely-seen moral choices in ways not seen on most television hospital dramas. The film is blessed with a stellar performance by Omid Abtahi (who learns a shocking piece of family history when his father finally explains the personal importance of maintaining key Sikh traditions). Lon Stratton's cinematography contributes to Neelam's sensitive direction.

This is an intelligent film about a culture which far too many Americans know far too little about. Ocean of Pearls is scheduled for a theatrical release in June of 2009. Here's the trailer:

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